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When will The Apprentice take market research seriously?

The Apprentice has an inconsistent view of market research, Laura Finnemore investigates its potential in our latest blog.


Market Research has a bit of an image problem. We’re in need of a rebrand. We’re the ‘ones with the clipboard’. The ‘annoying people who call you just as you’re about to start eating your tea’.


And this opinion isn’t just perpetuated by the general public. There are people in business who have strong anti-MR opinions. Emily Eavis, the daughter and co-manager of the Glastonbury Festival, was once quoted as saying, “market research is death to everything”. A little extreme?


Karmarama founder Dave Buonaguidi has said, “Research can’t tell you what people want – if you give them what they say they want, they don’t really want it.” Even Lord Alan Sugar, the great business mind behind the Amstrad em@iler, said in his autobiography, “There was no time for this nonsense [ market research ] – I had to trust my gut instinct when it came to gauging what consumers would go for.”


Do any of these people actually know what research is? That it doesn’t just play a part in NPD work, but can be used throughout the product life cycle? Interestingly enough, Sugar’s TV project, The Apprentice, has a somewhat inconsistent approach to the role of market research. Some candidates are praised for ‘following the market research’ when they’ve only talked to a couple of people; others are chastised for acting on respondent feedback when a traditional focus group has been organised.
‘Bad market research’ is often thrown in as a reason for firing a candidate, when there’s only a few pounds to separate a winning side from losing one. Unfortunately, The Apprentice does nothing to help market research’s ailing image. There are no lessons learnt when the research is genuinely bad and no advice on how things could be done better.


For example:

  • In 2011, Melody was tasked with finding out whether French consumers would be interested in a child’s car seat. Her group decided to question 4 commuters at the Paris Metro Station – all of whom did not drive and therefore couldn’t see its use. The product was not selected for sale as a result and the team lost the task
  • However, in 2013, Jason chatted to five people in a cafe who seemed to really like his dating website concept ‘Friendship and Flowers’. He was later told ‘you should never just blindly follow the market research’
  • In 2008, when ice cream flavours needed to be tested, one of the teams arrived 30 minutes late to their focus group, found everyone had left, and so interviewed 2 drinkers in a local pub. They went on to win the task so their methods weren’t scrutinised
  • In 2011, during the biscuit creation task, an entire concept was scrapped because one member of the focus group said “I just didn’t like it”


Although The Apprentice purports to be a programme about business, it is very obviously just another reality entertainment show. However, it’s probably the best chance the market research industry has of being showcased on national television.


The programme is now in its 12th year and market research has come a long way in that time. Online methodologies are now ubiquitous, and it’s relatively easy and cheap to get the opinions of hundreds of people within a short period of time. If prototypes of new products dreamt up byApprentice candidates can be manufactured overnight, why can’t they be asked to put together a short survey to test a product or service at the concept stage?
Questionnaire writing and data analysis could be assessed, and decisions could be made on ( seemingly ) robust data. As a bonus, the general public would get a taste of a slightly more realistic process.


If you look through the agendas of conferences and other industry events going on worldwide about market research, there always seems to be some element of ‘innovation’ being discussed. We’re constantly trying to think up increasingly sophisticated, enjoyable and/or less intrusive techniques to uncover powerful insights for our clients.


To Joe Public, however, market research is still slightly sinister, or just too vague. If The Apprentice truly embraced the function of market research, we might be better placed to prove our worth, not only to those clients who are unfamiliar with our methods and processes, but also potential respondents too.
Laura Finnemore is a Research Manager at Allto Consulting