Henry Ford said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Ford's glib comment misses the marketing principle that drove his innovation – if he could make a cheap car, more people could afford to buy one.
Insight and market research exist side by side. Both are valuable. And to a greater extent that some realize, they are interdependent.
Steve Jobs is a more contemporary advocate of intuition. Like Ford, Jobs innovated in service of a basic marketing goal – if computers could be made simpler, more people would be willing to buy one.
Ford and Jobs are actually marketing icons, not non-believers. Both saw possibilities beyond what existed. They assembled technologies and talents to achieve a goal – a breakthrough product that demanded attention, fueled a desire and then fulfilled it. Marketeers Al Ries and Jack Trout would say Ford and Jobs followed the "immutable laws of marketing," not broke them.
Ford and Jobs were skilled at marketing how their products could change people's lives. A functional, affordable car translated increased personal mobility and freedom. A computer that didn't take a degree in rocket science to operate opened the door to unimagined creative opportunities. Making and buying cars for average Americans became a symbol for emerging middle class status. User-friendly computers enabled grandparents to talk face to face to their grandchildren dozens of zip codes away.
Too often, market research is reduced to gobs of data and sterile analytics. Good market research is much more than that. It reveals what people think, how they describe what they want and why they buy certain products and not others. Good market research is about people, not numbers.
A focus group of children playing with new toys demonstrates how insight and observable behavior can be viewed and assessed. Toy designers must have insight into what will appeal to childish eyes and observers at a focus group with multiple children and multiple toys can see which ones have the most appeal.
Market research can show that some creative ideas just don't work. That's not failure; that's avoiding an expensive mistake on a new product or advertising campaign.
Don't be lulled into the insight versus research debate. It's not a debate; it's a specious argument. Insight can be good. And it can be great if tested and tweaked.