Market Research Was Born in the Field - Proctor and Gamble
The Challenge: Find Out What the Customers Want and Give it to Them
Procter & Gamble was the venue for the origin of systematic market research. Along with brand management, field research is the lifeblood of consumer product companies and both began at Procter & Gamble.
It may seem like an obvious idea now, but field research was revolutionary in its time. For decades following the Great Depression, companies had a patriarchal orientation to product development, advertising, and sales. Products were developed in company laboratories that were considered to be scientific and objective. Companies developed products to meet generic needs and marketing underscored that if customers would just buy and use the advertised products, all would be well.
Putting the Research in Marketing
The missing element in this research and development approach was the research. On the watch of Neil McElroy, Procter & Gamble connected the dots. If Procter & Gamble wanted to know what customers wanted, in order to be able to sell it to them, then the company would need to hear directly from the consumers. Procter & Gamble was predominantly a consumer products manufacturer and, as such, the majority of the company’s customers were homemakers.
Hundreds of women were recruited to conduct their ordinary domestic activities with Procter & Gamble products, and report the results of their experiences with the products. The information gained through these field research studies was used to improve Procter & Gambles’ existing products and to inform the development of their new products. The scientific mind behind this systematic approach to consumer research was a D. Paul Smelser. A Johns Hopkins University graduate with a Ph.D. in economics, he was Doc Smelser to the other executives at Procter & Gamble.
First hired by Procter & Gamble to work in a new business unit set up for commodities market analysis, Doc Smelser pushed the corporate culture at Procter & Gamble in a number of ways. Where executives at Procter & Gamble wore a conservative uniform of suits, Smelser showed up in sporty garb. With his feisty nature, he pulled no punches and he periodically posed sales and marketing questions to senior executives without preamble.
The cerebral Smelser was intrigued when executives couldn’t answer questions about how Procter & Gamble products were being used or not used. He harbored a notion that a company should know a great deal about product use in order to conduct effective marketing. By 1925, Smelser had sufficiently unsettled leadership at Procter & Gamble to bring about the establishment of a formal Market Research Department headed by none other than Smelser. Until his retirement in 1959, Smelser developed the market research department into a sophisticated and scientific business unit.
Market Researchers From the Past
The Procter & Gamble field researchers, who conducted innovative door-to-door interviews with consumers, were carefully selected for their positions. Like the people hired to work in Disneyland, or the Harvey girls of the famous Fred Harvey restaurants in the late 1800s, the Procter & Gamble field researchers were selected on the basis of the impact they would have on the consumers they contacted in the field.
Smelser hired predominantly young female college graduates who were modestly attractive and projected a wholesomeness that Smelser considered appropriate for the Procter & Gamble products. This hand-picked research corps was intended to be skillful at obtaining frank and honest responses from the consumers in the field who agreed to participate in the market research efforts.
The army of Procter & Gamble field researchers knocked on doors and peppered willing homemakers with questions about each and every domestic chore for which the company either had a product or was considering a product launch. To create an informal conversational tone that was non-threatening (while being rigorously effective), the field researchers did not carry any clipboards, writing implements, lists or forms of any kind. The field researchers had to have perfect recall of tons of detailed information that they gleaned from their conversations with the homemakers.
Once they were back in their cars, these amazing researchers recorded all that they remembered and had learned.
Smelser’s field research outcomes were deep and broad, resulting in astonishingly comprehensive sets of overlapping data. Doc Smelser worked at Procter & Gamble for 34 years, and during that time, 3,000 women and a smattering of men conducted field research.
The researchers learned about Procter & Gable’s products and about competitors’ products. The company developed a competitive edge from the strength of this research, which propelled Smelser into the advertising realm. With the same intense focus Smelser had shown in his efforts to develop field research, he got to know advertising media backward and forward. Smelser could quote precise audience numbers to astonished radio station managers who didn’t know such facts.
American Business, 1920-2000: How It Worked - P&G: Changing the Face of Consumer Marketing (2000, May 2) Working Knowledge for Business Leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review.
Gray, Paula (2010, August 8). Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Manager [White paper for the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM)]
McCraw, Thoms K. (2000). American Business, 1920-2000: How It Worked Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson. ISBN: 0-88295-985-9 (The book is part of Harlan Davidson’s American History Series).