Public Demands on Business: a Research Frontier

M. Denney, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - There is a general recognition that research is useful in pinpointing particular consumer concerns and problems. However, until recently there has been very limited recognition of more long-ranging and fundamental research efforts designed to construct a picture of more generalized concerns and impressions. This latter information is especially useful for businesses trying to develop a long-range view of consumer interests. One such effort in this respect is the establishment of a corporate priorities research effort undertaken by Yankelovich, Skelly, and White, Inc.
[ to cite ]:
M. Denney (1976) ,"Public Demands on Business: a Research Frontier", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 269-272.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 269-272

PUBLIC DEMANDS ON BUSINESS: A RESEARCH FRONTIER

M. Denney, University of Michigan

ABSTRACT -

There is a general recognition that research is useful in pinpointing particular consumer concerns and problems. However, until recently there has been very limited recognition of more long-ranging and fundamental research efforts designed to construct a picture of more generalized concerns and impressions. This latter information is especially useful for businesses trying to develop a long-range view of consumer interests. One such effort in this respect is the establishment of a corporate priorities research effort undertaken by Yankelovich, Skelly, and White, Inc.

Corporate priorities provide business management with systematic overtime analysis of key public issues and how these are likely to affect corporate practices and profits. The substantive concerns around which corporate priorities are organized include consumerism, environmentalism, employee welfare, and general social responsibility.

One of the fundamental objectives of corporate priorities, in addition to supplying businesses with the aforementioned information, is to provide an assessment of when particular concerns will reach a "maturation" point and take shape as public policy issues. In this paper I examine the concept and application of corporate priorities and their relevance and importance in formulating and influencing public policies in the consumer domain.

Traditionally, consumer research has been concerned with the identification and analysis of factors relevant to individual spending and saving behavior. Those conducting and paying attention to such research fall into two. main camps: 1) Marketing strategists, concerned with selling their firms' products/services; and 2) Economic planners, attempting to anticipate basic patterns of consumer activity. To these we might add a third category of consumer researcher, the academic, whose interests and motives have usually been less 'applied' than for either of the above groups.

Considering the concrete concerns and fairly well-established traditions of consumer research, it is perhaps not too surprising to find only very modest attention being paid, even now, to a new arena of investigation --one that stands relatively distinct from the customary focus of either marketing strategists or economic forecasters. This new arena of research centers on the recently emergent phenomenon of consumerism, but extends really to what may be more generally regarded as public demands on business.

In the mid-to-late 1960's, there emerged a new force on the business scene, a new-found self-awareness among the nation's citizens in their roles as consumers. The so-called 'consumerism movement' -- in both its formally organized form (Nader's Raiders, Consumers' League, etc.) and in its more diffuse manifestations (spontaneous product boycotts, etc.) -- can be viewed as a particular outcropping of broader social trends which have made themselves felt over the past decade or so. These include the various social rights movements, campus unrest, and new value trends with respect to sexual mores, the work ethic, and other basic concerns. At its heart, the consumerism movement appears to reflect a significant step in a broad process of politicization among the American mass public.

For the business community in particular, the emergence of this new public self-awareness and politicization has created a whole new set of game rules which have only barely begun to be recognized and brought under systematic study. Daniel Yankelovich has spoken of this as the challenge of "Marketing in a Climate of Mistrust :" [Paper presented at GMA's Executive Conference, The Greenbrier; West Virginia - June 19, 1973.]

Anyone who has been alive and breathing these past few years knows what sweeping changes have taken place in the business environment in this remarkably short period of time. Perhaps the most troublesome change involves a shift from a climate of public confidence in business to one of skepticism and mistrust.

By now, most of us are thoroughly familiar with trend data which document the plummeting stature of the business community in the eyes of the public at large. But, what has been less aptly demonstrated by all the dire statistics is what the real implications of the new public demands may be, both for business people and for those in the public policy arena, who are without doubt just as directly the targets of this aroused public mood.

As consumers achieve ever greater political clout, there has come an increasing sense of urgency on the part of business leadership to try to understand just how serious a 'threat'--if that be an acceptable term --various sorts of public sentiments may pose. No longer are conventional market data on product preferences, demography, and life-style characteristics capable of providing (if they ever were!) sufficient information for the concerned business leader. New issues are at stake: product safety, truth in advertising, wage-price controls, environmental impact, and the like. And, new audiences and authorities have been drawn into the fray. Indeed, the very conception of marketing strategy has had to be revised to take into account not only the consuming public, but the impact of governmental regulatory activity, as well.

