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Helpful Concepts Abstractly Portrayed
am 26. April 2007
Few would have any argument with the central thesis of this book. Most new products fail rapidly in unexpected ways, suggesting that a misunderstanding of what is required by customers is part of the problem. Professor Zaltman goes on to suggest that his patented approach to considering more aspects of customer thinking (especially emotion, associations and context) can help improve matters.
The book argues successfully that most marketing research methods are misused (usually by being applied to solve the wrong class of problem). He also does a fine job of explaining how marketers' attitudes and opinions create myopia that prevents them from learning what they need to know.
There is extensive material in the book about how the brain works in the context of purchasing decisions. For those who are familiar with brain research, there is little new here.
As someone who has worked in marketing research for over 30 years, I found the explanation of how to do better to be abstract and often counter to my own experience with extensive one-on-one open-ended interviews. Let me share a few examples. First, he states that consensus maps (a graphic expression of the universal considerations and order that consumers go through to make a purchasing decision) of how consumers think almost always emerge after 10 interviews . . . far short of statistical norms. That finding made me wonder if the maps are done too abstractly to capture the richness of customer thinking. Second, all of the examples of specific brands seemed to relate to an adult making a decision with the item in front of her or him. Yet, many consumers arrive at the grocery store (for example, since much of the book is about food products) with a shopping list in hand. Are consensus maps the same for self purchase as for purchase for others? The book doesn't seem to address that point. If the items are to be purchased for another family member, how do the different consensus maps overlap and affect one another? Third, the book doesn't do much to address how misimplementation of new products and marketing strategies causes failure. In my experience, that problem is greater than a lack of understanding of how customers think. Fourth, the incentives in most marketing organizations favor using marketing research to locate reasons to justify a marketer's decisions. Professor Zaltman acknowledges this, but doesn't really address how to institutionally change the culture. His suggestions presume that everyone is more interested in promoting company results than protecting individual careers while the opposite is often the case. Fifth, the real weakness in most organizations is that the head of marketing research has an insufficient background in the subject to make the right suggestions and to persuade management to follow those suggestions. That problem isn't addressed at all. Sixth, the best applications for this kind of research are for services . . . yet there were few examples of services compared to food items. In services, you have more things you can change and the potential for improvement is greater. The strength of the book mostly comes in the service examples (which are often overly disguised).
The book also has a tone that I did not like. It seems to suggest that no one had ever developed thinking process maps or used depth one-on-one interviews before this patented process was developed. Many aspects of the concepts described here were in broad scale application in companies that I have worked with over 30 years ago. Many of these companies belonged to the Marketing Science Institute, with which Harvard (where Professor Zaltman practices) has long had a close association. In addition, those who have employed these concepts are universally praised. That was strange, because many of them have pulled some of the biggest errors that violate these principles. For example, the research on new Coke was flawed by not telling consumers that the existing Coca-Cola would be removed from the market. Yet Coca-Cola is cited universally as an example of advanced marketing research.
The book also comes across as a sales pitch far too often. That is almost unprecedented in my experience in reading a book from a professor. The same marketing research organizations are used as examples over and over again. You are also told that one way to get these good results is to hire a "wizard," which is presumably one of these firms. Wouldn't it make more sense to develop a proprietary skill in this area so that competitors would have less chance to learn what you find out?
Finally, the reports of success seem unconvincing. They are based on self-reported satisfaction with short-term results. Now, if you've hired someone to help you and spent a lot of money to do so, even the most inexperienced market researcher knows that there will be a bias towards reporting positive results. Also, paid market researchers will share their "best" results, rather than their average or below average results. I was left wondering what the long term benefits are, and what the average expectation can be.
Despite these reservations, I think most marketing executives will benefit from the book's discussions of what types of marketing research to use for what types of issues. But the total of that information could have been captured in a magazine article.
Both marketing executives and researchers will benefit from chapter 12.
Those who purchase or use marketing research would do well to become familiar with this book.
I hope that Professor Zaltman will write another book in the future that will be more helpful to marketing research professionals. It has always been the case that 99% of the profession is engaged in doing repetitive tracking research. With few looking into creative research to better develop new products, improve brands and enhance the lives of customers, we need to develop a larger cadre of well-trained individuals interested in these challenges if we are to ultimately improve on the dismal record of failure in making improvements.