Association For Consumer Research 1983 Presidential Address: ACR - Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Kenneth L. Bernhardt, Harvard University
[ to cite ]:
Kenneth L. Bernhardt (1984) ,"Association For Consumer Research 1983 Presidential Address: ACR - Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-3.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 1-3

ASSOCIATION FOR CONSUMER RESEARCH

1983 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS: ACR - YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW

Kenneth L. Bernhardt, Harvard University

Shortly after I was elected president of the Association for Consumer Research, I wrote to a number of people I knew in the organization and asked for suggestions as to what I could do during my year in office. One person made the profound suggestion that I not do what many past presidents have done, and that is to begin my address to this annual conference by giving endless lists of people without whose tireless efforts....But as I said in my first column in the Newsletter, the president's job is easy - all one has to do is appoint the right people and stay out of their way. If I have had any success this year at all, that's where it is.

With substantial help from the board, I appointed the right people and stayed out of their way. I therefore feel an obligation to ignore the advice I received and to thank publicly a few of the many people who have been of help. I want to start by acknowledging the incredible contribution that Keith Hunt has made to the organization. As one of only five people who have held the office of executive secretary, I think I know what he has had to do this year. It is far more than I had to do when I was in that position several years ago. When Keith took over the office, he inherited a variety of problems and immediately straightened them out. He has really done a magnificent job this year and I want to thank him for making me look good and making the organization look good.

I have been committed to a broadening of the annual conference program, for I feel very strongly that one of this organization's major strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. When appointing Tom Kinnear as program chairperson, I challenged the program committee to develop a program that would be of interest to the many broad segments within ACR. I think they have done that. It took an awful lot of work and I thank Tom and the program committee.

Another person who has done a great deal of work this year for the good of the organization is Richard Yalch. He has turned the Newsletter into a very effective vehicle for communicating among ourselves what kinds of things we're doing. Finally, I want to thank Jerry Zaltman, Jagdish Sheth, Hal Kassarjian, and the many other past presidents who have been so supportive of me and the organization this year, contributing the benefits of their wisdom and their many years of involvement.

My speech this year is going to be a little different from those of recent vintages. Reading through the past presidents' speeches, which I recommend to you, I was struck by the kinds of concerns they have had. There have been some very eloquent pleas for more theory in our field, for more scientific inquiry, for more relevance and for working on more relevant problems, for better quality in what we do, and for more ethical considerations in the dissemination of what we do. I thoroughly endorse all of those concerns. But that's not what I think I can contribute and not what I want to talk about today.

In the words of Hal Kassarjian, I represent the proletariat and I'm proud of that. Hence I plan to talk today about ACR - the organization itself - because I think there are some things that we need to talk about.

I'm entitling my remarks "ACR Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow."

I found it fascinating to read the previous presidential addresses, particularly the first three, which fully document how the organization was started. Given that there were only 40 people in the beginning and there are 850 today, not too many members can be intimately familiar with the real history of ACR. The story began in the summer of 1969 with a very successful consumer behavior workshop held at Ohio State University. At that time Jim Engle was elected chairman of a planning committee to investigate the possibility of an organization to be called the Association of Consumer Research. In September of that year he wrote to Bob Pratt, "Those in attendance unanimously agreed that we need a new organization cutting across the lines of various disciplines and organizations which are involved in or concerned with consumer behavior and research. The organization is intended to bring in people from psychology, economics, all phases of industry, home economics and other areas."

The original intention thus was to create a broad base of people from many disciplines concerned with consumer behavior research. After the organization was formally chartered, that purpose was reaffirmed in the very first paragraphs of the constitution. Three basic purposes are stated for ACR. The first is "to provide a forum for exchange of ideas among those interested in consumer behavior research in academic disciplines, in government at all levels from local through national, in private business and other sectors such as non-profit organizations and foundations." The second is "to stimulate research focusing on a better understanding of consumer behavior from a variety of perspectives." And the third is "to disseminate research findings and other contributions to the understanding of consumer behavior through professional seminars, conferences and publications."

The difficulty of this task was recognized at the time. As Bob Pratt said in his 1973 presidential address, "In my judgment, the exchange of knowledge and ideas across disciplines and across institutional settings is absolutely essential to the growth and development of the science of consumer behavior research. The difficulty of this task cannot be overestimated. Perhaps it is simply too difficult a task to pursue but I remain convinced that the potential inherent in success justifies the effort."

