Earlier this year, ESOMAR and many other market researchers around the globe celebrated International Market Research Day, which recognises the impact our field has had on shaping a sustainable world for tomorrow. Viewed through the lens of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we can start to see how market research can help to give a voice to underserved populations and provide insights that will champion sustainable initiatives in a wide range of countries and situations.
Seeing the projects that insights professionals are undertaking in this arena is inspiring. During the IMRD celebrations, people came together to discuss everything from monitoring safe drinking water and proper nutrition for rural populations in India all the way to best practices for telling the most compelling sustainability stories from our insights. There are many ways that we can influence outcomes and support strategies that “improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth”, as well as help the environment.
At a high level, we can look at a couple of situations that show the stark contrast of a world with or without market research. For example, a country that won’t allow any political research to be done without government sign-off loses the voice of the people and can potentially pursue decision-making that is entirely independent of what the people might actually want. From a commercial perspective, when companies don’t find out what their customers want through proper research, there can be an incredible amount of waste. The wrong product, packaging or communications can mean products never make it into the hands of the audience and end up, in the worst-case scenario, in the landfill.
If we choose three goals from the United Nations’ list, we can start to dive into this issue further.
UN Goal #10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
Research can help to achieve greater equality by bringing an independent and broad view. By accessing a diverse, representative population with the right market research sample, you can start to hear everyone’s voice, and even the disempowered may find participating in research as a way to make their opinion heard among leaders. While companies can do things like social media listening, and this can bring valuable data to the table, these kinds of stand-alone approaches may ultimately fail. They can’t fully advise companies on which products and services will satisfy their audiences and, hopefully, make the world a better place. Market research can give underserved populations a louder voice and help to contextualise other incoming data.
This also applies to the political arena, where wealth and special interest funding can amplify voices in an unequal manner. Polling and market research can help to balance these voices, although this can vary from country to country. It can help find the “independent truth of the matter” and reduce injustice when done right - providing insights on which leaders can take positive action.
UN Goal #12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
As an industry, we are leading in this regard in several ways. Many surveys show people believe that companies have a role to play in sustainability, right up there with governments. If we look at something like the ethical food movement or the demand for more eco-friendly packaging, market research started picking up on consumer sentiment about these issues far before any manufacturers. It was, in part at least, the louder and louder voice of consumers, gleaned through market research, that eventually has caused many brands to employ more sustainable practices along the supply chain. Good research can help companies pivot and be more proactive and future-focused on issues like this.
To take it a step further, it is true that companies have a responsibility for making the world a better place. As researchers, we try to help them gain understanding of how to do that in a way that makes sense. Brand purpose is a top concern and is incredibly important right now, beyond just the concept of "brand" alone. Again, it is not just a matter of the insights that we generate, but it is also the responsibility of companies to take hold of those insights and take action. We can help to inspire them to be the force of change. This, in turn, leads back to the premise that there is huge potential in the industry for end-users of insights to become more invested in the process of uncovering data so that they can own the results of market research much more deeply.
UN Goal #16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
We can provide insights that prove these concepts are necessary. Sometimes these themes can be difficult to resolve, as decision-makers tend to be from a different group than the people they are acting on behalf of, so some information is lost in translation. The pandemic has proved to us how everyone is different in the way that they think, absorb information and communicate, and even though we may have more avenues, solutions and platform by which to communicate, we have seen first-hand that this doesn’t necessarily translate into better communication or greater understanding overall.
But companies can and do have a role here, a higher purpose around peace and justice, as they advocate for people and make their voices heard. It is market research that can give that voice – we are involved in growing humanity’s understanding of itself so everyone can be better served. In a perfect scenario, research is about rising above the every day and getting that real illumination of what’s going on and delivering that insight, hopefully, for the betterment of our lives. Having the insight is the first step, and then people need to take good actions based on it. Our role isn’t just to report but to inspire and engage and help companies and brands activate that vision.
By just examining these three points, it is clear to see that without market research, we could potentially have a more wasteful, less equal world. By giving diverse populations a voice, we can influence outcomes for a more sustainable future.