Marketing Research or Market Research? A unhelpful distinction

Once again I have heard of somebody claiming that there is a useful difference between the terms marketing research and market research. However, there is not a useful distinction between these two terms.

The meaning of words is determined not by experts, universities, or trade bodies, but by usage. We might not always like the consequences of usage, but just like King Canute, we need to acknowledge that we can’t turn back the tide.

Four schools of belief
Amongst people who believe that market research and marketing research are different there are essentially four camps, all of which have plenty of members. The key point about these four camps is not which is right, the key point is that all four exist, all contain experts and important sources.

The four camps are shown in the image below (click on it to enlarge it).
MR is MR 2

Camp A: marketing research is a sub-set of market research
These people say all of marketing research is part of market research, but market research also contains many aspects that are not about marketing, for example social research, political research, and usability.

Camp B: market research is a sub-set of marketing research.
This is the mirror image of A, everything that is market research is considered to be marketing research, but marketing research is considered to have unique elements, such as researching the four Ps or applying market mix modelling to sales and marketing data to evaluate campaigns.

Camp C: Marketing research is smaller than market research and is partly overlapping. This camp is similar to Camp A, in terms of some aspects of market research (e.g. social and political) not being part of marketing research, but it would also hold that some forms marketing research, for example data about market logistics, are not part of market research, One reason quoted in this case is that marketing research includes some elements that do not relate to customers or potential customers (and assumes that market research always relates, at some level, to people).

Camp D: Market research is smaller than marketing research and is partly overlapping.
This camp is the natural complement to the other three camps. Market research is again assumed to be focused on individuals, and to exclude many areas of marketing information; at the same time this camp does ascribe some areas uniquely to market research, such as employee research.

Why is the distinction not useful?
It is not safe for a writer or speaker to choose one term in preference to the other in order to create a different message. The speaker cannot assume the difference they have in their mind is consistent with the difference in the mind of the reader/listening.

It would appear that most people treat the terms as interchangeable, for example in terms of the books they read, the conferences they attend, and the journals they read or write for. Amongst the minority who do not use the terms interchangeably, there are at least four common interpretations (as outlined above).

If you believe there is a useful distinction between the two, and if you wish to utilise that distinction, then you will need to use both terms and include your definition. Given the time that will take, your point better be worth making!

Why do some people claim there is a difference?
The people who claim there is a difference believe there is a difference. At some stage they have read it or been taught it. The problem of confirmatory bias then kicks in. If we believe we are right we are much more likely to find evidence for our point of view. Given that the four camps above are all common, it is easy to find support for your point of view. There will be professors, authors, trade bodies etc who will agree with you, and you will find them.

Who says what?
There is no hard and fast way of knowing in advance how an individual will interpret these two terms, but in general:

  • The USA is more prone to say marketing research, UK is more likely to say market research. The trade bodies for UK, New Zealand, Singapore, and Australia all use the term Market Research in their name, for example.
  • Marketers, especially marketing bodies or academics are more likely to say marketing research, the international trade bodies are more likely to say market research.

When people prefer one term over the other they usually think it is the ‘bigger’ term, i.e. it covers a wider range of topics, approaches, and methods.

Within Europe another important factor is that in the English language laws and documents the term market research is used. If people conducting research want to utilise the exemptions and provisions, it may make sense for them to use the same term as their governments – especially in the UK,

What should you do?
Unless you are a word nut, like me, this issue is not important. You should use whichever word is best for the people you are communicating with. Note, do NOT use the term which you prefer, your objective is to communicate, so use the term best for your audience.

If your audience is familiar with marketing research, then that is what you use. If you tutor or boss prefers market research, then that is what you use.

Note, it is very unlikely you will be able to change other people’s minds on which term to use, and what exactly they mean. So, ask yourself, does it matter, do I really want to research and write a blog? I think we all know what the answer should be!

A few interesting definitions
Below are a few definitions, from the many I’ve read, that seem to highlight the differences

ESOMAR: “Market research, which includes social and opinion research, is the systematic gathering and interpretation of information about individuals or organisations using the statistical and analytical methods and techniques of the applied sciences to gain insight or support decision making.” From the ESOMAR website. Note this definition is also used by the ICC/ESOMAR International Code.

The Association for Qualitative Research: “Research carried out to provide information for organisations, to help guide decisions and policy. Regularly used by commercial businesses, it is also employed by public sector and non-profit organisations.” From the AQR website.

Birn, Hague and Vangelder: “Market research is a means of providing management with market and marketing information.” From A Handbook of Market Research Techniques, Birn, Hague, and Vangelder.

Malhotra: “Marketing research is the systematic and objective identification, collection, analysis, dissemination, and use of information for the purpose of improving decision making related to the identification and solution of problems and opportunities in marketing”. From Marketing Research (Malhotra)

Tull & Hawkins: “The function of marketing research is to provide information that will assist marketing managers in making decisions.” From, Market Research (Tull & Hawkins).

American Marketing Association: “Marketing research is the function that links the consumer, customer, and public to the marketer through information–information used to identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve understanding of marketing as a process.” From AMA website.

If you look at lots of definitions you will see almost every possible combination ascribed to both terms. There is perhaps a slight tendency to favour marketing research when the clients are marketers or the academic discipline is marketing. There is perhaps a slight tendency to favour market research when the focus is either on the social sciences or specifically on people. However, the overlap is huge, rendering the distinction, for most purposes.

March 23, 2015, Ray Poynter

One thought on “Marketing Research or Market Research? A unhelpful distinction

  1. Great topic here, I always feel like this debate will continue to rage on. As long as your market research or marketing research can help drive improvements and change, I guess whatever you call it doesn’t matter as much.

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