Thursday, September 22, 2011

Coca-Cola Research Boss Bets On Passive Listening Over Response, Social Media Over Surveys

“Research Insighter” Interview Probes Call to Reinvent or Face Irrelevance

By Marc Dresner, IIR USA

Stan Sthanunathan believes market research—both as a profession and as an industry—may be on a collision course of potentially Titanic proportions with an iceberg called change, and he’s urging all hands on deck to help turn the ship around.

“We all must accept one truth in life: Change is not optional, but acting or not acting is a choice we make…We either act or we will become irrelevant and maybe even perish,” Sthanunathan said.

Coca-Cola’s global head of marketing strategy and insights has never been one to mince words or shy away from controversy, and his views may be unsettling in some research quarters.

In this exclusive podcast interview for “The Research Insighter” series, Sthanunathan argues the industry urgently “needs to reinvent who we are, what we stand for and how we add value to business” or risk losing out to a rising class of non-traditional competitors that will include the Facebooks and Googles of the world.

He predicts conventional response-based research will “probably be irrelevant in the next decade” and that “social media services could potentially become the biggest insights generators in the industry.”

And, Sthanunathan pointed out, these emerging competitors have an advantage over traditional research providers and most client-side departments when it comes to attracting talent: They’re willing to pay more for a more diverse range of skill sets within a culture that encourages experimentation and provides the freedom to fail forward.

How can researchers compete in this environment?

Sthanunathan insists the time has come to focus on next practices—not best practices.

“No driver has reached their destination by looking through the rearview mirror in a car,” he observed.

“If you focus on consumer insights, you will develop consumerist strategies,” Sthanunathan said. “But if you focus on understanding the human condition, then you will understand people’s lives in totality and, therefore, probably have a much better chance of coming up with breakthrough ideas.”

Listen to the interview here.

Read the transcript here.

Editor’s note: If you’re intrigued by the issues raised in this podcast, you won’t want to miss TMRE 2011, because this year’s conference theme is “Leading in a New Direction: Revolutionizing an Industry in an Era of Transformation.”

For information or to register for The Market Research Event 2011, taking place November 7-9 in Orlando, Florida, please visit

Marc Dresner is an IIR USA communication lead with a background in trade journalism and marketing. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the marketing research and consumer insights industry. He may be reached at Follow him @mdrezz.


Chris said...

I think both passive and active response will define market research over the next decade. I think there is a definite need to listen to what people are saying but researchers can also engage an audience or customer base to the point where point want to offer active responses. Ideas that come to mind include "Name our next flavor?" competitions or in the B2B world "Be part of our Expert panel and shape XYZ". More than ever, consumers (both B2C and B2B) are building connections with brands and WANT to give their opinion in the right location.

Marc Dresner said...

Thank you for the comment, Chris. I agree completely. This isn't an either/or situation; they complement one another and should be layered. I do, however, think we'll continue to see companies rethink how they solicit opinions if response and cooperation rates continue on their current trajectory. Similarly, I believe passive techniques have a long way to go. Right now, social is a shiny new toy. But honeymoons invariably end and there's always room for improvement...

Tom H. C. Anderson said...

Can’t disagree with most of his statements. It’s not that what traditional marketing research brings to the table isn’t important, it most certainly is, but as he points out, marketing research is not adding the skillset needed to leverage big data. It seems easier for these non-traditional players to hire statisticians and market researchers than the other way around.

I’ve felt this way since 2005 and this is the reason I started the Next Gen Market Research group in 2007.

The jury is still out, but as he seems to indicate, there needs to be a multi disciplinary approach in order to leverage these new data and it’s not coming fast enough.

Al Ain University of Science and Technology said...

Nice Discussion,

I Like the Topic