‘Repositioning research: a new MR language model’, Virginia Valentine, IJMR Vol. 44, Q2 (2002)

We hosted a session at this year’s MRS conference (Impact 2017), back in March, titled ‘The future shape of market research’, led by Dan Nunan presenting his paper published in IJMR, ‘The declining use of the term market research: an empirical analysis’ (IJMR Vol. 58, Issue 4, 2016 pp 503-522) , followed by a panel discussion with Nunan, Virginia Monk (Network Research) and Sanchia Templar (BT), chaired by Corrine Moy (GfK). Dan was a finalist for the Best Provocative Thinking Award from Impact 2017.

Whilst the evidence presented by Nunan pointed to a declining use of the term ‘market research’ and a growth in peripheral activities across the sector, points which the other panellists agreed with, it seemed hard to identify an appropriate replacement term, or ‘branding’, that encapsulates the expanding range of activities carried out by agencies, consultants and within client organisations. From the floor, Simon Chadwick (CEO Insights Association) described how the changing nature of the market research sector in the USA, especially within client organisations where the focus is increasingly on the creation of insight from a range of data sources requiring a wider range of specialisms and skill-sets, led to the name ‘Insights Association’ being chosen for the new body formed from the amalgamation of CASRO and the MRA. It seemed to me that simply applying generic terms such as ‘research’, ‘insight’ or ‘evidence’ does not provide the obvious context for the focus, applications and promotion of the sector that the term ‘market’ implies.

The latest Landmark Paper, published more recently than earlier choices, poses an interesting perspective on MR as a brand, by the late Virginia Valentine, who died in 2010, a crusader on the value of semiotics as a research tool. Valentine’s paper also won that year’s David Winton Award for the Best Technical Paper of the year. And, the latest Ginny Valentine Badge of Courage Awards in Market Research have just been announced, created in her memory.

As Valentine reminds us, the debate on relaunching market research was not new in 2002 (see my Editorial in the next issue of IJMR, 59/4), and even then the possibility of ditching the term market research was a hot topic. Valentine concentrates on how we communicate what we are, or want to be – focusing on the language and imagery used in these communications. Not surprisingly, Valentine turns to semiotics as a source of understanding, but as she stresses in her Introduction, the paper is not about semiotics as such, but about the ‘vital importance of language in repositioning research’.

Her case is built on a model with three ‘interactive theoretical premises’: the need to think of MR as a brand and apply knowledge from that field; using semiotics to remodel language used in communications; exploring the ‘liminal zone’ , between data and action, a place she argues is where MR was in 2002 (and still languishes today?) where identity is ‘up for grabs’. Valentine firstly discusses the need to develop a new language model, using brand related concepts: the cultural space of consumption; the challenger brand; brand as metaphor, using this analysis to identify the liminal nature of MR at a crossroads in its history. Secondly, Valentine takes a semiotic view of how the discourse on MR is manifested in communications, including our codes of practice. In particular, she discusses our focus in communications on what ‘we’ do, rather than the ‘you’ (and ‘your’ need focus), in brand related advertising. Valentine discusses the need to change from methodology to a more client orientated focus on benefit, citing examples of MR supplier branded services, such as Millward Brown’s ‘Dynamic’ branded products. She argues that metonymy is dominant in MR, and such reliance in dangerous as it reflects methodology and suppresses passion, leading to reliance on ‘numbers’ and ignoring other possibilities (being hedgehogs rather than foxes – see my earlier blog on this. In the final section of the paper, Valentine contrasts the emergent codes of strategic planning with the trends in MR, the former being more closely related to how businesses were developing at the turn of the century and argues for a new MR brand myth, the code of ‘imaginative metonymy’, where the foundations that create the strengths of MR support imagination and creativity in interpretation and actionable insight. Valentine concludes by controversially suggesting that if the quantitative, objective based ‘dominant oil-tanker of MR bread and butter measurement’ cannot be turned, then the qualitative arm may have to consider hiving-off and remaking MR in its own image, cozying up to brand consultancies. She cites a senior MR figure forecasting a split of client departments into separate MR and consumer insight teams.

So where are we in 2017? We seem to still reside in what Valentine called the ‘liminal zone’, a place that at the same time is a crossroads and a ‘magical space’ as it offers fresh opportunities, but no further on with a rebranding. Liminality is a time ‘when the past has lost its grip and the future has not yet put on a definite shape’. That seems to me a good description of where we still languish. Nunan argues that MR is falling out of fashion; Chadwick argues for insight, but we seem as confused as ever about our identity, with no real consensus of what our brand, and brand positioning, should be. As one speaker commented in our IJMR session, labels create shortcuts (heuristics), but our communications lack clarity in this respect. Since Valentine’s paper was published, ‘big data’, as a disruptive technology, has created a fundamental challenge to traditional MR and our role in providing clients with the knowledge they need to improve decision making. This is more of a return to the arguments that arose back in the 1980s with the arrival of computerised customer databases and the advent of marketing analytics, a theme which I cover in more detail in my Editorial in 59/4 (late July). However, I think that current thinking sees a fusing of qual, quant (including data science) skills as the future in this new world, rather than the separation forecast by Valentine. I’m not really sure where we are positioned in the world of strategic planning. Interestingly, semiotics also featured highly in one ot the other IJMR hosted sessions at Insight 2017 on the future of qualitative research, and was also a topic at last year’s ‘MRS ‘Methodology in context’ conference last November (see Editorial in 59/3, and the Conference Note in that issue).

We will also be returning to the future for MR in our Viewpoints in the final two issues of IJMR in 2017.


How to access the International Journal of Market Research (IJMR)

Published by SAGE, MRS Certified Members can access the journal on the SAGE website via this link.

Go to the IJMR website

Get the latest MRS news

Our newsletters cover the latest MRS events, policy updates and research news.