The movements arising from the 2020 George Floyd incident had a palpable impact on brands and industries in the US. It also illuminated an omnipresent tension that exists in market research between the people who work in the space and the consumers their outputs are meant to serve.
On one side, marketers and researchers have called for more consistent inputs from Black and brown consumers. On another, research departments and companies have put out a call for more multicultural researchers to join our ranks and provide nuance, expertise and a critical perspective to our research outputs.
In many cases, the debate centers on which of these “solutions” should be implemented first. However, the key, unstated issue underlying both of these tensions is the increasingly skeptical mindsets of Black and brown consumers (and perspective candidates). Many multicultural groups, Black consumers especially, may or may not know how market research works, may be jaded by the process, or may inherently distrust anything a research group or institution may try to convince them to be a part of. At the same time, these consumers tend to be the loudest, often demanding the most from brands and expecting companies to to do a better job of understanding who they are.
This presents a perplex set of problems to solve for:
- How can an industry with a well-documented dark past convince more multicultural consumers to participate in market research studies?
- How can we ensure that the people on the team examining the research have the right depth in diversity & experiences to properly account for cultural nuances when analyzing the outputs of the work?
- How might we remake ourselves into an industry that Black and brown consumers want to be a part of more readily in order to develop the equitable innovations and messaging strategies they they deserve?
- More than anything, how can we ensure that multicultural researchers and consumers feel safe, supported, and taken care of at every touchpoint?
The distrust between research and multicultural consumers is palpable. At this point, it is well known that most research findings in the US have historically been based/ built around white men. This has resulted in the development of products (Hand Soap), systems (BMI , Medical System) and innovations (Autonomous Cars) that do not always work for all parts of the population thanks to research biases, inequities and blind spots.
Insights in Color (IIC), a minority owned brand, has been asked to solve for some of these issues. Some suggestions have included writing pieces or developing campaigns to promote the industry and encourage more BIPOC participation and others have suggested the development of a multicultural panel for brands and agencies to utilize when seeking diverse inputs (a perspective that should be a part of every single research project).
The ideas are sound, and the suggestions are warranted — but at what cost? It is presumed that having IIC as the source of such innovations would equate to immediate success due to the amount of trust typically attached to Black, woman-owned platforms. However, what is not being considered is the responsibility IIC would have for the groups of people it is meant to bring along the market research journey.
It’s one thing to change the narrative and to destigmatize market research, but it’s another to fully consider the people involved and the communities that might be impacted by the outputs of such a platform. Even if IIC could to help bridge such a gap, what guarantees could be made for what the information would be used to do? How could this type of access be adequately policed? Most importantly, how could IIC ensure that the outputs would be used for good?
For the sake of argument, let’s say IIC did build a consumer insights panel. For us to even begin to moving in this direction, the market research industry would first need to have a formalized system of rules and ethics put in place to shape the way we gather and use the insights of marginalized groups. These rules and ethics would need to be nationally recognized and institutionalized for brands to adhere to or be subjected to fines for not doing so.
We know that when it comes to regulations around data and insights, the US is highly unregulated- at least for now. But, hypothetically speaking, let’s explore what some key rules & considerations might be for an IIC-run multicultural consumer panel.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Any innovations, or messaging outputs determined by the outputs of the panel would need to be fully credited, noting the IIC platform as the key source from which the information to create that messaging was derived from. This would mean that any ads, sayings, slogans/ messaging, or storytelling informed by the outputs of the panel would need to have the IIC Panel mentioned in a footnote across all media platforms.
It is incredibly ironic that so many people in this country spend the better parts of their educational careers learning the importance of noting sources for everything they write, but a money-making industry centered on research has no such obligations. This needs to change.
Developing a nationally recognized and legally enforced set of rules for citing or acknowledging where key insights were gleaned not only invites consumers to feel as though they are a part of the process, but it also lends authenticity and transparency to the organizations who do so- which we all know, ultimately leads to brand affinity and trust.
Additionally, for groups from which ideas are too often stolen, coopted, gentrified, commercialized and uncredited, this would be a way to ensure they feel seen and heard by the brands hoping to connect with them.
Wealth disparities for marginalized groups often impact their ability to access free time to even participate in market research studies. While
some may not be able to take off work, others may not be able to secure childcare at a cost that would feel worth it to even participate. Because of this, the IIC platform would automatically assume higher incentive fees for its panel members. This would help to ensure higher levels of participation, lower drop out rates, and instill confidence in panel members that IIC and participating brands truly value their inputs and understand their time constraints.
Additionally, it would be mandatory for a very small percentage of sales generated by the outputs of the panel to go back to the source in
the form of incentive bonuses: the people who participated in that company’s market research process.
This new way of thinking about incentives would be a more modern way for brands to pursue philanthropy and to engage in giving back and connecting with the community. It would also keep the platform alive and attractive to new joiners as, being a part of something where you have the potential to see ideas you’ve contributed come to life would make the panel something consumers want to be apart of.
A Do No Harm Clause
This one would be a bit more difficult to track, and would require a lot of lawyers in the room, but essentially, companies would have a legal obligation to not use the information received from the panel in ways that could negatively impact different groups. How ‘harm’ would be defined is still to be determined, but companies found guilty of doing so would be banned from the platform and fined.
Black and brown consumers are well aware of the brands that disproportionately target their communities- especially those responsible for negative health or environmental impacts. To ensure those brands can no longer do any further harm, they would be held legally accountable for any innovations, messaging or marketing of products/ services that could be detrimental to the health and survival of Black and brown groups.
Brands with a noted history of doing harm to Black and brown groups would not be allowed to access the panel in any way.
These are just some initial ideas that would be needed for IIC, or, in my opinion, any organization to ethically start or create an insights platform comprised of Black and brown consumers.
There is a lot of work to do to change the way BIPOC groups (especially Black consumers) perceive the market research industry. As market researcher myself, who has been in this space for more than 12 years, I still get messages from Black respondents who seek me to ask if the study they’ve been recruited for is indeed legit.
Even after trust mechanisms are put in place, there will be a need to somehow ensure these groups that the information gathered will be used for good and won’t be utilized to access parts of their culture that they feel are off limits to share with those who are outside of it.
While we can’t always control for how these outputs would be used, we can begin to think of a better, more standardized way forward for our industry. As AI continues to grow into a scary unknown, the institution of trust and believability will continue to be destroyed and rebuilt over and over again. It will be crucial for our industry, in the era of misinformation, to become a steady beacon of consistency and trustworthiness if we are to survive this next wave of what’s to come.
Given what we know about this space, what other rules & guidelines might we begin to try and consider for ethical diversity in market research?