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UK: Perspective - Open up a window on the world. - The royal appointment of a research company is the latest evidence of the growing power and influence of opinion polls says Winston Fletcher.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The royal appointment of a research company is the latest evidence of the growing power and influence of opinion polls says Winston Fletcher.

Now that the British monarchy has finally climbed aboard the opinion pollsters' bandwagon, there can be few, if any, important institutions in the western world that do not constantly take heed of market research.

No major company would today dream of launching a product, an advertising campaign, or any other kind of public venture without first checking the public's probable response. Every experienced manager knows market research is far from infallible but they also know that research minimises the likelihood of peppering their feet with gunshot.

Critics complain that too many important decisions are now based on the whimsical views of a few dozen housewives in Winchester or Wyoming. Yet they fail to realise that users of market research are not compelled to follow its findings slavishly. And surely no one can doubt the advantages of knowing the public's views.

Dipstick polling

That is why politicians of all hues, in all countries (even the former Soviet bloc) now poll public opinion on every subject from abortion to zebra crossings. The extensive use by Tony Blair and New Labour of focus groups is well-documented. These groups guided their every move in the run-up to the 1997 election and have continued to influence them strongly ever since.

Philip Gould, New Labour's research guru, is an influential member of the prime minister's entourage. His focus groups also shaped Blair's handling of the Ulster agreement, and the prime minister's masterly management of the Princess Diana crisis probably owed more than a little to instant 'dipstick' polling. Perhaps that is why the Royal family, which had previously eschewed research for fear of appearing indecisive, or perhaps uncharismatic, finally saw the pollsters' light and appointed MORI as its research consultants earlier this year.

The good news about all this is that Britain is now a world leader (and certainly the European leader) in market research. International business accounts for some 30% of total UK turnover. British research companies are whizzing around the world building networks in the same way that advertising agencies did in the 1970s. Kantar, the market research operation of the WPP Group, is the world's largest in its field, with global turnover exceeding £450 million. One of WPP's strongest profit streams, Kantar has recently made major acquisitions in China, Canada and Latin America.

At the end of last year, another research company, Taylor Nelson AGB, acquired SOFRES, the biggest polling company in France, to become the world's third largest group, with offices in 28 countries.

Naturally this global expansion is being driven by the demands of the clients of these researchers. Multinational corporations are requiring consistent methods to obtain consistent data from country to country. If the French, Germans, British and even the Australians are all polled in a slightly different way, then it is manifestly impossible to compare the results.

That's not helpful. Despite the endless talk of globalisation and uniformity, the reality is that the world's consumers are similar in some ways, different in others. To pinpoint those similarities and differences with any accuracy is often difficult. The data must be coherent, compatible and robust.

The slightest differences in methodologies in the way in which data is collected and processed can magnify, or nullify, real cross-border comparisons.

Internationalism rules

At the same time, global markets are changing faster than ever before, and corporations are increasingly aware that the occasional omnibus survey will probably be insufficient to keep them abreast of competitive developments all the time and everywhere. The only cost-efficient, and cost-effective, solution to all these difficulties is to employ one international research company, rather than manage a host of different suppliers all over the place.

The researchers, in consequence, are now beginning to provide the kind of international brand consultancy advice that would once have been the prerogative of multinational advertising agencies. In the marketing services playground, advertising agencies were the only global game in town until quite recently. Just look at the current market research advertisements in the trade press to see that this is no longer so: 'we help build global brands', 'global perspective for better business decisions', 'the personal touch on a global level', 'the worldwide solution'.

Young and flourishing

With a compound annual growth rate exceeding 10%, research is growing faster than advertising (or any other important aspect of marketing communications). In the UK, the value of the research market already exceeds £750 million - that's well over 50% of the total income of advertising agencies. Research companies now employ about 6,000 people (excluding interviewers), about 50% of the number employed in advertising (and far more than are employed in any other marketing services sector).

Less than 50 years old, market research is still a comparatively young business. It is one in which the development of information technology and computer power will provide massively increasing cost and time benefits. It is already immensely influential and, despite its critics, will grow more and more influential as far ahead as the eye can see. Market research may often be unscientific, occasionally inconsistent, and sometimes inconclusive, but it's here to stay. The imprimatur of Britain's royalty is another jewel in its crown. l

Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.

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