The Role of Qualitative Research in Making What the Customer Wants to Buy

ABSTRACT - Qualitative research has become an active topic in publications within and outside the field of marketing. Recent work overlooks its special role in implementing top management's charge to marketers to proactively tailor the firm's output to customer wants. Reasons for such an oversight are considered and aspects of qualitative research that have been neglected, or misunderstood, are discussed. Emphasized here is the exploratory function of qualitative research in obtaining information on the realworld conditions for which goods/services are designed.


Geraldine Fennell (1991) ,"The Role of Qualitative Research in Making What the Customer Wants to Buy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 271-279.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 271-279


Geraldine Fennell, Consultant


Qualitative research has become an active topic in publications within and outside the field of marketing. Recent work overlooks its special role in implementing top management's charge to marketers to proactively tailor the firm's output to customer wants. Reasons for such an oversight are considered and aspects of qualitative research that have been neglected, or misunderstood, are discussed. Emphasized here is the exploratory function of qualitative research in obtaining information on the realworld conditions for which goods/services are designed.


The number of monographs and articles published in the past few years that discuss qualitative research in marketing and in the social sciences generally attests to a growing interest in qualitative investigations (e.g., Advertising Research Foundation 1985, Cox and Higginbotham 1979, Durgee 1986, Fennell 1985, Goldman and McDonald 1987, Greenbaum 1988, Merton 1987, Wertz and Greenhut 1985, Yoell 1979). Moreover, the academic community's neglect of qualitative research, to which Calder (1977) drew attention, is beginning to be repaired and the status of qualitative research in the broader context of the scientific enterprise has been receiving attention in the work of consumer researchers (e.g., Hirschman 1989).

As yet, however, authors have neglected to consider marketers' essential reason for doing qualitative work. Authors, even those who write for the marketing literature, draw on mainstream social and behavioral science without screening constructs and formulations for relevance to a marketing application. In consequence, misunderstandings and misdirections for future managers have entered the literature, which, remaining uncorrected, may harm professional practice and impede developing an authentic marketing science. A statement of marketing's function and the place of qualitative research in implementing that function is necessary as a platform from which to evaluate not only concepts and formulations found ready-made in the mainstream but guidelines for professional practice that the literature may suggest.

This paper describes the systematic contribution of qualitative research to implementing marketers' role as society's provisioners, whether the customer is a consumer or a business. [As the following three excerpts show, early statements of the "marketing concept" leave no doubt that top management intended marketers to lead the firm in deciding the nature of its output (original emphases): (1) "It will be only after identification of (customer) needs that marketing people can take the lead for the business in determining what each function of the business should do by way of product and service to satisfy them" (Borch 1957, p. 387); (2) Mortimer (1959, pp. 3, 18) speaks to the behavioral implications of making what people are willing to buy: "Projecting our imaginations into the lives of our fellow human beings, challenging every product we are presently offering them, and every characteristic of that product, as to its suitability and worth...we must apply our creativeness more intelligently to people and their wants.., rather than to products;" (3) "Our attention has shifted from problems of production to problems of marketing, from the product we can make to the product the consumer wants us to make...(p. 35) and "Marketing plans and executes the sale--all the way from the inception of the product idea, through its development and distribution, to the customer purchase. Marketing begins and ends with the consumer. New product ideas are conceived after careful study of her wants and needs, her likes and dislikes. Then marketing takes the idea and marshalls all the forces of the corporation to translate the idea into product and the product into sales" (Keith 1960, p. 37).] In the immediately following- section, I consider why authors have so far overlooked the essential marketing grounds for conducting qualitative research. A section then follows in which the exploratory function of qualitative research is described. Finally, I consider a number of commonly discussed issues that may now appear in a new light, including (a) the notion that hypotheses may be tested by means of qualitative research, (b) using qualitative studies to "test" brand concepts/advertising messages, (c) the desirability of similarity/consensus among respondents when qualitative research uses group interviews, and (d) the point in the course of brand development when qualitative research should be undertaken.


