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Urban Junkie

Monday, October 24, 2005

Esoteric, obscure, or just plain useless?

I am often intrigued by the difficulty I have in explaining to people what it is that I do for a living. It is a truth sad but unyielding that outside of the relatively tiny network of people loosely described as the marketing fraternity, qualitative market research is a concept hard to comprehend. Or appreciate.

There is, for one thing, the problem of distinguishing it from its more widely known quantitative cousin. To do this while simultaneously maintaining at least a modicum of respectability is surprisingly difficult. Particularly when conversing with distant, long-unmet relatives, whose kids have all blossomed into astronauts.

“Aaaah, survey type stuff …” nods your interrogator intelligently on hearing your opening explanation. “So you go house to house?”
Er, no … not exactly, you say. I actually call a few people over to one place and have a discussion with them.
“In one place? Isn’t that difficult? So many people coming over?”
Actually it’s not so many. Just 8-9 people usually.
“8 or 9? But how can you come to a conclusion just basis 8 or 9? What kind of a survey is that?”
This is where alarm bells should start to ring. But you forge right ahead. No, no, you say reassuringly, we have more than one such discussion. We usually do 2 or 3 in a city.
“I don’t understand. That’s still about 25 people. There are thousands of people in a city. What sort of survey are you doing?”

Hmmm … valid point, actually. What kind of a survey, indeed. There are two possible courses of action at this point. Withdraw gracefully, suitably reprimanded for lack of integrity, common sense, intelligence or whatever it is that you are seen as lacking in this pathetic attempt to take short-cuts in your job. Or pull out the dal analogy in your defense (you know, the one about not having to eat the entire bowl of dal to describe its taste and how one spoonful is enough). Neither option is wholly satisfactory, in my experience. The first one for obvious reasons; the second one because it never does come off sounding as forceful as it does in theory. At best, it is an embarrassingly transparent attempt at changing the subject; at worst, a fairly lame defense of your devious (deviant?) handling of your job.

Then, of course, there is the bigger issue of usefulness. One that arises with particular force in the company of artists, writers, dancers, mountaineers, social workers, diplomats … the list goes on, but essentially anyone doing anything without a crassly commercial motive. The need to imbue market research with a noble glow is understandably overwhelming here.

“Market researchers, you know, find out what people feel about various issues” you begin tentatively, and receive a startlingly enthusiastic response.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. Public opinion is so important, and people who help give it form are critical to the system”
you mumble, caught between gratitude and terror, keenly hoping that the conversation goes no further.

“So what are the ISSUES you research?” (The gods will not have mercy).
“Well, you know, about things that people use everyday … how happy they are with them, what changes they want …”
“Things? How do you mean? What kinds of things, exactly?”
“Ummm … toothpastes. Soft drinks. Mobile phones. Lots of things. Anything at all”
“Toothpastes??” Faintly puzzled, but clearly intrigued.
“Yes. And lots of other stuff.”
“But what about toothpastes? A dental health campaign?”
“In a broad way. We ask why they like a particular brand. What would they like in a new variant. What flavours, colours …”
Longer pause.

The strange thing is, it is straight from the heart, that ‘why’. There isn’t any malice there, or a put-down of any kind. It is simple bewilderment that a job like this could exist.

And looked at from an outside perspective, perhaps it is bewildering that a job like this could exist.

It is no wonder that I find my work shrinking in significance after every such conversation with someone outside the marketing spiral I exist in. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of us live in such tiny, closed worlds – give the trivialities of our work so much more meaning than they need to have. Always takes an outside view, doesn’t it, to put things into perspective?


  • Anjali, what a wonderful post. I guess only a fellow market researcher can understand the trauma you have so lightheartedly outlined.

    Apart from everthing you have written about having to explain what you do for a living to your social circle, what i find even more depressing is having to explain what i do to that group of 8 women in some god-forsaken part of India, who look at me in amazement at the end of every discussion.

    And some of them even articulate the incredulity: 'you mean that's it?! That's what you came to our town for?! You go through all this travel, stay away from your family for days without a home cooked meal for THIS?!"

    When i assure them that it is indeed 'THIS', some leave the discussion either deeply suspicious of the whole exercise (fully expecting a deeper, more sinister motive to unfold in the coming days) and others call me home and offer me some food (hoping that will make up for the supposed lack of meaning in my job). In the former case, i have provided some excitement and in the latter, i have made them feel better about their own hitherto drab lives. That's how i keep myself going :)

    By the way, you have a lovely style where you make even small things really funny. Your posts are my perk-me-ups. Serious competition for my caffeine and sutta breaks. Keep them coming.

