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Mark Ritson’s six superior forms of marketing intelligence

Technology & Data

Mark Ritson’s six superior forms of marketing intelligence


The ultimate resource for successful marketers is the right intelligence upon which successful strategies can be built, says Mark Ritson. Here are his six superior forms of marketing intelligence.

This article originally appeared in The Intelligence Issue, our April/May issue of Marketing magazine.


Intelligence is not, when you think about it, one of the most enduring traits of marketers. We’re famous for being slippery, conceited and manipulative, but rarely are we held up as the smartest people in the room.

There are, with the exception of the small army of marketers who work for Elon Musk, very few rocket scientists working in our discipline.

So, rather than look at intelligence as a trait of successful marketers, let’s examine it as a noun instead. Because the ultimate resource for any successful marketer is the right intelligence upon which a successful strategy can be built. I’m going to argue that there are six superior forms of intelligence that every good marketer learns to love. Let’s cover them one at a time.


Market orientation

MK0417 coverLess a research method, more a philosophy, market orientation is the fundamental realisation that you – the marketer – are the least qualified person to judge your product or service or marketing.

You work for the company. It pays your wages. Your ability to realise your website stinks or your product is overpriced is therefore inherently bogus.

Market orientation is the vacuum you will later fill with data. The ultimate humility of marketing. You are not the customer, so what you think isn’t just wrong, it’s plain dangerous.

It’s the reason good marketers do research – because they know they don’t know anything. It’s the reason bad Australian marketers think they can use their gut and past experiences as the basis for all their strategies without a dollar spent talking to customers.



There is no finer starting point for intelligence than ethnography. Officially it’s the method that came from anthropology and it means spending long periods of time immersed in the world of the consumer. But the unofficial definition is more telling – get your arse out of the office and spend a day in the life of your customer.

Hang out at the places and spaces where your product is sold, consumed and disposed. Retailers call it ‘walking the floor’.

One of my old CEOs, a billionaire to boot, called it being ‘street smart’. I can immediately identify the bad marketers because they have not been out into retail or with the sales force in over a year. Agency meetings in the office? Sure. Standing in the rain watching a guy buy a tyre from a sales assistant in Woop Woop? Never.

Ethnography is the place where market intelligence starts. And watch how you cut through a meeting when you quietly announce you were out in Woop Woop last week with Andy the sales rep for the region and what you saw blew your mind. And the more senior you become, the harder but more valuable the time spent in the marketplace becomes. We’ve had about 8000 marketing articles about big data in the last five years.

Try some small data first. Trust me. It’s a revelation.


Focus groups

I know they’ve become a bit of a cliché. But you still cannot beat a long morning behind the one-way glass watching a bunch of your target customers kick you repeatedly in the metaphorical knackers over and over again.

Well-run focus groups, especially coupled with a proper behavioural market segment, can give you more intelligence than any other method – qual or quant.

That’s provided you don’t let the dodgy bloke from the focus group company run your session for you. Pay him but then insist you run the group yourself. It’s not hard. And anyone who thinks you will bias the outcome is a) a moron, and b) has never run a focus group before. The best time to run focus groups is after you have a target segment identified and just before you are due to execute.

That’s the moment to recruit a bunch of targets into a room. Check your portrait of the customer is correct, check they truly think the way you think, validate your positioning and then test your new tactics with feedback from the actual market. Every second of this stuff is priceless.

You never get it right; focus groups are the calibration intelligence.


The big survey

The last five years have changed the face of survey research forever. The emergence of panel companies in Australia mean the cost, time and difficulty of doing good survey design have all dropped dramatically.

If you know what you are doing you can usually recruit and survey a representative sample of Australian consumers for less than $20,000.

Panels already have all the demographic data for their consumers on file, so you can save a bunch of questions and get straight into the meat of the questionnaire. Provided you avoid the ‘death by survey’ design of most moron marketers, you can create a complex analytical tool in 20 to 30 questions.

Four weeks is the turnaround time from start to having the data in Excel on your desktop. That kind of speed and cost means surveys should, on the back of some decent initial qualitative research, be the backstop of any marketing intelligence system.


Brand tracking

The ultimate signal of a decent brand manager is that they, somewhere about their person, have a decent
bit of quant data measuring the perceptions and purchase funnel of their brand from a representative sample of the target market that is less than 12 months old.

You can call that brand tracking, brand health measures or whatever you like. The fact that only about 20% of Australian so-called brand managers actually conduct an annual track tells you all you need to know about the state of modern marketing in this country.

A good brand tracker is a simple but super important thing. It tells you if your brand is facing issues with enough time to fix those issues before profits dip. It can show that you’re building a successful offer long before sales and profits start to climb, buying you time to rebuild the brand.

When you start to manage a brand with good tracking data it’s like discovering an altimeter after 10 years of flying a plane with a blindfold on. Always pump 5% to 10% of your annual marketing budget into an annual brand track. Yes, that cuts into your execution spend, but a chicken with a head on it runs faster. And in the right direction.


Net Promoter Score

Yes, NPS.

I know marketing professors and market research companies are dead set again NPS these days. That’s  predominantly because they’re both impractical, self-serving hypocrites and don’t want you measuring customers on your own without their ‘expert’ input.

Ignore their counsel when it comes to NPS. They’re probably right that it has a weak to non-existent correlation with future business growth. It matters not. NPS is a merciless data point, it has C-Suite understanding and it’s so simple you can use it to explain to a call centre team why they suck, how they can improve and how they will be re-measured.

Pound for pound, the NPS has changed the world of service satisfaction more than any other metric in the last 50 years. Just remember that there is no point comparing your score to anyone other than your competitors in your country; all other comparisons tell you nothing.

So there it is. You want proper marketing intelligence? I’d suggest you need to start with market orientation, then a bit of ethnography, turn the insights into a panel questionnaire and include NPS. A year later run your brand tracker to see if the strategy is working. You really don’t have to be too clever to generate great marketer intelligence – just humble, able and ready to listen.

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Image copyright: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Ritson

Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School. Tweet him at @markritson.

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