The literature of the past couple of decades shows two contrasting views of marketers' responsibility for what is produced. [As I am discussing views found widely in the literature, it seems inappropriate to cite particular authors. Specific references are available in my files.] In the introductory chapters of textbooks, authors describe marketers' responsibility for ensuring that goods/services are responsive to customers' wants and desires as found. In the body of those same textbooks, and in new research and theorizing generally, investigators and theorists proceed as though marketers' point of entry occurs after the attributes of goods/services are largely in place, i.e., at a time when the task is to gain acceptance for an output that producers want to sell. It is particularly in connection with the former view, i.e., marketing as an activity that generates candidate attributes of goods/services from analysis of the world of prospective users, that a systematic need for conducting qualitative research arises. Accordingly, absence of an authentically marketing perspective on qualitative research may be seen as part of a wider issue within the discipline namely, two mutually exclusive views of marketing's role existing side-by-side, one of which receives lip service while the other pervades the mainstream. As background to the present treatment of qualitative research in marketing, I now briefly discuss the origin and implications of marketers' assignment to ensure that what producers offer reflects users' wants as found.


For simplicity here, consider that the producer's decision about what to make may proceed according to- one of two models (e.g., Smith 1956). Producers may offer variants of a particular kind of output (1) without regard to or, (2) in response to, the heterogeneous (segmented) nature of preexisting demand. As discussed in the "marketing revolution" writings of the 1950s when marketing was distinguished from selling, top management and professional marketers regarded the second alternative as the essence of the marketing concept. As Keith put it: "Our attention has shifted from the product we can make to the product the consumer wants us to make" (footnote 1.3).

Operationally, this means that the marketer starts with the user's world, selects a behavioral domain for study and, within that domain, identifies characteristics of contexts for action, which s/he then employs to generate candidate attributes for a brand. For example, a producer of laundry detergent, dog food, or office equipment, needs to know about the circumstances--psychological and nonpsychological--in which laundering, feeding the dog, and performing office tasks, respectively, occur. Here, the requirement is for a differentiated understanding of prospective contexts for action within activity domains. There is a widely-repeated mistaken belief that the marketing concept implies that marketers should ask people to state the kind of goods/services that they want (e.g., Belk and Zhou 1987, Bennett and Cooper 1979, Hayes and Abernathy 1980, Oxenfeld and Moore 1978, Park and Zaltman 1987). One or two experiences of asking prospective users to describe the kind of soap, dog food, or office equipment that they want are enough to banish the idea of using such an approach. In fact, as early statements of the marketing concept show (see footnote 1), top management was aware that marketers would have to obtain information about the context for the activities in conjunction with which people may use goods/services, from which marketers would then generate desirable attributes to be designed into brands.


To lay the ground here for later discussion of the role of qualitative research, let me outline the research approach that top management's charge to marketers implies. In a naturally-occurring population e.g., US residents, (Figure 1[a]), a marketer distinguishes prospects and nonprospects (Figure 1 [b]). Prospects are individuals who engage in a focal activity, e.g., "do laundering," "communicate findings of a study to a large audience within the firm." To allow for variation within an individual over time in the context in which an activity takes place, it is advisable to think of the focal universe as consisting of occasions, rather than individuals, and to specify the time frame. Accordingly, the outer limit of a market-as-defined may be stated as, e.g., occasions for engaging in the focal activity, in the US, in calendar 1990 (Figure 1[c]). Within such an arena, the marketer identifies the naturally-occurring segments of demand (Figure l[d]), and selects one or more for targeting (Figure l[e]). For these purposes, business has used the two-stage, qualitative quantitative, research approach known as market segmentation analysis. In qualitative investigations, marketers start by asking prospects to speak, not directly about their wants, or about their reactions to existing goods/services, but about what they know at first hand namely, their experiences of engaging in a focal behavioral domain. Respondents supply information about the psychological and nonpsychological context in which they engage in the focal activity. Marketers use such information to write items for large-scale surveys that quantify incidence, in some relevant universe, of the elements thus identified. Subsequently, the findings are used to select a segment of demand for targeting, including designing a brand with segment-appropriate attributes (the positioning decision). [Inasmuch as they recurringly allocate resources to keeping their brands in existence, producers address the positioning decision on an ongoing basis for all their brands. The essential structure of the producer's task is unchanged whether s/he is considering allocating resources to a new brand, or to continuing an existing brand in its present or modified form. Typically, producers are aware of, or actively considering, candidate variants of their current strategy, including candidate alternative formulations. Accordingly, with alternative uses for their resources, even maintaining last year's program unchanged implies a decision that the current brand in its current formulation is the producer's best strategy for securing a share of exchanges.]