The thrust of the new public demands on business has been not just to attack directly through the marketplace, but of at least equal importance it has been to bring tremendous new pressures to bear on those in public policy roles -- pressures to establish greater control and regulation over the way business conducts itself. The arena of conflict has been drastically widened as a consequence, and policy-makers are more involved than at any previous time in trying to comprehend and hopefully respond to emerging demands, needs, and interests of the mass (consumer) public. From the business perspective, it is safe to say that the impact of regulatory policies is of substantially greater concern than direct action in the marketplace. Product boycotts, picketing, and other forms of direct protest may be unsettling, but they seldom have the same depth of impact that regulatory legislation and other policy measures carry.

The challenge to the business community has been only very slowly taken up by systematic research comparable to that associated with conventional marketing studies. Private industry is naturally hesitant to invest the sizeable sums necessary to develop this new research focus. Far too often, this means that those in important decisional roles are forced to gauge and make judgments about the new public demands with little more to go on than intuition and whatever insights may be gleaned from public opinion polls appearing in the newspaper and weekly news magazines. Sad to say, but this state of affairs seems to apply equally to those on the public policy side of the picture.'

But, the challenge being faced belongs not solely to the business community, nor to policy-makers. We in the research community have perhaps the most direct responsibility, that of providing the tools and strategies which will be essential for gathering this new kind of social intelligence.

Accordingly, my purpose here -- in addition to drawing needed attention to this challenge --is to present a brief account of one research effort which has gone some distance in investigating the new public demands on business. I am referring to a cost-shared service known as Corporate Priorities, which was developed by the marketing and social research firm of Yankelovich, Skelly and White, Inc. at the beginning of the 1970's. While this undertaking has been geared primarily to a corporate clientele, it should nevertheless offer some important and useful lessons as to how such research may be extended for use by other audiences -- including those in the public policy arena.

STUDY OBJECTIVES

The central purpose of Corporate Priorities (CP) is to provide business management with systematic, over-time analysis of key public issues and how these are likely to affect corporate practices and profits. This departs from conventional consumer research by being less concerned with product preferences, purchase motivations, and other matters pertinent to market behavior. Rather, CP gives primary attention to those sentiments and beliefs which have implications for the larger environment in which business operates, and particularly where formal regulatory action may be at stake. In other words, one major facet of this research venture is to serve as a sort of 'early warning system' for business -- to call attention to areas of tension and "risk," and to point toward effective responses.

Substantive Concerns. There is, of course, an immensely wide range of subject matter which may be included under the general rubric of public demands on business. The first order of business in any such research is to establish a framework and boundaries on the kinds of information being sought. In this regard, CP is organized around four major categories of pressure on the corporation:

1) Consumerism (pricing, product labeling, quality control, etc.)

2) Environmentalism (pollution, energy usage, etc. )

3) Employee welfare (working conditions, wage negotiations, etc.)

4) General social responsibility (corporate philanthropy, international involvements, etc .)

Admittedly, these are exceedingly broad categories, with each encompassing a host of complex issues and their varied manifestations. But, there are obvious limitations on how much information can be obtained, even in as ambitious a research enterprise as this one. Extensive preliminary investigation was essential for setting up a more detailed substantive agenda for the CP project, and this included both direct field study and consultation with members of the business community who would be the ultimate audience for this research. It is a demanding task to strike a proper balance between the recognized concerns and questions of the research clientele, without sacrificing the fundamental mission of this type of undertaking -- which is to find out what the public issues and demands are, rather than relying on conventional wisdom.

The task is far more complex than simply trying to identify a list of public demands or issues. There is, for example, only limited value in knowing that people want an end to polluted air if we don't also find out something about whom they blame for the problem, how serious a threat they think it really poses, what cost trade-offs they are willing to make, as well as any number of other considerations. Moreover, the number and complexity of such contemporary issues as covered in this kind of study yield a wide range of public opinion-holding. One must attempt to distinguish between superficial or "non-attitude" responses versus more serious viewpoints. One may also wish to determine what levels of information and sources of influence are associated with different issue stances. Clearly the task is monumental.

