The year was 1975. All across corporate America, a thin haze of cigarette smoke wafted lazily above the brisk clatter of typewriters. Correspondence was delivered by courier or snail mail. In many executive offices, a well-stocked bar was part of the furniture in case you ever needed a drink to work alongside your pen.
The 1970s would later be called ‘the Decade of Freedom’ — to date, the fullest simultaneous expressions of individuality, creativity, and culture. It encouraged endless forms of well-matched as well as wildly mismatched ideals, art, media, fashions and of course, consumer products. So it fits right in that it was also the dawn of consumer research. In those days, qualitative market research was largely unknown. Documented methodology that provided the necessary structure around market research was also in infant stages.
Most companies had never heard of, much less conducted a focus group. For those who had heard of the concept, the notion that a
study of consumer preferences helps pave the road to business and investor confidence was believable primarily to the extent that the researcher’s result agreed with the assumptions already made by the executive. But enthusiasm for the success stories that came out of focus groups created lots of momentum.
To help mark the 40th anniversary of Orman Guidance Research, Rosemary Sundin (Orman’s partner as of 1993 and owner of Orman Guidance since 2001) visited Al Orman for a backward and forward review of the Orman Story — what has changed — what must still change. Here’s the synopsis.
In July of 1975, Al Orman joined the entrepreneurial world of qualitative and quantitative research when he founded Orman Guidance Research, Inc., a full-service marketing research facility and service provider headquartered in the Minneapolis market.
Here is a bit of the origin of the company. Prior to founding Orman Guidance Research, Al Orman was a seasoned sociologist and research analyst, working for someone else’s company (it was called Tastest, a division of Swanson Associates).
Among Orman’s clients was a visionary and artist named Cy DeCosse. Orman and DeCosse traveled extensively together and followed the routine of road-warrior businessmen: finish the long business day with a late restaurant supper, and wind down at the bar, hashing over the day’s creative work.
One day, DeCosse asked Orman a question that changed everything: “Why are you working for someone else? It’s clear you are doing all the work.”
And so began the discussion around “talent erosion” — an academic term for the phenomenon that occurs when you are not bringing out your best, or the best in the people you’re working with. Orman and DeCosse agreed: talent erosion is less likely to occur if you are working for yourself. And the truth was, of course, Orman loved the idea of starting his own market research firm. But he also had a wife and six children at home and he was cautious about where to find the necessary start-up capital. DeCosse’s belief in Orman’s talent prompted him to provide the loan needed to create Orman Guidance Research.
Market researchers at this time struggled to navigate the unchartered waters of qualitative study. Al Orman recognized and fostered early a value proposition of ongoing excellence.
In his own words…
Orman’s business strategy centered around high-levels of actionable research outcomes and service that raised the standards in market research. Orman formed a team of research professionals that shared his vision and work ethic. Among them was Jane Burns, an experienced moderator and Orman’s colleague at Tastest. In that era of market research, few women were chosen for executive roles, but Burns’ motivation, skills, tenacity, and experience prompted Orman to make Burns his partner.
With the team of researchers that shared the vision of service to the marketplace, Orman Guidance Research achieved sustained success.
“We understood, people need to feel important to the company in order to do a good job, and in our experience you have to work with people, you have to have someone who can call up and keep people accountable. You have to keep working with people, challenging the process, aiming at the highest result. We were all important in that equation.” – Al Orman
That same pursuit of excellence kept Orman in business for these past forty years, and what will keep us in business for the next forty.
There is a learning curve, of course…
When it came to recruiting and consulting the right consumers, the Orman team learned quickly there had to be a rigorous step by step process that everyone had to follow to achieve the right result.
“[Consumers] had to be well-chosen so they could thoughtfully answer questions about what it good, what parts of the idea or product are a barn-burner, and what is not so good in a product or service – or a single good element in an overall bad idea – that kind of thing.” – Al Orman
Like any business, Orman had its share of mistakes. The key was taking responsibility for the missteps and learning from them.
“If people had complaints, we faced up to the complaints, and we tried to always do better going forward. We insisted on a process, we insisted on accountability, and we insisted on regular reporting. We demanded that of ourselves as well as the other folks we worked with. Our clients included.” – Al Orman
Ahh yes, the clients. Back then, the clients had to be tempered frequently. When the focus groups didn’t confirm the client’s already existing opinion, Al kept his distance, lest an angry researcher decided to tear him apart. It was just as important to remind clients that the favorable opinions of a few focus group participants weren’t necessarily representative of the entire county. That was always hard news to break. But as Orman raised the industry standard, everyone else began to understand and utilize qualitative research to a much greater degree.
As we enter our fifth decade, the Orman team of researchers and academics continue to demonstrate passion for consumer insights that signify actionable outcomes for our clients. As champions of this cause, we persist in the vision of an effective consumer engagement process that provides the highest level of intelligence and service — to carry us well into the next decades of our service — and beyond.