Steve Quirk

MR is at a Social Responsibility Crossroads

We have come to a crossroads. Which way shall we go?

At the Market Research Society Conference in March, reported that Unilever CEO Paul Polman urged the industry to get involved in larger societal issues. He stated that we are in a “leadership moment for the market research profession” and that “by prioritising social issues, business success will follow.” Mr. Polman challenged the audience to realize that “business as usual is not the answer.”

Historically, “business as usual” dictated that a corporation should generate increasing earnings for its shareholders. With some exceptions, the view was that the shareholders’ used the earnings in whatever manner they preferred, including gifts to charity or affecting the societal issues of the day. The business focused on earning profits; shareholders were responsible for distributing/spending profits.

For several years now, we have heard about the Millennial workforce’s desire for an activist workplace where volunteering and social activism were valued.  Now, we hear the CEO of the world’s third largest CPG company stating that social issues ‘lead to’ (rather than ‘are a result of’) business success.  Mr. Polman suggests that corporations have a social responsibility first and a shareholder responsibility second.  Mr. Polman appears to have a two-fold purpose:  (1) to activate companies to be more socially responsible, and, (2) to use social responsibility as a strategy leading to greater business success.  Both are significant diversions from the traditional role of companies.

So, which road shall we take?  Should companies (and researchers) continue to focus almost exclusively on providing increasing returns to shareholders or should they take the road less traveled and put first priority on being socially responsible?  Each company (and researcher) must decide for itself.  The two options are distinctly different.  Which way will you choose?

Paul Polman’s raising of this issue coincides with another industry initiative to bring a sense of community and social activism to the MR industry. In January, a group of researchers formed the Marketing Research Education Foundation (MREF).  It is an independent foundation with a mission to, “To unifyinspire and activate the marketing research community to focus its collective resources to educate children worldwide.”  Founding Board members are:  Steve Schlesinger, Carla Lindeman, Ed Sugar, Steve Quirk, Don Marek, Howard Gershowitz and myself.

MREF debuted at the Quirks Event in Brooklyn in February where it presented a check for $5000 to Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to the training and education of disadvantaged youth.  This was a small but significant start.  Plans are to repeat this at other conferences and to bring researchers together in hands-on volunteer opportunities to further the education of children worldwide.  You will hear more about this initiative in the coming weeks.

Whether you are Unilever or a home-based researcher, the prioritization of social responsibility is a decision you will have to make.  You are at a crossroads.  Which road will you take?


Let’s Discuss: Why Don’t Research Firms Take Their Own Advice?

Earlier this month, Steve Quirk posted about a back-and-forth he had with a couple of research firms that he wanted as advertisers. In putting the pitch on them, Steve cited research studies highlighting the effectiveness of advertising (in one case, he even presented the potential advertiser’s own research on the topic!), but in all three cases, their answers were the same: We’re not going to advertise with you. One even said, “Advertising doesn’t work!”

Now, maybe Steve wasn’t a very good salesman, or maybe he rubbed them the wrong way, but doesn’t it seem a little peculiar that, when presented with research clearly showing the benefits of advertising in his magazine, research firms still shake their heads? Doesn’t that sort of go against what they want their clients to buy into? Steve writes:

“Client companies spend vast sums investigating how to market and promote their products and services more effectively. How do their research vendors look them in the face and tell them how to allocate their marketing and research dollars when they themselves appear not to believe such expenditures are worthwhile?”

This week, Bill Guerin of Cambiar also tackled the issue of contradictions in the market research industry on GreenBook. He wonders:

“How can we routinely give exquisite advice to our clients on ways to uniquely position their brands in targeted markets, yet so many of us try to be all things to all people, struggle with defining our target markets and lack an original and compelling value proposition?”

Or how about, “What do our end clients think about us promoting to them the necessity of collecting, processing and acting on customer feedback, yet so few of us do the same with our clients?”

He’s got a point, doesn’t he? So why don’t research firms take their own advice? I have two thoughts: 1) They’re making these decisions as business owners, not professional researchers; and 2) It’s a matter of resources — there simply isn’t enough time, people and/or money to do all of the things the recommend to their clients.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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