Target Publics. To complicate matters even further, it should be rather obvious that sentiments found among members of the general public reveal only a part of the picture. While it is important to be in touch with what the population at large is thinking and feeling, it is perhaps even more vital for grasping the emergence of public demands to give careful attention to what is on the minds of various special and elite publics. Thus, one of the key features of CP has been its multi-targeted data base. In addition to a representative sampling of the general public, in depth interviews are also conducted among cross-sections of the following groups:

...Congressional committees in both houses

...Top officials in federal and state regulatory agencies

...Key members of the executive branch at the federal and state level

...Leaders of activist organizations

...Private and institutional investors

...College students

...Opinion leaders in the mass media, education, organized labor.

Specifying such targets is the easy part, however. The real problem begins with trying to determine the most effective and feasible methods for deriving samples among them, and for carrying out the actual interviewing. Where elites are involved, it is by now well recognized that conventional survey procedures must be adjusted to meet a variety of considerations. It is highly recommended, for example, that specialized personnel be used who are suitably matched to the particular kinds of respondents involved. The Yankelovich organization has recruited and trained a special corps of retired business executives for just such purposes; plus, senior professional staff are also called upon extensively to help gather some of the more important and sensitive interviews among special publics.

Such elite samples also require more than the usual amount of advance preparation, such as in setting appointments, making last-minute changes in schedule, etc. This can prove especially critical to the overall success of the project due to the need to coordinate closely all phases of data gathering and processing -- including elite samples, the general public, and so on.

Setting the Time-Frame. In many respects, CP represents a unique application of a 'social--indicators' research approach; and, as such there is a basic requirement for a regularized over-time tracking design. Actually, this is a more complex consideration than it might at first appear for at least two major reasons: 1) Demands emerge and achieve prominence at widely varying rates; and 2) The total project involves massive data management tasks and corresponding lag in turn-around time. In order to bridge the gap between a ponderous array of information and the need for currency, CP has developed a dual time-frame approach which works as follows: Once each year a full and comprehensive survey is made of all target publics, and this serves as the basic tracking period. But, in addition, to keep pace with faster moving issues and also to help meet special client needs, regular quarterly update surveys are carried out among only the public at large. This has proven to be a highly flexible and cost-effective approach particularly where public reactions form or shift rapidly, as in the case of product shortages, price increases, and other events which have occurred with distressing frequency in recent years.

Quantification. To a large extent, the methodological problems faced by CP are like those in other survey research --- i.e., problems of devising effective questions, turning verbal responses into numerical values, etc. There is no point here in hashing over standard procedures, approaches, or caveats. However, an undertaking like CP does encounter several more unique problems, stemming primarily from its function as a social indicators service. Uppermost is the task of data synthesis in moving from a profusion of atomistic information to a reduced set of more coherent and manageable indicators. And, out of this comes a second major problem, that of maintaining overtime continuity of such indicators from one survey period to another.

While the problem of data synthesis is not new, it has certainly found its greatest application in social indicators research. I am referring here not so much to what is sometimes called "data reduction" -- i.e., the selecting out of effective items from ineffective, and hence dispensable ones -- but rather to the task of constructing the most valid and reliable indices possible from combinations of items. It is precisely this indexing function which gives the social indicators approach its uniqueness and advantage over ordinary opinion polls. A composite index, after all, is designed to provide greater statistical reliability than any single question; plus, the compositing process itself tends to foster a greater depth of understanding as to the nature and limitations of the measures one is working with. This latter point cannot be too heavily emphasized, since the meaning and meaningfulness of indicators relied upon in this kind of research must be as thoroughly investigated as possible.

Aside from technical considerations, the need for data synthesis also derives from the kind of audience being addressed by such research. Corporate managers should not have to be research professionals in order to make sense out of CP data. Synthesized indicators can provide a valuable stepping-stone for turning data into findings -- thereby enhancing both the quality of analysis and the clarity of its presentation. This would be equally the case if one's audience were legislators, public administrators, or whomever.

