As published in VUE Magazine in December 2013. It seems Andy Warhol was right in 1968 when he stated that “In the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” Through this quote he predicted that, someday, the ‘hierarchy of subjects’ worthy to be represented will be abolished, with anybody and therefore everybody becoming famous at some point in time. Whether or not that is entirely true is debatable, but what is clear however is that we are in the midst of an unfolding economy of (crowds of) individuals. If you are talented and creative, you can make it happen; neither money nor power will stand in your way. Just think of the massive success of the South Korean musician Psy who conquered the world with his song ‘Gangnam style’. While the song was originally produced only for local K-pop fans, it conquered the world by becoming the first YouTube video to reach a billion views.
The end of the world as we know it
Digital transformation is the core engine behind the great power shift towards individuals. The combined effect of online, mobile and social technologies is creating unseen change and disruption in many an industry. Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) recently published a list of new technologies which are expected to drive massive economic transformations and disruptions in the coming years: mobile Internet, automation of knowledge work, Internet of things, cloud technology, advanced robotics, autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles, next-generation genomics, energy storage, 3D printing, advanced materials, renewable energy and advanced oil and gas exploration. Most of those technologies can be brought down to one single disruption or revolution: that caused by information technology.
Just like a snake sheds its skin to allow for growth as well as to remove parasites along with the old skin, the marketing research industry will need to continuously reinvent itself in order to survive and remain successful. The yearly GRIT reports indicate that our industry is moving in the right direction. But are we sufficiently fast and furious? Do we realize that the very existence of the marketing research industry is at stake, with new entrants from unexpected corners driving new relevance for clients? Are we really getting rid of old habitual ways of thinking in a business that has now been around for 70 years?
Let’s take a critical look at the label we use to define what we are doing: ‘marketing research’. How relevant is it to take a ‘marketing’ perspective in an environment which is increasingly dominated by individuals instead of segments? Is it still ok to rely on ad-hoc brain picking from samples that should be representative of markets? Is ‘research’ a good descriptor of what our clients are really looking for? While increasing or revising current knowledge by discovering new facts still remains a core activity, are clients not increasingly asking us to drive actionability and impact, making a real and tangible difference for their business?
Preparing for disruptive change
With traditional surveys and focus groups still dominating the scene, the speed with which our industry is changing is in many ways similar to the speed with which companies adjusted to the invention of electricity. It took well over a decade for companies to realize they no longer needed to build their factories near water, still considering water to be their prime source of power. We cannot afford a similar slow response with the speed of environmental change being far higher today than at the time electricity was invented. Just recently, McKinsey reported that the research & consulting industry is listed in the bottom versus other industries when it comes to economic mobility.
I believe it is time to redefine the business we are in and prepare for revolutionary, disruptive change. Just like the music business realized it is fighting a battle in the entertainment space, the marketing research industry needs to redefine its scope and purpose. We either accept further commoditization, focusing on increased efficiency and accuracy, or we migrate to something bigger and more purposeful. I personally am convinced the latter choice is preferable. I believe the greatest chance for our industry to survive and prosper is to transform itself into what could be labeled as ‘consumer collaboration’. It further builds on the fundamentals of our industry, i.e. curiosity, creativity and communication. It would imply that we build consumer-activated organizations, helping companies migrate from passive marketing research to active consumer collaboration. It would mean that the role of ‘Chief Consumer Officer’ is taken seriously, acting as the linking pin between all other CxO roles. It would entail that we act as ‘matchmakers’, facilitating and strengthening employee-consumer interactions and driving unique value from that. It would encourage moving beyond asking questions and getting answers, also getting questions from and formulating answers to consumers. It would make us behave as ‘consumer custodians’ for brand owners, moving beyond consumer centricity by giving consumers a real and direct impact on companies.
A perfect storm
We are in a perfect storm when it comes to making this radical change; not just from a defensive perspective, but even more so from an offensive perspective to claim a more strategic position within the marketing services industry. We are probably witnessing the single best opportunity for the marketing research industry to actually become a respected partner of C- or board level.
First, CEOs are waking up to the new reality. In a recent IBM report, ‘The Customer-Activated Enterprise’, capturing the opinions of more than 4,000 C-suite leaders, 60% of the CEOs surveyed expect to see customer influence grow most in ‘business strategy development’ over the next 3 to 5 years. In its study ‘Unlocking the power of the consumer’, PwC highlights that “The race is on for CPG companies to put aside old ways of doing business and remake themselves as consumer-centric organizations active and effective across the channels in which their consumers engage.” Clearly, business leaders are convinced more than ever they can build organizational resilience through crowd empowerment, embracing connections with consumers as key stakeholders and driving serendipity from that.
Second, consumers are more than ready. A recent study in the UK highlighted that consumers now spend more time and money on innovation than all consumer product firms combined. The people who were formerly known as consumers have turned into contributors and volunteers, composing a world full of problem solvers who are creating billions of dollars’ worth in value without even being paid for it. In our most recent ‘Social Media around the World 2012’ study, 8 out of 10 consumers expressed their desire to become involved in any form of collaboration with a brand. With consumers having increasing access to powerful online, social and mobile technologies, clever organizations can lift upon consumers’ desire, enthusiasm and ability to collaborate with brands if they create the necessary conditions for it.
Third, researchers are in pole position to take the lead. Or, as put nicely by T.G. Stemberg: “Forget branding and positioning. Once you understand customer behavior, everything else falls into place.” Research agencies have a unique strategic advantage of having worked with consumers for ages, being in a far more powerful position than any other business strategy consultant, advertising agency or innovation firm willing to jump on the consumer empowerment bandwagon. The expertise and capabilities that research agencies have built over time provide a strong backbone and springboard to claim the consumer collaboration space.
The above mentioned three forces create a perfect storm for change. But we need to move fast; else we run the risk of becoming obsolete and being left behind by new players invading the market space such as DIY research tool providers, strategic consulting agencies, social listening companies, co-creative digital consultants or customer relationship management advisors.
Do you have what it takes?
While marketing researchers are in pole position, the race is far from being won. Our industry will need to develop a number of new skills that are essential to be successful. Read the full article in VUE Magazine to find out what we will need to transform ourselves into.
Collaboration with consumers is moving into mainstream; even if you do not take advantage of it, your competitors surely will.