“I Do Not Consider Myself a Pioneer”
6 August 2014
P&Ger Dr. D. Paul (Doc) Smelser (1894-1970) helped shape the world of market research. His extraordinary curiosity and single-minded focus on consumer understanding provided a mandate for the Company to know the consumer better than competition—a mandate that translated into business success beyond anyone’s expectations at P&G.
As the forerunner of the P&G adage “the consumer is boss,” Doc invented and embraced new research techniques, creating a whole new organization at P&G that is still considered an innovator and global leader in the market research industry today.
The following story—based on an interview transcript with Doc found deep in the P&G Archives—sheds some interesting new light on what our founder of Consumer & Market Research believed about the profession, and about himself.
It was August 29, 1962—a typical sweltering day in Tucson, Arizona—when Doc Smelser welcomed J.D. Henry, his successor at P&G, into his home for the interview.
Three years before, Doc had retired from a 36-year career at P&G in Cincinnati, where he’d built a strong reputation throughout P&G and the industry as a pioneer of what we know today as consumer and market research.
A P&G economist from Johns Hopkins University, Doc was a quiet but inquisitive man who, from early in his P&G career, “asked so many darn questions about our products that I was given the job of getting the answers.”
Like few others before him, Doc saw the enormous potential in bringing real consumer opinions and insights to bear on the design and development of our products.
From 1925 until his retirement in 1959, Doc built a Market Research team of several hundred—the first department of its kind at P&G. Less dependent on data and more dependent on dialogue, they went door-to-door across the U.S., spending hours in kitchens and living rooms listening to the moms who used P&G products every day.
They asked moms what they liked—and didn’t like—about our products. They became students of the everyday habits, challenges and preferences that permeated household life in the mid 20th Century. Then, they would take what they learned back to the office and say, “Here’s what we found out. Now go do something about it.”
Back in Tucson, J.D.’s bulky audio-recording equipment dominated Doc’s home office, but its imposing presence was necessary.
J.D. had come to record his conversation with Doc so he could play an excerpt of it at the upcoming 8th Annual Conference of the Advertising Research Foundation, of which J.D. was a member. There, Doc’s sage advice would be heard along with other market research greats in a key moment at the conference entitled Pioneer Voices.
After a few minutes of small talk, J.D. asked Doc the fundamental question he had travelled across the country to capture on tape:
“As an elder statesman in the market research field, would you care to give us a few opinions which you think might be of general value?”
Doc’s humble answer took J.D. somewhat by surprise.
“First, let me say I am deeply honored by your invitation. I do not consider myself a pioneer in market research. Pioneers generally knew their destination before they set out on their trips. I stumbled into mine.”
“Very good,” JD said, shifting into a somewhat unsatisfied posture. Doc went on.
“The most important reason for market research is that consumer habits and desires change rapidly, and manufacturers must continuously study the consumer. What was true last year—or even last month—is not necessarily true today.”
J.D. probed deeper. “Why should this work have to be done if a company has a good [R&D] department?”
“[R&D] can only tell us, for example, that Product X is superior to Product Y by 10% on a given characteristic. [Consumer and market researchers] want to know if the consumer recognizes this superiority—and even more important, does the consumer want this superiority. Many things which seem obvious in the laboratory are not at all obvious in the home, and vice versa.”
Doc went on to explain how, in 1931, he began to build P&G’s first door-to-door market research department from the ground up.
Comprised almost entirely of young females fresh out of college, the field research team members went through intensive training to prepare them for the job.
The training focused on instilling listening skills that gave the women an uncommon knack for drawing out insights from the moms they interviewed.
They learned how to see “those innocent ‘throw-away’ remarks that respondents make which, to an outsider, seem unimportant and are often overlooked—but which, if recorded, would prove to be extremely important.”
“Let me ask you this question,” J.D. said, intrigued by Doc’s hiring methods, which were highly unorthodox for that time. “What do you consider to be the basic fundamentals to have in order to be a successful market researcher?”
Using his fingers to count them out, Doc recited a list of fundamentals with confidence and precision:
- A sound academic background (and this has nothing to do with degrees, or even a course in marketing).
- A feeling for figures.
- An inquiring mind.
- A great curiosity to know what makes the wheels go round.
- A respect for facts.
- The courage to say, “I do not know how to do it.”
- The courage to make no change in the report.
- The ability to gain the respect of [senior management].
- Don’t ask for an increase in appropriation. Let the workload do that.
- Be willing to admit that a test was a failure from a technical standpoint.
- Be completely objective at all times.
- Don’t try to be judge and jury. Give the facts as they are found.
- If possible, keep the summary of the report to one page.
- Don’t use technical terms in a report—especially statistical terms.
After he finished, he paused, then said,
“Research is worthwhile because the finding of new things, of being alive, of being a spearhead in world progress, is always great fun.”
J.D. leaned back in his chair, looking pleased. “I think that’s the best quote I’ve ever heard about research. It’s really terrific.”
“I stole it,”
Doc said with a laugh,
“From a report which was written by a 33rd cousin of mine.”
We’re grateful for the wit, the wisdom and relentless spirit of curiosity Doc Smelser left with us. It’s a legacy that continues to guide how we make our products—and make them better—to touch and improve more lives.
And although Doc would disagree, we believe he was a true pioneer.
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