We've now been working toward that goal for some fourteen years. The first annual conference was held at the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 1970. By 1972 the membership had grown to 125. In the following January it was 300, and by 1975 it had grown to 600. In 1977 it was up to 800, and we had a high of close to 1,000 back in 1979-1980. The Newsletter was started, a directory was developed, and the Journal of Consumer Research was initiated with the help of other organizations. During this period the importance of the annual conference also increased. Twenty-eight papers were presented at the 1973 conference, while this year's conference will include 73 competitively selected papers and approximately 22 special topic sessions and workshops.

That's the Yesterday of ACR. Let's take a look at the Today. One powerful demonstration of the organization's strength is that it has had fourteen presidents and eleven of them are here today. Very few organizations can say that. We have reached maturity, and I think by most measures we are very, very successful as an organization. ACR has achieved far greater prestige than anyone would have thought possible ten years ago, when virtually no one had heard of it. We have a very well respected conference. We have conference proceedings, and no scholar would write an article in the field without first checking what had been done in those papers.

We have a conference where people attend the sessions and learn. We're very well off financially. We have the resources to do whatever we want to do as an organization. About 350 of our 853 members are attending this conference, which is another measure of the healthy activity level of the members.

In my opinion the vast majority of the scholarly work being done in our field is being done by our members. We're no longer the second or third or fourth organization for many of our members. Many of us consider ACR the primary organization with which we identify. We're associated with a very prestigious journal. The conference itself and the proceedings are of the highest quality and I think are generally perceived as such. I think we have been successful in advancing the field substantially in many, many areas. This morning, for example, we had sessions on cognitive approaches to consumer learning, linking consumer behavior and marketing strategy, consumer complaining behavior, regulation and consumer research information processing, and methodological advances in consumer research. Think back to what was known five years ago in those areas versus what is known today, and you will be struck by the contributions that ACR has made toward that knowledge and understanding.

Basically I think ACR is extremely healthy for such a young organization. However, there are a few things that I am concerned about and want to bring to your attention. First, we have very high membership turnover. I took the 1982 ACR membership directory and compared it with the recently published 1983 directory. Of course, the two are not exactly comparable for they were published in different months Nevertheless, there are some things that can be learned. I tend to be a little bit lazy so l only went through the letters A through D, which came to 223 names or about one quarter of the membership in 1981. Seventy-seven people, about one-third of those who were members in 1982, did not renew. Now some of us are a little lazy and forget to renew or send the checks in late, so that may account for some of this loss. But I don't think it accounts for a large proportion of it, particularly when you begin to look at who it was that did not renew. Twenty of these people are from business and government. Let me Just read you a list of the companies and government agencies, whose employees were in this organization and chose not to stay: R. J. Reynolds; American Association of Advertising Agencies; U.S. Bureau of Census; DuPont; Procter & Gamble; Marketing Information Systems; American Greeting Card Corporation, Singer Company; U.S. Product Safety Commission; General Mills; General Electric; Foote, Cone and Belding; National Economic Research Associates; Weststat; Philip Morris; Weyerhaeuser; Corporation for Public Broadcasting; D'Arcy MacManus & Masius; and Leo Burnett. And that's only from the first four letters of the alphabet.

Of our thirty-three A-D members from industry or government, twenty did not renew. Fourteen of our A-D international members chose not to renew. Others who did not renew were from psychology, consumer science and housing, home economics, and sociology.

Do we have anything that we can contribute to those people, and do they have anything to contribute to us? I think yes. I recently had the interesting experience of hearing a chemical engineer speak to the Marketing Club at the Harvard Business School. This particular chemical engineer happens to be the chairman of the board of the Coca Cola Company, Roberto Goizueta. One of the things he told the Harvard MBAs was that "the principal activity of management is to understand the consumer." He also said, "The consumer must be a part of everything we do." I think if you buy that at all, and most of you here would, we have something to contribute to industry and government, and they have something to contribute to us.

Although I think the organization is very healthy, we may not be meeting the needs of all the segments as well as we are meeting the needs of the majority segment. For the past two years the conference has attracted fewer than 300 people, compared with 350 to 400 during the mid to late 1970s. We do have about 350 here today, but the last time we were in Chicago we had 435.

