Since the beginning of the market research industry in the 1920s, non-white communities have been consistently overlooked. In its focus on finding and catering to the “Average Joe” consumer, the industry effectively constructed the mass market as a homogenized group of white middle-class American consumers. However, deliberately creating our “Average Joe” in this way follows the country’s long history of racial segregation and so excludes non-white people from mass consumer culture. We see this legacy today, as many important services like banking and insurance are less accessible to non-white consumers, and lack of market research representation can even impact how non-white consumers are marketed products and services. That is why incorporating ethnic and racial equity into market research is imperative for delivering high-quality consumer insights. To find the best way to conduct equitable consumer research in a meaningful and sincere way, we must begin by confronting the historical context of discrimination in market research—which relied upon and reinforced racial segregation in mass consumer society:
- When the first American advertising company was founded in 1869, it only marketed to a white audience.
- The Middletown studies conducted by the Lynds in the 1920s helped define the U.S. mass market. Their longitudinal study in Indiana sought to define the “average consumer” during industrial capitalism but focused only on a white suburban town.
- In the 1930s, the idea of a “nationally representative sample” emerged to simplify the national American consumer identity, but Curtis Publishing Company (an early consumer research group) left Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian respondents out of its U.S. sample. In this sense, market research treated whiteness as a requirement to be included in American consumer culture.
- Initiatives in marketing continued to be shaped by segregation. Throughout the 1920-1940s, there were separate newspapers and marketing which legitimized the Black consumer market as distinct from the “general population.”
- American market researchers have a difficult history to grapple with. And the industry continues to argue about the best way to conduct research that reflects and respects the diverse experiences of individuals and groups in society. Multicultural research is one option, which involves conducting research about ethnic groups that have different languages, social structures, behavior, and attitude patterns. Some believe multicultural research minimizes findings to surface-level consumer experiences without considering or redistributing power to historically marginalized groups, while others believe multicultural research can deliver products and services more equitably to consumers.
- Critically, multicultural market research tends to define various cultural markets in relation to the “Average Joe” consumer. This “othering” replicates the legacy of racial segregation still evident in the United States today. Market researchers are now scrambling to find more equitable ways to conduct research that doesn’t “other” a specific non-white group, but that still delivers thorough findings.
- In contrast, ‘intersectionally-equitable’ insights research actively centers on notions of societal power (in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality). Its goal is to create space for critical thinking amongst market researchers. Despite its value, this approach continues to be overlooked in most market research companies and their outputs because of tight reporting deadlines.
- In addition, many market research firms are largely white spaces, which can limit the ability and urgency to interpret data in a different way. This can make working at a market research firm less appealing to Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian researchers, which can result in our organizations being drained of the perspectives necessary for diverse thinking.
- In a world that allows consumers to define themselves and not just check a box, researchers are left with the challenge of learning how to interpret intersectional insights in a research discipline that tries to simplify findings. How do we shift our focus as an industry to consider intersectionality and power? Here are some important questions market researchers should ask at the start of a research project:
- How do ethnicity and race play a role in how the consumer uses this product or service? What other axes of inequality come to play (e.g., class, gender, or sexuality)?
- How does this consumer group want to be identified?
- Not making assumptions about Black American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian markets. For example, the Code Switch Podcast asked listeners to reflect on the term POC and BIPOC, and many felt it could erase individual experiences of Black Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian populations. Many preferred descriptive language about their ethnic and racial identity.
- Who is being assigned this project, and what is the power dynamic between the researcher and participant? How will the research benefit this consumer group
- Consider that a white non-Hispanic moderator can impact a response if a participant isn’t comfortable or feels misunderstood.
- How do we move away from symbolic representation in market research—by having a diverse sample—and deliver cultural insights, such as unpacking the difference between white and non-white participants, alongside other research objectives?
- How can we ensure our team is equipped to conduct and deliver intersectional insights or aware of its biases and limitations? What trainings should our organization hold?
- How can we implement new research methods while being sensitive to the potential negative outcomes they might have on a community? If researchers are not trained on proper data analysis and interpretation, they may produce inaccurate findings.
Equity-focused research cannot undo a hundred years of racist market research practices, but moving forward, we can begin by reviewing critical theory alongside our research methods. It is the responsibility of market research firms to identify inequalities at their institutions and find ways to deliver detailed intersectional insights to address the longstanding exclusion of Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian communities.