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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Underwear

The 2012 ESOMAR Annual Congress was held in Atlanta on September 9-12th, marking the first time this event has ever been held in the United States. The Congress was, in fact, an event filled with many firsts. I learned, for example, that Atlanta, the city in which I was born, also is the Zombie Capital of the World (I can only hope that there is no connection between these two facts). A number of the presentations also covered topics not addressed at previous ESOMAR events. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these was a presentation by McCann WorldGroup’s Dave McCaughan entitled “The History of Men’s Underwear.” There were trips to the Atlanta Zoo, dinners at the Atlanta Aquarium, and even a performance by renowned Hungarian concert pianist, Adam Gyorgy. It did not take long after I arrived to recognize that the 2012 Congress was going to be an event designed to mix serious discussions about research with serious fun.

There was, in fact, a great deal of serious discussion about research. An over-arching theme throughout the Congress centered on the future of the marketing research industry – how to fend off threats from social media, new technologies, and non-traditional competitors to ensure that market researchers get and hold a “place at the table.” Fred John of MasterCard, for example, asserted that “digital gurus” operating in a “digital world” are starting to take on many of the roles traditionally played by market researchers, because the latter increasingly are perceived as “old, slow, out-of-touch, and NOT COOL.” His call to arms was for market researchers to become the strategic voice of the consumer by selling our skills at “blending information and insights at both the local and global level.”

Several other topics received a lot of attention during the Congress, including the impact of mobile technology on market research, integration of data from social media with data from research, analysis aimed at understanding individual consumers in addition to analysis at the brand or market segment level, and new, emerging research tools and techniques. One presentation described a new technique that enables researchers to measure consumer emotional experiences by capturing muscle movements and facial expression via an application on a mobile device. Another talked about how a “social commerce engine” can be used capture data from multiple sources to develop a detailed understanding of individual consumers. Potential advances in and contributions of neuroscience got a great deal of play. One presentation showed how traditional eye tracking can be combined with electroencephalography to produce better advertising and product testing. Technology, data integration, and hybrid methodologies were discussed repeatedly and in considerable depth, showcasing some of the best work being done by researchers from around the world.

On behalf of Maritz, I had the opportunity to share results of our research on how insights derived from social media compare to those derived from customer and market surveys. Our research shows that comments obtained from these two sources show greater similarities than do ratings, and that social media and survey research clearly have a potential to tell different stories about consumer experience. My recommendation was to integrate these and other consumer and market data sources in order to develop the most comprehensive and solid perspective of the consumer experience.

All-in-all, ESOMAR put on a splendid event in Atlanta. I salute all the effort that went into planning and executing the 2012 Congress, and am grateful to have been a part of it.

Oh, and about that “History of Men’s Underwear” presentation… McCaughan’s message was that even the seemingly simplest of products evolves as a result of science, art, and social change: To understand today’s product, you have to know key events and societal changes that have preceded it. For example, the “athletic undershirt” was fairly commonplace during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Then, in a 1934 film entitled “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable removed his shirt to reveal a bare chest, and not long after, undershirt sales plunged by 75%. Those sales did not return to previous levels until the uniform requirements of World War II got men back into the habit of wearing undershirts. Whether there the above film scene and the subsequent decline in undershirt sales were actually correlated remains a subject of debate. The point is that factors other than features and functionality clearly influence how products are designed, produced, marketed, and consumed. Not exactly news, but a point worth remembering, and one that was entertainingly illustrated by Mr. McCaughan.