Many people have been entering the profession in each of the fields of our members, but ACR isn't growing. I don't know why, but I'm concerned. Why are people entering the field of consumer research and not joining ACR? Or are the newcomers entering the organization while others are dropping out? I want to ask the question: Is the original purpose still valid? Many people perceive that ACR is becoming more and more an organization for marketing academics. Maybe that's not bad, but maybe it is. If it is bad, what should we do about it? My plea is that I want ACR as an organization to think about some of these issues - what is ACR and what does it want to be?

I now want to shift to the future of the organization. ACR will be what we want it to be. Yesterday the board of directors agreed it was time to do another membership survey-the first since 1977. So we will be conducting a survey to determine, among other things, what you want ACR to be. I am working with Jagdish Sheth to appoint an ad hoc committee of all past presidents who are willing to serve. The fact that there are eleven here today shows interest and commitment to the organization. This committee will generate some ideas and alternatives that we can use as inputs to the membership survey. The output of the survey will then be used by the committee to make recommendations for next year's board.

I want to make it clear that the changes I'm talking about are very minor. I believe ACR is healthy and very valuable to its members. But while some people say, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," I would argue that if you don't fix it, it might break. That is, I think we need preventive maintenance. If we do some minor things now to make sure we are achieving our mission, we can avoid drifting into a position from which we would look back and say, "Well, we're no longer the type of organization we intended to be."

I believe we must either modify our mission definition somewhat or make minor changes in our direction and activities. At the moment there are some slight inconsistencies. The kinds of things we need to be looking at are:

- What new services, if any, should we be providing to members?

- Should ACR be more concerned about the teaching of consumer behavior and consumer research, and should we do anything to bring materials, exercises, cases, and so on, to the attention of ACR members?

- Is there any potential interest in smaller regional meetings?

- Should there be smaller, more specialized meetings such as those of the AMA workshop series, the consumer satisfaction group, MSI?

- Should we do more for Ph.D. students?

- Should we have more joint activities with other organizations such as the American Council on Consumer Interests, the Society for Consumer Affairs Professionals, Division 23 of the American Psychological Association, or the Marketing Science Institute?

We should also survey those who have not renewed their ACR membership to determine why they made that choice and what could be tone to get their interest again. We also need to survey those who did not come to the conference - was it because they had a conflict or because they didn't perceive anything at the meeting of value to them?

So that's a view of Tomorrow, short-term. The Tomorrow longer-term will depend on what happens in the next year and on what all of you want ACR to be.

I can't finish without saying a couple of words about what ACR has meant to me. When I think of ACR, I think of three words, stimulating, educational, and fun. I hope that we can keep all three of those qualities. Most of the ideas that I have worked on and written about have really been stimulated at ACR conferences or by people I have met at the ACR conferences. I've gotten many research ideas here. I've gotten help from people like Mike Mazis, Keith Hunt, Dave Gardner, Bill Wilkie, and others who preceded me at the FTC. They helped me get a valuable experience through my visiting position at the FTC five years ago. I am now spending time at the Marketing Science Institute largely because of what I got out of ACR. Mostly I've made many, many friends I'm standing before right now.

I want to conclude with a plea that we make ACR what we want it to be. Some of you will find that your interests change somewhat over time and may think about dropping out of ACR as you become more pragmatic and more interested in consulting, or for some other reason. But instead of dropping out, I would ask you to make an effort to make ACR relevant for you and stay in the organization, because there are probably others like you.

This morning I attended a session organized by two people who were very much disenchanted with ACR a year ago. I said to them then, "If you don't like the program, what do you want?" I asked them to put together an idea and submit it to the Conference Pro-Committee. They did, it was accepted, and this morning a very stimulating session was enjoyed by many members.

This year's best seller is In Search of Excellence. That's one philosophy that's never been in question for ACR. Everything that ACR has ever done has been in search of excellence under the consumer research umbrella. I urge you to pursue excellence in your own consumer research work. The ACR umbrella is a big one, with room under it for all with an interest in excellence in consumer behavior research.

I really appreciate the confidence that you showed in me by electing me president. I've had an absolutely wonderful year working with many of you, and I hope you will be as supportive of Jagdish Sheth next year as you were of me this year.

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