By Published on .

Looking back on his 48 years in the business, Burns Roper is relieved that the market research for the 1958 Ford Edsel never appeared on his resume.

Mr. Roper, 69, who recently retired as chairman of Roper Starch Worldwide's Roper division, Mamaroneck, N.Y., worked with Ford Motor Co. in developing market research from about 1945 till 1953. But in bidding for the Edsel account, Roper lost out to Columbia University.

His story of the Edsel's demise exemplifies his biggest pet peeve in the research industry-misuse.

In the case of the Edsel, "the research was used to make people believe something that wasn't true-not to design a product to meet consumers' tastes," Mr. Roper said.

Ford designed "a powerful, flashy car with a horse-collar grille" before doing any consumer study, he said. After the Edsel was designed, research found consumers wanted a "quietly styled, conservative, American-made, Mercedes-Benz-like vehicle."

Ford then tried to make consumers fit the car by marketing the Edsel as a conservatively styled automobile. It generated interest, but when consumers saw the car, they were disappointed.

Mr. Roper has played a pioneering role in a number of research industry landmarks, such as helping the fledgling TV industry get off the ground and refining the political exit poll. His father, Elmo, is credited with co-inventing the marketing and opinion research fields in 1935.

Mr. Roper helped develop Roper Reports, a 10-times-a-year opinion poll that explores public attitudes on political, social and economic issues.

The development of the TV industry showed what research could accomplish.

"There was a theory in the early days of TV held by the major players in the field that nobody wanted a big, naked eye looking at them," Mr. Roper said.

So, manufactures built TVs like cabinets, with doors that would conceal the screen. Roper client RCA Victor, , wondered why its TVs weren't selling. The company assumed cost was the problem.

Research found "people didn't mind the naked eye. What they did mind was having to move the chair on one side of the set and the piano on the other side to swing the doors back alongside the cabinet so that the rest of the room could see the TV," Mr. Roper said.

On the other hand, he cited new Coke as an example of research overkill and over-reliance.

"People shouldn't always follow the findings of a research study, whether it be a consumer products study or a political survey," he said.

Mr. Roper wasn't involved with research for new Coke but was in many industry discussions about the product's failure.

In several taste tests, new Coke beat Pepsi. But Mr. Roper said other studies have shown that sweeter products are often preferred initially.

In-house and outside research for Coca-Cola Co. failed because it didn't run "normal usage taste tests on consumers," Mr. Roper said. If Coca-Cola had tested about 5,000 consumers and gave them a case of the new Coke and came back in two or three weeks to ask them what they thought, a more accurate response would have been generated.

Mr. Roper's work with Ford included an important 1947 study, shortly after Henry Ford II took over. The research helped the automaker overcome the attitude of founder Henry Ford, who once told a group of dealers who wanted him to vary the color of the Model T: "You can have them any color you want, boys, as long as they're black."

In later years, Detroit automakers ignored market research at their own peril, Mr. Roper said.

Before the invasion of small import cars, his research kept showing "the rising annoyance at the size of cars, the disgust in the cost of repairing a fender and an appetite for the return to the Model A Ford."

"Research predicted-although I don't think the manufacturers listened very carefully-the rise of the small, European car," he said.

Mr. Roper believes consumers are being oversurveyed today. He advises educating the public about the importance of surveys to consumer research. Also, the efforts of legitimate researchers are hampered by companies that use the survey approach to sell products.

He believes the industry will start moving away from over-the-phone surveys and do more face-to-face interviews. But because face-to-face interviewing is expensive, one emerging trend is passive observation through a hidden camera.

"Observation won't replace the interview but will be an alternative," he said.

Mr. Roper said he moved gradually toward retirement during the past several years, cutting back on time at the office and taking on new activities, such as a visiting professorship at the University of Connecticut.

With his retirement, Mr. Roper said he misses research, the people and the excitement of New York life.

"However," he said, "now I'm getting more calls from the office than I did when I was working."

Most Popular
In this article: