Reinventing the Market Research Function - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Reinventing the Market Research Function


Pharmaceutical Executive


PE: It looks as if we are back to your opening theme, that the "voice of the customer" must be modulated by prudent insight about the product and the overall market environment.

MCDONALD: Yes. There is a danger in the possibility that by inviting customers to have the final vote on positioning, you are entrusting them with a decision they are not fully qualified to make. Customers will often default to the obvious when asked to vote on positionings because they lack the experience and the judgment to make professional marketing decisions. The outcome may also reflect customers' lack of appreciation for ways in which they can be influenced by execution and repetition. In research, physicians may dismiss as unpersuasive any data suggesting a nearly trivial difference in efficacy, yet in real-life conditions they will learn to do so, once effective repetition creates a powerful response—as the [GSK] Augmentin team did with sinusitis. The lesson is that positioning guidance has to be applied and evaluated in an integrated manner, drawing on multiple data sources and insights rather than reducing the final decision to a single ballot number.

PE: Doesn't organizational responsiveness play a key role in building a climate that maximizes the value of market research?

SHARMA: That's a critical point. Company culture is a determinant of what gets examined and how well market research is interpreted for results. Doing more with less, which drives management expectations these days, requires a refocusing away from research mechanics and creating an organizational climate in which flexible thinking and judgment are highlighted over calculated "answers." This represents a sea-change from the perspective that market research is an analog to scientific research, with rigid standards of proof and replicatable methodologies. Market research is, after all, a social science in the service of marketing judgment, which means that the metrics and analyses are not always fool proof or universally applied. And the answers are not fixed coordinates but simply signposts that help by pointing managers in the right direction.

Five Value Drivers for Effective Market Research

A strong market research function depends heavily on the characteristics and consistency of support from the wider organization, including the senior management teams ultimately responsible for approving strategic and operational marketing plans. What are the key preconditions for a confident, flexible and effective decision-making culture that will lead to optimal P&L results? Below, Sharma and McDonald highlight five factors that count.

1. Insist on leadership from knowledgeable, career researchers who are fluent in market research techniques and can provide insightful decision support.

Seasoned professionals have the maturity to reflect on methodologies and challenge professional wisdom. In thrifty times, it is especially important to harness experience and display the confidence to avoid research when adequate decision support is available. The pharmaceutical industry is notorious for its conception of the market research function as a larval stage for career development—meant to produce young marketing "butterflies." That conception may enrich the experience of the marketers who emerge, but it tends to drain the intellectual vitality and expertise of the market research function. Experience counts enormously in managing market research.

2. Nurture an environment in which institutional memory is mined and market research "emergencies" are discouraged.

Companies that conduct market research are always struck by the propensity of clients to repeat studies in pursuit of questions that have already been answered, or to identify urgent problems that lose management attention midway through. Many companies permit a "triage" climate that insists on urgent answers to questions that might be answered with data already in the pantry or that might profit from a more deliberative conceptual approach. While it's useful for every marketing manager to hear and see customers discuss their worldview, customer insights may be more cost-effectively developed if existing data were better mined.

3. Beware the tyranny of "best practices."

At the risk of appearing to endorse something other than the very best of practices, we want to emphasize the importance of flexible use of established and validated techniques in the hands of people fluent enough to manipulate the rules skillfully. The best practice philosophy produces excellence when it inspires knowledgeable understanding of a breadth of good options while still leaving latitude for a customized approach rather than "cookie-cutter" repetition.

4. In positioning a new product for market introduction, seek decision support rather than statistical verdicts lifted directly from market research.

It is a misconception to assume that our customers know the answers to all the questions we pose, and that those answers must be traced to a statistical outcome in a specific type of study. It is possible to position a product without asking customers to vote on a positioning; indeed, positioning should be our marketing intervention—something we decide to do to effect change in the market on the basis of cues and evidence that our customers supply. The mission for market research is not simply to poll our customers, or even merely to deliver insights about them. The highest calling for market research is to help us think like our customers so that we are empowered to improvise and even extrapolate when key marketing decisions are made.

5. Insist on "customer insight" from every piece of market research.

We have accepted an environment in which customer insight is a name attached to specialized studies instead of an orientation that informs and inspires every thing we do. This is like ordering a meal a la carte: "I'll take that research with a side of insight, please."

Periodically throughout the lifecycle of a product, it is useful for a team to take stock and ensure that all are empowered to think the way their customers do. But these need not be distinct assignments. Those who argue that there is no time or space in a crowded research agenda to incorporate a broad customer insight perspective, or that insight requires a unique study mandate of its own, may want to rethink the way the research issues are framed. It is difficult to arrive at the correct conclusion if the thinking is not informed by a broader set of customer insights. It's also important that teams not ignore insights because the information does not serve their immediate needs. Insights can define boundaries as well as empowering creative problem-solving. The key to using customer insight is deciding whose worldview matters, in any given scenario, and how to take inspiration rather than dictation from that depth of understanding.

Sanjiv Sharma is vp of commercial development at NiCox Pharmaceuticals. He can be reached at
. Susan Schwartz McDonald is CEO of National Analysts Worldwide. She can be reached at


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