This is a quick follow-on to my earlier post that highlighted Holt & Cameron’s assertion that marketing–no, all of business–has been overrun by the economics, engineering and psychological frame.  This is the dominant worldview, the “what can’t be measured, can’t be managed” mindset.

Today, I came across Peter Spear‘s post on Medium in praise of the value of qualitative research.  After pointing to survey of nearly 400 marketing articles that show that almost half are based on the quantitative methodology, and that “[p]urely qualitative articles made up a mere 7.1%” of the published articles, he writes:

It is not a new argument that organizations learn almost exclusively through quantitative analysis of the world. What seems to drop away, however, is the argument about how this bias against qualitative leaves organizations ill informed and vulnerable. [emphasis mine]

Further, he quotes Harvard’s Rohit Deshpande:

By excluding alternative methodologies, marketing scientists are perhaps unknowingly also constraining themselves into a set of only partially appropriate techniques for a limited subset of marketing problems.

Yes, there are limits to what quantitative research can illuminate.


Peter ends up here, which is think is so well said:

But the startling and brutal fact of our dynamic marketplace is that change is the only constant, and the need to remain in contact with, and sensitive to the shifts in experience is invaluable.

For this is the true purpose of qualitative: to explore the experience of a phenomenon from the perspective of the person experiencing it, in order to develop hypotheses for quant to explore. For qual is expert at what quant is not: illuminating the nature of constantly shifting relationships, not the fact of these relationships.

This is culture, this “nature of constantly shifting relationships.”  And thanks to the engineering and economic frames–into which quantitative research fits beautifully–marketing finds itself still ill-equipped to deal with the volatility of contemporary culture.  Some might even call the attitude disdainful.  Culture, after all, is messy.  It’s open to too much interpretation.  Meaningfulness is subjective, right?

The challenge ahead is to get organizations to value those things about both the marketplace and their consumers that can’t easily be measured, but that also matter.  The things that might get in the way of their quest for efficiency and scale.  New ways of making meaning, and managing and framing relationships with people, products and services arise, ebb and flow everyday.  Peter’s onto something here: The goal’s not one or the other, quant or qual, but a better marriage of the two.  It’s about finding ways to bring the messiness of culture into corporations and giving it a seat alongside the traditionally “business-y” things companies already do.

The companies that nail this will be the future winners.


Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.