As the field of marketing has expanded and matured, it is natural to observe more methodological specialization among researchers. Methodological proficiency – whether in econometrics, analytical modeling, experimental design or ethnography – is critical for publishing in top journals but takes years to develop. One of the consequences highlighted by panel discussions at several recent conferences (e.g., “Marketing as a Field: Are We Progressing or Losing our Cohesiveness?” at Summer AMA 2014) is the increasing division of the field based on methodology. Doctoral students are specializing earlier and researchers who use different methods are attending fewer joint conferences. Yet the complex problems we are trying to solve as a field often demand multi-method investigation, whether via researchers building on earlier work using different methods or collaborating on a multi-method paper. For example, our understanding of when and why consumers engage in positive and negative word-of-mouth will certainly be richer if we integrate insights from empirical analyses of online data, experimental manipulations of product experiences, and qualitative research examining online communities.
Organizations like AMA have an opportunity to define specializations within the field of marketing not by methodology but by unit of analysis (consumers, firms or markets) to help marketing researchers harness the power of multiple methods. Marketing strategy questions are challenging, and generating relevant insight may require multiple methods. Unfortunately, dividing journals and conferences based upon methods used by researchers may not foster knowledge sharing among researchers who use quantitative vs. qualitative vs. experimental research methods. The alternative classification proposed here distinguishes between questions that can be answered by generating insights that focus on consumers as the unit of analysis and those that focus on the firms or on markets as the unit of analysis.
Consumer-based strategy is organizational strategy that is developed based on insights about consumers, and users may include for-profit firms, non-profits and governmental bodies. Consumer-based strategy can be developed based on understanding consumer wants and needs, the costs consumers incur to purchase and own goods and services, the convenience of obtaining goods and services, or what makes communication between the organization and the consumer more effective. It can be contrasted with strategy developed based on an understanding of firm-level variables such as organizational capabilities or supply chain relationships as well as with organizational strategy that responds to market-level variables such as market size and market growth.
A variety of research methods can be used to generate consumer insights: what they all have in common is that they can be used to generate data at the consumer level. Observational data (such as publicly available online data), experiments, surveys, customer purchase data and qualitative data can all be used to generate consumer insights. An easy “litmus test” is whether each row in one's data set represents a consumer (as opposed to a firm or a market). Because consumer-based strategy researchers share an interest in the consumer as the unit of analysis, this classification can connect researchers who use different methods, whether this is at conferences organized to examine substantive areas of interest, in special issues of journals, or in centers or departments within business schools. Researchers can unite to solve problems while applying different methods to generate consumer insights; because they share an interest in consumers as the unit of analysis, consumer-based strategy researchers can better appreciate the strategic implications of research conducted using different methods.
Forthcoming Research from the Author
Questions that focus on the consumer as the unit of analysis are at the interface between firms and consumers, including those geared towards understanding consumer wants and needs, the costs and benefits consumers perceive when acquiring, obtaining and maintaining goods and services, and what makes communications between organizations and consumers effective. There are three essential components of consumer-based strategy research:
Strategic recommendations are based upon consumer insights. Consumer insights are not specific to a firm or to a consumption context; they can be generalized across firms and contexts. Regardless of the method used, consumer-based strategy research is conducted so that the consumer (rather than the firm) is the unit of analysis.
In summary, focusing on consumers as the unit of analysis and combining insights generated via multiple methods to inform strategy offers high potential for knowledge building within the field of marketing. As a classification, consumer-based strategy can help to unite researchers motivated by a common interest in consumers. In terms of publication outlets, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science has explicitly indicated that it is a receptive outlet for consumer-based strategy research. Following for a few simple steps for designing and positioning research that focuses on consumers as the unit of analysis will help authors write successful consumer-based strategy papers and solve some of the complex problems facing the field of marketing.
This article is based on Consumer-Based Strategy: Using Multiple Methods to Generate Consumer Insights that Inform Strategy Hamilton, R. J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci. (2016) 44: 281. doi:10.1007/s11747-016-0476-7