To summarize to this point: In the decade of the 1950s, top management distinguished what and how aspects of producing goods/services, and assigned to marketers the responsibility for answering the question: What shall we make? Specifically, marketers were to obtain information on the state of want-satisfaction in order to lead production management (e.g., manufacturing and R&D) in tailoring output accordingly. It soon became clear that to implement this assignment, marketers would need to ask prospective users to describe the characteristics of contexts for action corresponding to a particular class of output (e.g., laundry detergent, office equipment), some version of which the firm offers (or plans to offer).


Qualitative research has a role in marketing that arises directly from the behavioral implications of the marketing concept. Perhaps because the marketing concept itself has been largely misunderstood in the literature, authors have overlooked qualitative research's role in implementing it: To bring into the firm information about the actual elements that give rise to wants in relevant behavioral domains (e.g., corresponding to the firm's product categories). With regard to this exploratory function, [As noted elsewhere (Fennell 1985b, p. 547 note), researchers are exploring, not for constructs (Calder 1977), but for specific information about the real world.] qualitative work has had to proceed purely empirically. Its potential contribution is enhanced and its role is better understood when considered in conjunction with a model of the terrain that is being explored. Immediately following, I discuss its exploratory function, followed by its behavioral implications.

1. Exploring Focal Aspects of the User's World. Since a good/service relates to a particular, small, region of the total range of an individual's activities, it follows that a qualitative investigation is limited in scope to one or a few domains of activity.- Typically, the analyst defines a behavioral domain that is broader than the focal activity. If the focal activity is "communicating findings of a study to a large group," the moderator/interviewer may initially place on the table the topic of "doing one's job in a corporate environment." The reason is, insofar as possible, to allow the respondent's categories and frames of reference to emerge without their being influenced by a framework that the researcher imposes (Fennell 1985a). The objective of the investigation is to elicit the concrete psychological and nonpsychological--personal and environmental--elements that are present in the context for engaging in the focal activity. The status of each element that respondents contribute is unchanged by the frequency with which the element is mentioned. At this stage, an element that is mentioned once has status equal to one that is mentioned more often. Later, quantitative work ascertains the incidence in a focal universe of the elements that the qualitative phase has uncovered. Note that in qualitative work, the researcher seeks to identify relevant realworld facts. In quantitative work, the researcher seeks quantified information about (presumably) relevant realworld facts.

The exploratory objective of qualitative research is hard to realize in the absence of a model of the terrain that is being described. While it has been a useful tool, purely empirical qualitative research is a hazardous undertaking. Researchers lack guidelines relating both to the content and the form of the information that they seek. Regarding content, they find it hard to judge the comprehensiveness and possible redundancy of information that they obtain. A qualitative researcher may well ask: When have I fully explored a focal behavioral domain? How do I know that some vital element in the context for the focal activity has not been omitted--for any number of reasons: Its absence in the experience of the particular individuals who were my respondents, or their neglecting to mention it despite its actual presence in their experience --through forgetfulness, or some inhibitory event that occurred during the interview? Trying to guard against such eventualities, qualitative investigations sometimes grow in physical volume to unwieldy proportions, as indeed do the questionnaires for the subsequent quantitative phase, which are based on the qualitative findings. As to form, researchers must rely on the naive understanding of participants, project designer, and moderator, supplemented in the case of the professionals by on-the-job learning. In contrast, taking a position on what the relevant classes of entities are (e.g., occasions for action), a model articulates issues for researchers.

