We’re going on a journey across the ocean to the time of the Model T Ford. Henry Ford, the father of the assembly line, was producing and selling the Model T and supposedly quipped that people could have a Model T “in any colour they like, as long as it’s black”. The idea of market research was just beginning to surface. Most manufacturers and service industries didn’t conduct market research. They thought that as-long-as they made a product or offered a service, people would buy them.
One commentator warned that the retailer “could no longer sell what his own judgement dictated”. Instead, “he must sell what the consumer wanted”. It was Charles Parlin who said those words and thus began market research.
The early 1900’s saw a big change in advertising, mainly from the work of Charles Parlin. He is recognised as one of the founding fathers of market research and has been called the world’s first professional market researcher. 100 years on, and the market research industry continues to grow, employing hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.
Palin was first employed to get a better understanding of the needs and wants of the consumer in regard to the automobile market. Interestingly, he was not hired by a car manufacturer but by a magazine publisher. With the thoughts, such as Henry Ford’s, that the consumer will buy what’s available, the automobile industry wasn’t giving what their customers wanted. But, then again, they never asked.
The publishing company that employed Palin was Curtis Publishing Company, who had the most widely read periodicals of the time; among them The Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. These magazines depended on revenue from advertisements and thought that they would be able to sell more advertising space if the ads were seen to be more targeted and effective. Setting up a new division in the company, the founder hired Charles Palin to head up this new, vaguely defined department.
The introduction of market research opened the door to a ‘consumer-led’ approach to business, rather than ‘producer-led’.
Put simply, a producer-led approach to business is one which manufactures a product or services and then tries to persuade the consumer to purchase it. A consumer-led approach involves finding out what the consumer wants and then producing a product or service that meets their needs or desires. Manufacturers such has Henry Ford exemplify the producer-led approach. This is typified by the fact that between 1914 and 1926, only black Model Ts were available to purchase!
Today, the desire to discern and influence customer (or potential customer) preferences shapes every business and industry. Market research has become a fundamental investment for businesses looking to increase customer engagement, improve customer experience or launch new products. With technological advances, we as researchers now have dozens of methodologies and analysis tools at our disposal to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced view of customer behaviours, with the ultimate goal of helping businesses to make more informed and better decisions.