The Origins of Marketing Research

PembertonSq_ca1920_BostonHave you ever considered the origins of marketing research? Recently I’ve been pondering this. Some professions, such as construction, have been in existence since the dawn of civilization, meeting the basic human need of shelter. The (relatively) recent rise of the computer programmer marks its starting point in the early 1980s with the advent of the personal computer. But what about market research?

I did some digging in order to answer my question, which led me to a book entitled A New Brand of Business: Charles Coolidge Parlin, Curtis Publishing Company, and the Origins of Market Research by Douglas Ward. This book focuses on Charles Coolidge Parlin (1872-1942), who is recognized today as the “Father of Marketing Research.” Parlin worked for Curtis Publishing Company, which was one of the most successful and influential American publishing companies of the early 20th century.

The pivotal moment for creating formalized marketing research was when Curtis Publishing made a principle-driven choice to ban medical, cosmetic, financial, and cigarette advertisements—and thus their accompanying revenue—from its magazines. To make up for this lost revenue, the company adopted a smarter business approach that focused only on the company’s existing clients, which would allow Curtis Publishing to become experts in its clients’ businesses. This novel idea went as follows: if Curtis Publishing could better serve its clients, those clients could in turn benefit Curtis Publishing with increased advertising revenue. In order to do this, the company sought to learn as much as possible about each client’s profit margins, territories, possibilities for expansion, and competition. In short, Curtis Publishing needed a clear view of each client’s marketplace.

With this impetus, Curtis Publishing created the Division of Commercial Research (1911) right here in Boston in what was formally known as Pemberton Square and is now known as Government Center. This was the first marketing research organization in the United States. The company had the notion to move forward on logical and statistical rule rather than intuition, and it strived to gauge public sentiment, evaluate changes in consumer tastes, and turn consumer wants into corporate profits. This newly founded “market research” would eventually become “the rudder on the ship of modern corporate capitalism.”

Parlin’s studies at Curtis Publishing led him to remarkable conclusions that were not readily apparent otherwise. For instance, Parlin calculated the strong influence that women had over family automobile purchases and foresaw that the automobile industry needed to reduce the number of models offered. Insights such as these eventually led to increased—and smarter—advertising as companies attempted to stay ahead of the curve.

Interestingly, marketing research has the same purpose today as it did back then—it provides a way to improve marketing and business decision making. Parlin’s studies were typically hundreds of pages long with hand drawn charts, maps, and graphs bound in black or red leather with gold embossed lettering, and while we might do things a little differently now, we still need to create an informative narrative backed with charts and graphs aimed at getting to the heart of business decision making. Ever increasing amounts of information are available today, but distilling the most interesting and the most useful facts remains the ultimate challenge. I think Charles Parlin would agree, don’t you?

Matt Skobe is a Senior Data Manager at CMB. His passions include spending time with his wife and kids and mountain biking (day and night).

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