2. Behavioral Implications. Even when it proceeds on a purely empirical basis, qualitative research in fact explores some region of behavior, presumably guided by common sense ideas about the information that is helpful to a producer in deciding which kind of demand to respond to. Such implicit ideas may be articulated as follows. "Making what the customer wants to buy," or "responding to user wants as found," means the following: At the moment when a producer considers allocating resources to producing and offering some output, [Or, at the moment when a marketer begins to investigate an aspect of the real world in order to recommend how productive resources should be allocated.] people are proceeding with their lives outside the marketplace. They are engaged in certain kinds of activities that they attempt to perform whether or not the producer's offering is available. Already-existing conditions have allocated people's resources in certain ways, specifying the tasks and interests that occupy them. Looking for a return on investment, producers and the marketers who guide them seek profitable opportunities to invest productive resources in order to participate in (some of) these activities that are already ongoing. They ask: Is it possible to identify some output, which a producer can profitably offer, that customers (on some occasions) will find competitive with their present options--enough that they are ready to spend resources for the right to use it? Information about the context in which people engage in relevant activities helps producers to formulate the kinds of output that would be appropriate, in light of prospects' views of available options, and the producer's ability to profitably offer a competing option.


Accordingly, as a systematic framework to use in conjunction with a qualitative study, what is needed is a general model of the context for action-a model that is applicable across all substantive domains of human instrumental action. Cutting across product categories, the common element that needs to be modeled is one occasion on which an individual may consider acting. This is because a producer's eventual offering is a brand of good/service that succeeds or fails depending on how it performs on the individual occasions when people try to make environmental impacts, e.g., try to remove soil from clothes, communicate study findings to a group. An appropriate model is one that represents personal and environmental elements of the context in which people try to act. For illustrative purposes here, let me use an abbreviated version of a model of action discussed at greater length elsewhere (e.g., Fennell 1988). Three components of the context for acting are shown in Figure 2. Personal and environmental elements combine to allocate an individual's resources in a particular way (Figure 2[a]), specifying both the domain (e.g., providing information for an upcoming decision) for instrumental acts/objects, and the criterion for a desired outcome; from the internal and external environment, the individual generates candidate acts/objects (Figure 2[b]), orders them (if more than one) and judges cost-worthiness, possibly selecting one to try to enact; upon acting, the individual evaluates the outcomes (Figure 2[c]) against-the criterion that the resource-allocating conditions specify.


With such categories in mind, a researcher may direct a qualitative investigation systematically, to obtain information on the concrete-psychological and nonpsychological--elements that are present in the context for a focal activity in some spacetime region of the real world. A more differentiated version of the model gives a qualitative investigator more finely grained guidance. For example, Fennell (1978) describes seven classes of resource-allocating condition, reflecting qualitatively different kinds of motivating conditions that experimental psychologists have used. In the case of a focal activity such as "communicating findings of a study to a group," the general classes of Figure 3 may manifest themselves along lines such as the following:



Is the prospect working under extreme pressures of time? Amount of material? Facing a mixed audience of generalists and technical types? [1]. [Numbers in square brackets refer to the classes of Figure 3.] Is the prospect concerned to be viewed as: Favoring substance over form? Being at the frontier of communicative technology? Knowing that appearance is more than half the battle? [2]. Does the prospect perform this task as a routine matter, viewing it as requiring minimal investment of time and thought? [3]. Is the prospect a student of inner workings? A technology-freak in thrall to bells and whistles? [4]. Is the prospect an aesthete, who sees an opportunity to create beauty in every task undertaken? [5]. In addition to experiencing one or more elements such as the preceding in the context for performing the focal activity, is the prospect: Concerned about cost? Waste? Intimidated by machines? [6]. Familiar with all available aids to presentation, yet dissatisfied in that none helps achieve certain important effects? [7]. In keeping with long-standing marketing research practice, a qualitative investigator does not introduce examples that the classes of Figure 3 suggest until respondents have an opportunity to articulate their individual perspectives.

A set of motivation classes helps researchers to probe neglected topics and to identify among respondents' utterances those that are alternative ways of stating the same underlying motivational perspective. More generally, a model of the behavioral terrain that a qualitative investigator explores makes the task more orderly, easing concerns about comprehensiveness and redundancy. Experienced managers may be heard to say: 'There's never a shortage of ideas about customer orientations, but knowing which ideas are similar and different in some fundamental way is a problem." It is a problem that only theory can help solve.


