Though stigmatized as number-crunchers, market researchers position themselves as data-fluent and future leaders
Marketing is an exciting field with many well-paying jobs, such as brand strategist, content specialist and SEO manager. Only occasionally, though, is market research aspired to or sought after. Part of the reason is that the Internet of Things, SEO and search engine marketing have diffused traditional market research roles throughout organizations and renamed them as they relate to digital marketing or the customer/user experience, for example.
Marketing research jobs have always carried a bit of a stigma as number-crunching, dead-end staff positions that do not afford a path to profit/loss experience and the vaunted corner office. The time has come to dispel that stereotype.
I graduated from college (in 1971) with what seemed like an unemployable degree: a bachelor’s in general studies. I was fortunate to stumble into a marketing research analyst position working for a fellow named C.R. Johnston, who had recently mentored J.D. Power, before his name became synonymous with customer satisfaction ratings. My initial responsibilities were not glamorous and included managing part-time field interviewers (who canvassed door-to-door in those days) and conducting shelf audits for beer brands. (Bar coding didn’t take off until the 1980s.) But by the time I went to graduate school four years later, I had co-authored the marketing plan for the Buick division of General Motors and run car clinics leading to the introduction of several new models. That job experience served as the foundation for my parallel careers in academics and global marketing information.
My story is not an exception. As management guru Peter Drucker once noted, marketing and innovation are the two basic functions of business. Neither can effectively exist without a deep understanding of customer needs and values, which requires data. Call it whatever name you like, that data comes from marketing research. In the increasingly data-rich environment in which companies compete today, marketing research—not a hunch or gut-feeling—is the key source of insight on how to attract, retain and deepen customer relationships. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how today’s top executives can be successful without direct experience making sense out of this type of information.
The information that marketing researchers provide isn’t necessarily limited to the customer stakeholder group. Most marketing research agencies have tools to measure employee engagement and commitment, as well as to assess public perceptions of corporate social responsibility. It is not uncommon for those agencies, working alongside internal marketing researchers, to partner with other departments (such as human resources) in making those assessments.
For these reasons, I believe marketing research is a good place to begin a business career. The paths that emerge from that experience can be quite varied. Some begin and end their careers in the marketing research field. On the agency side, with which I am more familiar, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs who may seek to own a certain niche or progress through positions of increasing responsibility in multibillion-dollar global firms such as Kantar or Ipsos. Others may branch out from marketing research, going into management consulting on the outside or brand/marketing management on the inside. Still others (like me) may find that their experience working with complex marketing research data gives them a leg up in the pursuit of a Ph.D. and an academic career.
I’m often asked about the right educational background for a marketing research job. An undergraduate degree in business is less important than having coursework in the social sciences (customers are people, after all), basic statistics (and ideally a course in regression analysis) and some knowledge of databases/coding. From there, I recommend a graduate degree after gaining two to four years of work experience. I’d suggest a master’s degree in marketing research for those planning to remain in the field and an MBA for those planning to branch out to marketing/business management or consulting.
Finally, in whatever path you may choose, it is important to grab hold of a developing trend affecting marketing and become a subject matter expert in the topic. This extra degree of specialization could be your route out of the cubicle. For me, it was customer satisfaction measurement. For today’s researcher, it might be smart products, the Chinese customer or omni-channel distribution.