Some fifteen years ago, in a period that seemed full of change and uncertainty in marketing, I asked my colleague Ted Levitt where he saw our field heading. Levitt, who had a marvelous talent for speaking in epigrams, responded, "The future of marketing will be more like its past than anyone imagines." Today, as the internet, social media, new analytics, and mobile devices upend the work of marketing, it may seem strange to say he was right. But if marketing is the hinge that links human nature to business methods, half of that hinge remains fixed to something enduring: consumer behavior.
Marketers, then, would do well to ask: what do we really know about how consumers behave in commercial settings? What truths and tendencies have been proved by rigorous research?
A new book produced by the Marketing Science Institute provides an abundance of answers. Consumer Insights: Findings from Behavioral Research features concise (2-3 page) summaries of reliable insights on 42 subjects, with pointers to the studies that yielded them. On a perennial topic like the effects of ad likability, for example, it saves marketing executives from making casual assumptions—the link between more likable ads, more positive brand attitudes, and higher purchase rates is soundly proved by dozens of studies. As for newer, digital-age assumptions like the expectation that easy search would lead to high market efficiency (which is to say, cutthroat price competition), in that case the answer is no. Work by Eric Johnson and others reveals why.
That the Marketing Science Institute would publish such a volume is only appropriate; its mission is to shape and disseminate scholarly research that bears on the most pressing problems encountered by marketing practitioners. The introduction by the book's editor, Professor Joe Alba of the University of Florida, underscores how much that is needed. Admitting that he wasn't at first enthusiastic about MSI's invitation to compile a set of managerially relevant findings from basic research, he spells out the problem: "As scientists, our inclination has not been to understand the 'main effects' of consumer behavior but rather to paint a complete picture of a phenomenon that includes its numerous and nuanced moderators and higher-order interactions—a laudable objective, but one that may run counter to pragmatic utility."
The challenge of culling pragmatic utility from scholarly research — allowing it to inform the decisions that managers make — has never been greater. Marketing faculties have been transformed by the numbers of scholars coming to them from the pure social sciences — psychology and economics in particular. It is a positive development in that it has raised the standards of our science, but it comes with a risk that the work will have less impact, since these scholars work at greater remove from the day-to-day challenges of management. MSI has a critical role to play in keeping business school professors in touch with how the profession works and what practical problems it faces.
Conversely, as marketing activity shifts ever-more swiftly to new social platforms, the challenge for marketers—whether they're marketing the Tata Nano or Lady Gaga—is not to let their methods become unhinged from the fundamental things of human nature. In revolutionary times, Alba's book can help ensure that marketing's future, like its past, is shaped by the enduring realities of how people think, perceive, feel, decide, and act.
John Deighton is Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and the 2011-13 Executive Director of the Marketing Science Institute.
Thanks to John Deighton / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing
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