The idea of conducting qualitative research guided by a conceptual model helps to clarify the systematic role of qualitative research. Assume there exists a comprehensive, optimally differentiated, general model of human instrumental action. By definition, such a model comprises concepts that abstract across disparate realworld psychological and nonpsychological elements and events. As such, the model is not immediately meaningful to a producer whose offering must respond to conditions that exist (on at least some occasions) in one particular behavioral domain. To be useful to a producer, the model's constructs must be rendered concrete for a specific realworld application. For example, the formal components of a single occasion of an activity (Figure 2[a,b,c]) are equally applicable to the following activities: "doing the laundry," "feeding the dog," "communicating the findings of a study to a large group," yet different substantive elements--psychological and nonpsychological--are implicated in each case. At present, using qualitative research to search for these elements, marketers proceed in a purely empirical manner.

We may understand the systematic role of qualitative research as follows. Science makes natural processes available for human use by representing those processes in a manner that reflects their inherent order. To do so, it creates constructs that abstract across apparently disparate elements and events. If order has been found in human instrumental action, a general model represents the context for acting by showing relationships among theoretically distinct classes of elements. Its classes (e.g., the components of Figure 2 or more finely-grained versions) apply equally to all instances of action, regardless of substantive domain. However, the model's abstractions are not immediately useful to a producer who plans to participate with a user in his/her realworld acts in some focal domain. A producer's task is to help a user achieve an environmental impact in the particular realworld conditions that constitute the occasion for a single act (e.g., getting a particular load of laundry clean, given the clothes' particular kind of use and soil, fabric construction, kind of water supply, water temperature, washing equipment, the launderer's subjective understanding of the act and available options). For a producer's purposes, the process of abstracting, which gives science its generality and power, must be reversed to retrieve the concrete, realworld properties of the individual occasions on which a producer's offering may or may not deliver satisfaction. Accordingly, whether implemented by analysts working at their desks and/or by researchers using respondents as a source of information, qualitative work identifies the particular elements present in the context for realworld events. As such, it is an essential component of any realworld intervention. It answers questions of what--what are the specific, concrete elements that must be taken into account if a particular realworld intervention is to be successful?



It remains to be seen whether it will always be necessary to use individuals who engage in a focal activity as a source of qualitative information, or whether a marketing analyst may rely totally on his/her ability to generate likely realworld elements using only a conceptual model. At present, in advance of conducting qualitative research, it is advisable for a marketing analyst to use a conceptual model to generate such likely realworld elements. Moreover, a marketer may use a general model of action in the same way, prior to discussing brand strategy with production management (e.g., manufacturing and R&D). The model permits the marketer (i) to specify the different kinds of contexts in which the focal activity may arise, and (ii) to ask the production people to discuss in each instance, (a) the kinds of productive responses that are feasible with present and foreseen technology, and (b) the likely competitive environment. Such preliminary interfaces with production management may narrow the scope of subsequent qualitative investigations, in the event that technological or other considerations enable a producer to rule out, up front, responding to certain classes of user-circumstances within a focal activity domain.

In sum, qualitative research is conducted to identify concrete psychological and nonpsychological elements that exist in a particular behavioral region of the real world. Producers need such information if they are to tailor output for actual conditions in which it could be used. Although qualitative research may proceed in a purely empirical manner, it is unsatisfactory that it should have to. Marketing scientists must construct formal representations of the behavioral terrain that managers use qualitative research to explore. They must also have regard to unpacking an abstract model of that terrain to help managers systematically investigate the personal and environmental contexts in which people pursue their tasks and interests.


Let me discuss briefly some common misperceptions relating to: (a) the contrasting roles of qualitative and quantitative research, e.g., using qualitative research (i) for hypothesis-testing, (ii) to identify hypotheses for testing in a subsequent survey, and (iii) to "test" (i.e., select) brand or advertising concepts or messages; (b) intragroup similarity and consensus when group interviews are used for qualitative research; (c) what constitutes meaningful information, including implications for the appropriate timing of qualitative investigations in brand development, and marketers' professional role.