Care must be taken, of course, to assure high quality in the indicators that are developed; and, for this a variety of statistical aids are now widely available (factor analysis, clustering techniques, multidimensional scaling, etc.). But quite often researchers have hesitated to call upon such procedures because of their relative sophistication and a fear that clients would find the results obscure or somehow untrustworthy. However, my own experience indicates that this concern is largely ill-founded, with much depending on how one goes about incorporating such sophistication into the analysis. Business people want to know how the data speak to their particular problems and needs, without having to wade through a morass of statistical mumbo-jumbo. It is important, therefore, to forego the academically inherited penchant for formal authentication, and to take a more positive posture in the use of synthesized indicators.

This does not mean, of course, that statistical fine-points may be ignored behind the scenes, as it were; and, this brings us to another aspect of the use of composite indicators. This is the problem of maintaining continued validity and reliability of such measures over time. The classic issue in this regard is whether measurement structure remains the same over successive tracking periods. Or, stated more simply, whether the same sets of items still "fall together" or otherwise satisfy the criteria which initially justified their being combined into specific indices. As events progress, it is only natural that attitudes and issues will evolve and change their configurations. New demands arise, old ones fade. Broad issues take on different specific manifestations, and so on. Only a few years ago, for example, a question about the desirability of selling grain to the Soviets would have evoked responses based primarily on anti-communism sentiments, and thus perhaps qualifying as part of a "trade-with-communist-nations" indicator. However, the mounting pressures of inflation plus the somewhat infamous wheat deal with the U.S.S.R. two years ago have sharply altered the situation. Now, the meaning of such a question is undoubtedly more aligned with the extent to which individuals feel that foreign grain sales would create (more) unwelcome pressures on food prices in this country.

While the re-structuring of public demands and issues can be troublesome for measurement continuity, it is also one of the more important matters upon which a well-conceived research program of this sort can provide information. In this sense, then, the ongoing validation of indicators is more than just a job of fine-tuning or statistical finesse. It can offer extremely useful insights on the substantive side of things, as well.

The Policy Process: Putting It All Together

The discussion so far has centered mainly on certain methodological problems in doing research into public demands on business. In these concluding remarks, however, I want to shift attention toward the theoretic level and specifically to the question of how information gathered in this kind of endeavor can be integrated into a meaningful picture of the policy process as it affects business. It is sufficiently challenging to try to identify and track salient public issues from their incipient stages all the way to their being converted into formal regulatory policy. But, there remains a further and ultimately more critical challenge -- that of unraveling the paths and mechanisms through which the process of public policy formation takes place.

Ideally, we would like to have a theoretically derived model of the policy process, and one from which predictive analysis could be waged. But then, who wouldn't? Lamentably, there is far too much complexity, as well as plain enigma, surrounding the translation of public sentiments into public policy to allow an easy rendering into "model" form. At present, scholars have had only modest success in depicting the inner workings of subcomponents of the policy process (Congress, political parties, elections, etc.), and have barely scratched the surface at higher levels of analysis.

Short of an actual theory or model of the policy process, however, it is feasible to establish a working paradigm. In the case of CP, the paradigm that has been adopted is, for obvious reasons, built closely around the central concerns of the business clientele. A key unifying element that comes from this is the concept of "maturation" of demands. This refers to the succession of stages through which public demands emerge, gain momentum, attract coalitions, and are carried (or fail to be.') into formal regulation. A primary objective of analysis, then, is to determine the degree of maturity of specific demands and hopefully provide some indication of future developments.

In terms of research strategy, this objective is reflected in two major facets of CP's design discussed earlier: 1) tracking over time; and 2) multiple target publics. Each of these elements taken alone offers important predictive advantages, but in conjunction they present a potentially powerful grasp of policy formation. There is not only the opportunity to view trend lines within the general public and within special and elite publics, but also to follow the patterns through which demands move from one major public to another within the broad policy process. This, it seems to me, is a large accomplishment and a valuable step toward realizing a more theoretically elaborate model of policy formation sometime in the future.

For the present, the goals are practical and limited, the approach heavily empirical. Gradually, however, as the CP project accumulates findings, experience is gained in interpretation. With this should come a corresponding growth in understanding of how public policy evolves. Of course, this growth of understanding will be very slow without more research along these lines being undertaken. There is a curious irony in the fact that research into public demands on business is itself at least partially an outgrowth of an important theme among such demands -- that for greater corporate responsiveness to the public good.

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