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Qualitative Research is Dead - Long Live Qual!

There are boundaries that limit our ability to understand the customer. The marketing and research industries are to a degree perpetuating these boundaries that keep clients from achieving the understanding they need.

At Merlien Institute’s Qual360 conference in Milan, Pascal Mignolet, International Market Research Director for Sara Lee recounted how “consumers as a source of inspiration were drying up and as a source of validation were proving unreliable.

His conclusion after extensive parallel testing of numerous predictive methods was that “with any [quantitative predictive] method, you have a 50/50 chance of being right.  As a result we redefined the roles; quant is to be reduced and qual is to be increased.” The idea that method doesn’t matter when it comes to making predictions is profoundly disruptive in our industry; particularly where so much value is placed upon “proprietary” quantitative methods.  To toot my own horn, I have been saying this for years and have made speeches in the past to this same effect.

This blog post offers my views and explanations about the problem, the complete whitepaper you can download points to some direction for solutions. 

There are boundaries that limit our ability to understand the customer

The most obvious boundary is that in most cases the marketer is not the target consumer with natural on-the-ground-I’m-an-insider-on-the-scene insight, but is instead a well-intentioned, business school educated custodian of the brand (and I mean this in no way disrespectfully). In order to effectively market to a customer, it helps if you have a deep understanding of your target. Sometimes, the marketer “gets it” and sometimes they don’t – the most famous example of the latter was Wendi Aarons’ now infamous and hilarious 2007 rant on the marketing tactics of Always brand maxi pads, An Open Letter to James Thatcher, Brand Manager, Proctor and Gamble.

The other boundary that might be underappreciated is that which arises with a shift in culture that changes the context in which brands (and research explorations) exist. Three specific shifts in culture with arguably the most impact involve social media and privacy, political and cultural “authority” redefined, and marketing-savvy customers hip to marketing tactics.

Boundaries? What Boundaries?

It seems to me that the marketing and research industries are also to a degree inadvertently complicit in perpetuating these boundaries that keep clients from achieving the understanding they need – not necessarily purposefully, but often driven by commercial interests. While I am sure there are many ways an intimate understanding of the customer is made elusive, here are a few that really get to me.

  1. The tendency to be over-reductive: In pursuit of being efficient, immense organizational resources are spent on generating executive reports that reduce observations into minimalist metrics.
  2. The misapplication of research methods: Commercial interests of competing research providers makes us view the world through the lens of our own capabilities – “when you are hammer, everything is a nail.” Quant providers see quant solutions as ideal while qual providers see everything as needing a qualitative investigation.
  3. The illusion of “best practices”: If you really consider the implication of Pascal Mignolet’s conclusion that any method yields only a “50/50 chance” of success, you should easily see that the idea of a “best practice” is almost silly. Yet as we try to grow our organizations, train new researchers and new marketers, we all are found to say at some point that “this is how we do it here.” We cannot afford the time or money to reinvent the wheel every time. To rely on past patterns of behavior severely constrains the thinking about the best way to gain insight for a given, unique research need.


Predictions are Fool’s Gold

Coming back to the failure of quantitative methods to yield reliable predictions, I have to say that I am stunned that managers still hold out hope that the past will predict the future – and for that matter, why marketers devote so much time and money to tracking brand equity in the rear-view mirror.

For any product or service, there are likely a number of factors in play –when the number of factors increases, the number of patterns explodes exponentially – essentially to the point of infinity.

So here’s the rub: What quantitative methodology can credibly claim the ability to predict in the face of infinite possibilities? Doubling or tripling the length of your survey is simply immaterial – its like doubling your odds of winning the lottery by buying two tickets instead of just one (the odds still suck). The implication, though, is very important: quant and qual are best suited for two very different types of investigation.

Qualitative methods are best for explorations into emotions and impulses because they are unstructured. However, if we are investigating how many cans of tomato soup my family consumes in a month, then quant is king. Anything you want to count or categorize, go for it. Unfortunately, the fact that qual is typically done by human beings, rather than by automated surveys, makes it slower, more expensive and based on relative few observations (compared to the sample sizes of quant studies) - which also makes it lack statistical confidence, obviously.

Fresh Squeezed Ideas: The Qualitative Vanguard

The biggest perceived limitation of qualitative research is that there is not enough time, money or manpower to be able to use qual to generate answers with any degree of statistical rigor. This is rapidly being disproven as advances in technology, aided by an unprecedented shift by consumers to live their lives online, are helping qualitative researchers break through the ceilings of small sample sizes and long, costly man-hours of hands-on work. In many cases the insights are better, faster and cheaper. How? Through scalable qualitative methods appropriately applied to unique market research needs to gain necessary insight.


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We impact business decisions and engineer transformational growth through the integration of Behavioral Science and Cultural Anthropology.

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