    By Anonymous Tara, at 8:57 PM, October 24, 2005  

  • I also work in one of these hallowed MR agencies. And you are right Anjali...it really is vexing when you cannot explain your profession to people in your family. On the hand, a profession as obscure as this allows you some advantages. For example, i had an explanation for why a prospective bride rejected me. I'm sure it was because of the 10 minute babble that i went into when i tried explaining 'what i do' to her. I'm sure she thought it was highly unstable and unprofitable from a future perspective.
    Can't say i blame her ;)

    Got your link from a firend who forwarded the post to me. Lovely. Must come back for more.

    Tara, you might remember me...!

    By Anonymous Kartik, at 10:19 PM, October 24, 2005  

  • Hi. This was forwarded to me by a friend and i am glad i read it. Lovely article.
    I liked the bit about the 'dal' analogy especially. I've also wondered why it doesn't seem to make sense to anyone but a market researcher.
    Guess quali people have a tougher time than others. I just point to the polls that TV channels do and say that is what i do.

    By Anonymous sarita, at 11:00 PM, October 24, 2005  

  • Well, frankly, me being an engineer-in-the-making, i haven't faced your problem...but i totally identify with this: Many of us live in such tiny, closed worlds – give the trivialities of our work so much more meaning than they need to have. Always takes an outside view, doesn’t it, to put things into perspective?

    By Blogger the Monk, at 1:17 AM, October 25, 2005  

  • Loved your post oh fellow quali researcher. Nice to see you have the time to do all this. Your other posts are also very nice.

    Am going to send this around.

    By Anonymous Sharmila, at 6:43 AM, October 25, 2005  

  • i know what u mean! btw, i used to once work for a mkt research place (mode)

    By Blogger Prerona, at 9:01 AM, October 25, 2005  

  • me thinks you should try saying that people do have moral stances on soft drinks, toothpastes etc..

    By Blogger manuscrypts, at 10:04 PM, October 26, 2005  

  • Well I understand Qualitatiive Research. I enjoy the Quantitative aspect of market research as well.(Simply love SPSS), But love doing FishBowls, Brainstorming and all that.
    I am a Business Analyst(no mkt. research involved) and find trouble describing wat I do.
    I recently started telling ppl that I am given 5million$ a week by my company and I go around doing mergers and amalmagation. hahaha that stops the questions :P

    By Blogger Apoorv Gawde, at 2:49 AM, October 27, 2005  

  • tara: :D
    going by the kinds of categories that i suspect you've been researching of late, i'm not surprised you get that reaction!

    kartik: i guess even mr has its advantages!

    sarita: yes, the polls are an explanation i've fallen back on too. unfortunately there's no such equivalent for qual research :(

    monk: i imagine engineering is one of the few industries without this problem! ... Where the outside view may actually be even more larger-than-life than the inside one.

    sharmila: thanks :)

    prerona: hey, that's a surpise. We seem to be a larger community than is immediately evident, it seems ...

    manuscrypts: not a bad thought, but difficult to implement i imagine :( ... If you can think of a convincing moral stance on toothpaste, antacids, toilet cleaners or instant noodles do let me know!

    apoorv: simply love SPSS, did you say? seriously?!

    By Blogger Anjali, at 7:49 AM, October 28, 2005  

  • thanks for ur visit anjali. lovely blog here. i will come again :)

    By Blogger Prerona, at 4:37 AM, October 29, 2005  

  • that remembers the days of my MBA where in research was part of life... As apoorv said... SPSS is simply best...i love it.

    nice post :)

    By Blogger Amit, at 3:51 PM, October 30, 2005  

  • Lol cool one on Qual research. Are you in PQR by the way? And is that Italia threatening to send it around the office?? Do tell her then that I am still waiting for her call!!

    By Blogger aparna, at 8:50 AM, November 25, 2005  

  • Hi aparna .. thanks
    No, I'm not with PQR - that was a long time ago, and just mentioned to jog Dina's memory - I'm assuming that's where you got here from :)

    By Blogger Anjali, at 11:38 PM, November 25, 2005  

  • :))

    im sorry... but i really cant resist this. the other side of the coin if you will!

    i used to be a counsellor for HIV and related issues. when i went out, id invariably come across these types whod leave me clenching my teeth with their (ahem) perspicacious remarks on HIV, sex and so on.

    i decided offense was the best course of defense : after 3 months my job description was "i talk about sex all day and peddle condoms".

    how that stole their thunder! :D

    By Blogger m., at 7:17 AM, December 19, 2005  

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