When a Gut Feeling Isn’t Enough

Today’s companies want marketing strategies based on hard numbers—and they need trained researchers to provide them.

By Corinne Steinbrenner

15% of Americans have tried mobile banking. Frozen food sales rose 22% between 2006 and 2010. Just 1/3 of German teenage girls wear perfume.

Facts like these appear in news reports all the time—but where do the numbers come from? Such statistics are the work of marketing researchers, some of whom get their training at BU, in a little-known COM master’s concentration in applied communication research.

This uncommon program was established in the late 1990s by Associate Professor Michael Elasmar, who teaches the majority of its number-crunching courses. (And you thought there was no math at COM!) Elasmar says the goal of his curriculum is to prepare students to step out of the classroom and directly into high-paying jobs at research firms or in-house research divisions of large companies. His personal aim is to alter his students’ brains. “My goal,” he says, “is to actually modify their brains so much that they see the world very differently— that they see the world according to patterns that they can analyze, so that they can predict outcomes.”

Marketing research is a booming field, Elasmar says, because businesses have begun insisting on measuring their attempts to communicate with consumers. “They want very precise evidence that campaigns are indeed working,” he says, “or that campaigns are likely to work before they even launch them.” Despite the growing demand for trained marketing researchers, COM’s MS in applied communication research is one of just a few academic programs in the country with a specific focus on the field. (Most others like it are found in marketing departments of business schools.)

COM’s three-semester graduate program enrolls just 10 to 12 students per year, some of whom didn’t even know the program—or the field of marketing research—existed when they came to BU. Jacqueline Anderson (’05), for example, originally enrolled in COM’s master’s program in public relations and signed up for an elective course in communication research her first semester. After just one week of class with Elasmar, she switched her emphasis. “I had no idea there was this entire world where your job could be research,” she says. “As soon as he explained that, I said, ‘I’m done with PR. This is what I want to do.’”

“If you have any kind of inquisitive nature, if you like figuring out problems, it’s the perfect environment because you do that every day.”

Anderson became a consumer insights analyst with Forrester Research, a technology-focused research firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. She was hired in part to oversee the design, dissemination and tabulation of ongoing surveys that measure consumers’ evolving attitudes toward and usage of technology. “It’s fascinating work,” she says. “If you have any kind of inquisitive nature, if you like figuring out problems, it’s the perfect environment because you do that every day.”

In addition to its independent surveys, Forrester conducts custom research commissioned by specific clients. So does UK-based research firm Nunwood, which recently opened a small New York office on Madison Avenue, where Jenna Baran (’09) is a client consultant. Since joining the firm last year, Baran has helped test the effectiveness of TV spots, online ads and package designs for Nunwood clients, who span the business world, from banks and pharmaceutical suppliers to retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. Baran first heard of marketing research as an undergraduate and now thoroughly enjoys working in the field. “I love learning what makes people go buy something or decide to choose one thing over the other,” she says. “The whole psychology behind it is really interesting to me.”

Understanding the consumer psyche is also the passion of Jericho Razon (’05), a member of the consumer insights team at CPG giant Unilever. Razon became interested in marketing research while working for an advertising agency in his home country, the Philippines, before he came to BU. His agency wanted to better understand consumers, he says, “but there was no rigor or any kind of methodology in the research. I remember they started randomly choosing young people in the office, rounding them into a conference room and doing a focus group.”

By contrast, Razon says, Unilever takes research seriously. It’s a “fundamental pillar of the organization,” he says, with trained research staff embedded in each brand-development team. Razon’s role is to marry quantitative research (survey results, sales figures and other findings that can be expressed as hard numbers) with insights from qualitative studies (focus groups, in-depth interviews and the like) to create a solid understanding of the needs and wants of potential customers.

“Consumers are really at the center of it all for us,” he says, “so you try to understand them on several levels.” When Razon was assigned to Unilever’s “spreads” brands—Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter—that meant reviewing surveys of consumer attitudes about healthy eating and also visiting consumers’ homes to watch them cook. For his current assignment promoting AXE shampoos, he commissions studies of hair-product usage among men and conducts focus groups with 20-something guys (the target market for all AXE products). These focus groups—with rigorously recruited and screened participants—gauge responses to different advertising concepts, says Razon, but also explore broader topics, including friendship and the dating scene, to help Unilever better understand what motivates AXE consumers.

“The challenge is being able to look at what makes the most sense for your brand, what makes the most sense for your consumer.”

The most challenging part of his work, says Razon, is translating the research results into business strategy. “You can have very good data,” he says, “and people can interpret it in very different ways. The challenge is being able to look at what makes the most sense for your brand, what makes the most sense for your consumer.”

Michaela Ion (’04), a research and strategy manager at Sony Electronics, agrees. She’s currently charged with creating a better retail experience for Sony customers. To that end, she’s overseen everything from online surveys to shop-alongs (in-depth interviews conducted with consumers as they shop), in-home interviews and out-of-box experience studies (watching how consumers use a new device, straight out of the box). She then translates her research findings into recommendations for improving Sony’s products and sales practices. As she performs this part of her job, she says, she appreciates that her research classes at BU didn’t merely focus on how to calculate statistics (“which we learned and we were good at”), but also on applying those statistics in a real business setting—now the most challenging and rewarding part of her work. “To take that insight into consumers’ minds and behaviors and apply it to a business and see results is really exciting,” she says, “because you’re having an impact. You’re making a difference for the business.”

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