Marketing is an area that business and management students normally feel confident about. After all, everyone is surrounded by adverts and promotions and it is ‘simple’ to describe what is generally successful and what is not. However, marketing is not a topic that is generally handled well by students, either in examinations or coursework, as it is so easy to be generalised and unfocused with anecdotal information presented as ‘evidence’. This may explain why in the recent examination session, results may not have been as expected or student extended essays failed to achieve their predicted grades.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to make a number of posts that examine specific elements of market research and marketing in relation to IB requirements and tasks.

My first post examines market research, which is the lifeblood of organisations both large and small.  One major source of data comes from government survey and census results. All national governments collect data about the populations using a range of different techniques, but with the same aim in mind; that of identifying trends in behaviour and changing social activities. For private and public organisations, national statistics provide a hugely useful store of data for planning purposes, although this tends to be at a macro level, rather than providing specific information on individual or local wants and needs. As a result organisations will usually supplement this with a range of additional primary and secondary research to provide more information on specific markets and areas.

There were some fascinating articles in my national press over the last week related to the 70th anniversary of the Office for National Statistics (ONS); the UK Government’s Social Survey department. The ONS offers a snapshot of the UK, providing details on such topics as the environment and key statistics on health, levels of education and inequality in income.

Since 1941, thousands of researchers working for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have been dispatched to gauge opinions about a bewildering array of topics. To mark its 70th anniversary, the ONS highlighted one study from each of the last seven decades provide a fascinating, and sometimes shocking, social history identifying rapid changes in UK social attitudes and behaviour.

  • The first surveys were driven by the war effort. Amid fears of a steel shortage, the November 1941 Survey of ‘Foundation Garments’ asked 5000 women about attitudes to underwear. Ministers feared that parts needed for corsets might be contributing to a nationwide steel shortage and so asked statisticians to work out supply and demand. The survey even asked women when they first started wearing “supporting garments” and how frequently they washed them, in a series of deeply personal questions that would be unacceptable today. The report showed 7.8% of shop assistants wore boned suspender belts compared with only 2.1% of agricultural workers. The average number of supporting garments owned by women interviewed was 1.2.
  • A decade later in 1951, the Colonial Office undertook another sensitive survey, asking 1,800 people about their attitude to ‘coloured people’. The survey was one of the first focusing on ethnicity in Britain. The survey found that only half of respondents had ever come across someone from a different race, with just one in 10 of these counting them among their friends. Forty one per cent said they would “dislike letting a room to a coloured person if they had one to let”, while 27 per cent would not want to invite them home and 16 per cent would not want to work alongside them. “Antipathy to coloured people is probably considerable amongst at least one third of the population,” the report concluded.

Other key studies highlighted by the ONS included:

  • A 1961 study surveyed attitudes on aircraft noise at Heathrow Airport with 78% of respondents complaining that planes flying overhead made their television flicker.
  • The General Household Survey (GHS), launched in 1971 sampled 16,000 adults with an 85% response rate. The GHS became the first continuous household sample survey in the UK   The GHS helps provide a clearer understanding UK society and underpins national policy making.
  • An inquiry into women and drinking in 1981, prompted by concern over the amount women were drinking, found more than 70% of women drank fewer than five units a week. This compares favourably to present data which reports an average figure for women in 2011 of eight units a week; a unit being equal to a small glass of wine.
  • A 1991 looked at smoking among secondary schoolchildren with 16% of the 8,813 children surveyed between the ages of 11 and 15 admitting they smoked. 10% said they smoked regularly (one or more cigarettes a week).
  • With concern about HIV/Aids and underage pregnancies, a 2001 survey examined contraception and sexual health – not an area where a 1940’s government statistician would dare to venture – even if they were prepared to ask about corsets!
  • 2011 signalled a “wellbeing” survey of 200,000 who were asked to rate their “life satisfaction”. From April 2011, ONS has included subjective well-being monitoring questions on the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) to capture what people think and feel about their own well-being.

The questions asked were:

• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

IB Style Questions

1. Define the following terms:

  • market research
  • sample

2. Explain why governments conduct social surveys.

3. Analyse the advantages and disadvantages to firms of using secondary research.

4. Select two of the surveys conducted by the ONS described in this post and evaluate their value to commercial firms and NGOs.

Extension Activity

  • Visit the media centre on the ONS website and look through recent statistical bulletins and news releases.

    Read the news release on Internet access using a mobile phone

  • Prepare an article for the business section of a national newspaper, examining the implications of the report for the marketing plans of commercial firms.

  • Using this index examine the sites of two more statistical agencies. Select one survey or report and produce another article on the marketing implications of the data presented.