The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Think beyond your craft skills

It's an unfortunate irony that, as marketing communications suppliers get more sophisticated about what marketing companies need and what form they need it in, companies themselves are less and less represented in the events of individual supplier industries. Attendance at MRS and ESOMAR conferences by client folk have been dropping steadily for years. Even ad agency authors of effectiveness awards often have trouble getting clients involved.

Is this cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth? Yes and no. Take the no first. It's happened simply because the kind of research departments that used to carry lots of card carrying MRS members no longer exist in anything like the numbers they once did in marketing companies. Many companies don't have them at all, preferring to outsource their research needs. It's not surprising and I expect we'll see more of that.

But does it mean that marketers are ignoring or overlooking the contribution of research? This I doubt very much and the cases submitted for the Marketing Society Awards bear me out.

I judged two categories and, of the cases submitted in both, the majority were strongly consumer research based. I believe that the other judges would agree. In some instances, the insights provided by qualitative research made the case a winner. So yes, qualitative research was represented and incorporated into the story.

The submissions were generally of a fairly high standard for which I credit the excellent criteria set by Hugh Davidson. Awards were given for: new brand of the year, brand development, brand revitalisation, marketing communications, business to business, international brand development, innovations, best use of new channel, internal communications, market insight, corporate communications and portfolio management.

Altogether 12 categories which attracted almost 100 entrants ­ not at all bad for the first 'serious' award scheme and for relatively short notice.

To give an idea of the comprehensiveness of the criteria, the list given to the judges of the 'New Brand of the Year' Award is given below right (all 11 other categories were subjected to similar criteria).

Since qualitative research lends itself to a discursive narrative, there is the tendency to believe the study in itself will diagnose the problem and identify the solution. It's very seductive. But what this leads to is an absence of a real understanding of the other kinds of data, analyses and considerations that contribute to a marketing success.

I suggest that you read the list of criteria in detail. If researchers ever needed a crib, here is one on a plate. All they need to do is work out those areas where they have the authority and credibility to answer questions, but also notice those where they don't, and make up the shortfall.

Indeed, the research may not even be asking the right question. (For very insightful critique of the role of qualitative research in innovation, see 'Why Can't Big Companies Grow' by David Cowan in Market Leader, Winter 2000.)

All researchers live with the frustration of not being able to contribute as much as they feel they could. Part of this is in the nature of the service status: ad agencies, pr companies and, no doubt, direct mail and promotion companies feel the same way. But researchers, particularly qualitative ones, have the skills and insight to see problems more widely. The barrier here, I believe, is a self-imposed one stemming from a too rigid demarcation of competencies.

Technique and methodological concerns are important; they are the craft skills. But if qualitative researchers are ever going to make themselves truly valuable, they have to learn to think beyond their craft skills. If these cases have anything to teach it is the importance of recognising and responding to the wider marketing process.

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Judie Lannon
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2000