A Recessionary Review of Market Research in the USA

As first published in the latest issue of BIG Times, the Business Intelligence Group’s regular newsletter, B2B International’s Caroline Harrison, currently based in our New York office, examines the market research industry in America over the course of the recession:

Hot on the heels of the successful opening of its Beijing office in 2006, B2B International took the decision to expand its operations into a further new continent – North America – and its New York office opened in early summer 2008. Not three months later and we had the meltdown on Wall Street, triggering one of the deepest and harshest global recessions in living memory.

One question it might be appropriate to ask in these circumstances is whether we would have done things differently, had we known what was just around the corner? While I’m sure we would have thought long and hard before making the decision, in truth we probably would have gone ahead as planned.

Why is that? It’s because, as many of you will already know, the market research industry has consistently proven itself to be fairly resilient in times of adversity. Perhaps saying market research is “recession-proof” would be going a bit far, but the industry is certainly able to withstand a degree of external pressure.

Conducting market research is, of course, a means of reducing risk in business decision making, and when do companies most need to play it safe? When times are tough. When things are going swimmingly, you can perhaps afford to take the odd chance and risk making the occasional mistake. When the economy is in freefall, there can be no margin for error.

We have to acknowledge that 2009 was a challenging year for many. Budgets in most industries were cut and – while we can argue all day about the logic behind it – market research spend, like expenditure in many other business areas, was reined in for some. Similarly, a number of our clients were forced to delay projects due to the economic uncertainty.

Yet, overall, levels of enquiries and commissions have not altered significantly over the past 18 months. What we did, however, notice during the height of the recession was a change in the type of research we were being asked to conduct. The more ‘aggressive’ market entry and market assessment studies commissioned by companies looking to expand into new markets and find new customers were replaced by more ‘defensive’ projects such as customer satisfaction. It has clearly been more important than ever to protect what business you do have and look after your existing customers to ensure they don’t defect. In recent weeks and months, as increasingly we see optimism re-emerge in North America – as indeed globally – clients are gradually feeling emboldened. As their business strategies become more ‘adventurous’, so too are the types of research they require.

Perhaps a little surprising to us in America has been the high number of clients commissioning product development studies during the recession. However, most of these have not been of the all-out ambitious new product development variety; rather, they have tended to focus more around improvements to existing products or extensions to an existing product range. While we cannot determine precisely the reason for this trend, we believe it has been a measured response to a real or perceived increased threat by competitors’ products and/or decreased market share. Product improvements are a means of establishing differentiation at the same time as demonstrating innovativeness and reinforcing a commitment to better serving clients’ needs. At a time when the economic environment is forcing many competitors to lie low, product development has the added advantage of giving you something to shout about.

The intensifying of the recession also appeared to curb the movement we had been witnessing towards environmentally-friendly products and services. Many of the first market research projects we conducted upon arriving in the United States in 2008 assessed the potential for introducing ‘green’ extensions to existing product lines or launching an already-successful North American energy-saving product in other global markets. This type of project request became noticeably less common throughout 2009 but early indications in 2010 – across all our offices, not just in the U.S., it must be noted – lead us to believe that environmental issues will once again rise to the fore.

A more general observation that can be made about the U.S.A. has been the optimism throughout the hard times. Perhaps being a pessimist Brit and used to constant negative media coverage about the doom and gloom we’re all facing, being in America has, at times, been like a breath of fresh air. In spite of rocketing rates of unemployment (up from 6% in September 2008 to 9.7% at the time of writing), record mortgage foreclosures, horrendous stock-market declines and trillion-dollar Government bailout packages, what has been noticeable has been the positive messages portrayed in the media. People haven’t denied the economic problems but have been very much of the opinion that “things will get better”, “together we’ll pull through” and “America will rule the world once more.” And there I was thinking the British were supposed to be full of Dunkirk spirit!

In part, I think the presidential election of November 2008, which coincided with the start of tough times, generated a lot of positivity. President Barack Obama’s “Change we can believe in” slogan was a beacon for many. His election was seen as a chance for America to change for the better. Eighteen months on and the general public may not be quite so enamoured with what’s being achieved on the political agenda, but negativity has not taken over. Indeed, as we begin to see signs of improvements here on this side of the Atlantic, we are thankful that things have not been worse.

I will conclude by referring to an observation made to me earlier this week by a British colleague, also based here in New York: “Americans are more confident, more willing to take a risk and therefore more likely to succeed”. That, in a nutshell, sums things up nicely.

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