(a) Qualitative/Quantitative. It is often said that researchers use qualitative research to (i) test hypotheses, or (ii) formulate hypotheses for testing in subsequent quantitative work: (i) Considering the exploratory function of a qualitative investigation, the question of hypothesis-testing does not arise: The research is conducted to identify qualitatively different elements that constitute the context for a focal activity in some realworld region of space and time. If the researcher knows, going in, of some element that occurs in the context for the focal activity, which no respondent mentions in a particular investigation, it is not appropriate to say that the findings failed to confirm a hypothesis that the particular element occurs in the context for the focal activity. Moreover, if a question arises whether or not that element is to be included in a subsequent quantitative phase, the answer will likely depend on considerations other than its failing to emerge in a qualitative study. (ii) The role of subsequent quantification is not to "test hypotheses identified in the qualitative phase" but, in some focal universe, to establish the incidence of elements identified in the qualitative phase. (iii) Similarly, a qualitative investigation is not properly used to select a brand or advertising concept. By definition, qualitative research is not intended to ascertain degree of liking for candidate brand or advertising concepts. In sum, qualitative (what?) and quantitative (how many?) research do not lend themselves to interchangeable use.

(b) Intragroup Similarity/Consensus. A couple of issues need to be disentangled regarding the similarity of members selected for a group interview. A universally necessary element of similarity among respondents assembled for an exploratory group interview is the recruiting qualification--usually stated as engaging in the focal activity as defined (Figure l[c]). As the need arises and common sense dictates, it may be advisable to conduct separate sessions of qualified respondents, should the researcher believe that the presence, in the same group, of individuals with certain (perceived) characteristics or attitudes may impede disclosing personal perspectives. It would not be in keeping with the exploratory function of qualitative research to expect, or to try to secure, consensus or common voice among group members. A comprehensive description of the circumstances in which individuals perform the focal activity is the research goal. If qualified respondents are interviewed in a group, rather than individually, it is mainly due to the belief that the informational objective is furthered because the presence of others helps each respondent to recall his/her own experience of engaging in the focal activity, thus resulting in a high/yield of information per interview hour, compared with individual interviews. [Note, in contrast to Fern (1982), I am discussing qualitative research that is used, not to "generate ideas," but to provide information on concrete elements--psychological and nonpsychological--in the context for engaging in the focal action.] With the qualifying characteristic, i.e., engaging in the focal activity, as the main feature in common among group members, heterogeneity as regards contextual features of the focal activity is expected and consistently obtained. From such heterogeneity, as quantified later, the analyst may define homogeneous segments of naturally-occurring demand. It would be inappropriate to try to find homogeneity while conducting a group interview, if only because the investigator's information is incomplete, until the exploratory task is finished.

Moreover, in some writing on focused group research, it seems that authors envisage group interviews-being conducted among respondents who are similar on features additional to the screening qualification of performing the focal activity. Perhaps authors have in mind groups who share demographic characteristics such as age (teens, seniors), or race (blacks, hispanics). For whatever reason, a decision has presumably been made to define the producer's focal universe as consisting of such a demographic class. For example, considering Figure 1, the marketer starts at 1[a] by considering a population of black US residents. Moving to 1[b], the marketer defines prospects as blacks who engage in the focal activity. Once again, as regards characteristics of the context in which respondents experience the focal activity, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity is expected and consistently obtained. There is no reason to expect that teens, or seniors, or blacks, or hispanics, are homogeneous in regard to their experience of "doing the laundry," "feeding the dog," "communicating the findings of a study to a group." At our present stage of social enlightenment, it goes without saying that members of demographic groups are not clones of each other. The objective of qualitative work is to uncover the concrete elements of individual experience in regard to a domain of activity. Trying to impose or to find homogeneity in an exploratory investigation defeats its purpose.

(c) Meaningful Information. Textbook examples often describe "qualitative" research that seems to have been conducted to obtain reactions to existing or candidate goods/services, brand concepts, advertising messages, executions, in a word to some stimulus that an analyst/researcher presents to weakly characterized subjects or respondents. If the study fails to articulate the characteristics of the circumstances that respondents have in mind as they react to the test stimulus, it is impossible to retrieve information about the qualitatively different kinds of contexts, within and across individuals, for such reactions as the respondents provide. Failing to characterize respondents independently (e.g., in terms of Figure 2[al) of the attributes of the test stimulus, its content is, essentially, uninterpretable.

Marketers use the focal activity as a basis for defining prospects and qualifying respondents. But, knowing only that the customer engages in the activity of "communicating the findings of a study to a group," a producer lacks information that can guide designing output for a prospect's particular circumstances. Similarly, hearing that a respondent wants audio/visual equipment that can "do many different things" leaves a producer without useful information. Such a remark may be offered by respondents speaking from a variety of perspectives (e.g., considering the seven motivation classes, minimally, from the perspectives of classes 1, 2, 4, and 5--see discussion accompanying Figure 3), with differing implications for brand strategy. Elsewhere I have noted that the problem here traces to the motivational ambiguity of product benefits/attributes (Fennell 1978).

In this connection, consider Axelrod's (1975 p. 6) characterizing qualitative research as a chance for clients to put themselves: "in the position of the consumer and to be able to look at his product and category from her vantage point." Authors have failed to appreciate that tapping the customer's "vantage point" in a way that is useful to a producer requires first ascertaining the characteristics of that vantage point, i.e., the substantive elements that are present in the context(s) in which the prospective user engages in the focal activity.

Appreciating the customer's "vantage point" means obtaining information about the various kinds of resource-allocating conditions that prospective users experience (Figure 2[a]), and the options (Figure 2[b]) and outcomes (Figure 2[c]) that prospective users consider as they try to perform their tasks and pursue their interests. A study that obtains reactions to candidate offerings, without also obtaining information on the kinds of resource allocating conditions that may be present in a respondent's mind while reacting to the test stimulus, provides a producer with information that is systematically flawed.

Stage of Brand Development. Closely related to the previous point, the mistaken idea seems to be widely accepted in the literature that the time to design a qualitative investigation is following management's decision to introduce a good/service, when the objective is to obtain information to help sell the item. Over the occasions for performing a focal act such as "communicating the findings of a study to a group," whether within one individual or across individuals, the context may vary to include one or more orientations such as those mentioned earlier, or indeed others. In such elements are found the criteria for a brand's successful performance. In order to make what the customer wants to buy, it is imperative that, as the first step in brand development, a producer have good information about behavioral contexts. That is the simple managerial wisdom with which top management intended to inaugurate a new era of professional marketing when it formulated the marketing concept in the 1950s. From top management's perspective, it makes no sense for production management to design some version of a product just because the capability exists, without first becoming informed of the characteristics of the contexts in which that class of output may be used, and customer perceptions of their currently available options. Nevertheless, statements such as the following appearing in the marketing literature suggest what is being taught to future managers:

"Management has determined the ideas which are most attractive from a business standpoint, and now has to understand how a given idea should be positioned so as to appeal to prospective buyers."

Quite simply, management does not know that its ideas are "attractive from a business standpoint" until it knows if its ideas "appeal to prospective buyers." Before production management commits to a particular direction for brand development, it makes sense to acquire the requisite information about prospective users' worlds, since the conditions pertaining there ultimately determine the fate of management's investment. Exploratory qualitative research is professional marketers' method of opening the door to the necessary information.

Organizational issues. Moreover, marketers, not production management, were to be responsible for selecting the kind of demand that the firm's output would respond to. Asking marketers to explore ways to gain acceptance for an offering to whose existence they had no input is directly at variance with top management's charge to marketers to lead the firm in choosing the kind of demand to respond to. Acquiescing, marketers abdicate their essential professional contribution. Accordingly, authors should not leave the impression that it is appropriate for marketers to conduct qualitative research in order to learn how to sell a good/service in whose conception they had no part.


When they articulated the marketing concept in the decade of the 195( s, top management nominated marketers to be the in-house source of information on the customer's perspective. It became marketers' job to obtain information on the concrete conditions--psychological and nonpsychological--in which people find their resources allocated to making adjustments. The systematic role of exploratory research in implementing the marketing concept has been neglected for too long in the literature, an oversight that the present paper begins to repair.


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Geraldine Fennell, Consultant


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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