RESEARCH HIGHLIGHT Aiming for responsible research in marketing

Responsible research strives for useful, credible knowledge, relevant to address societal and even planetary challenges. How does this apply to marketing? Michael Haenlein and four other marketing scholars clarify the relevant concepts and suggest ways to accelerate the movement towards responsible research in their domain.

The following are real examples of research: measuring how ocean-water mixing is affected by the sexual activity of anchovies, using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils, and explaining why many scientists lick rocks. They are also winners of this year's Ig Nobel prizes. While this type of research may provide amusing material for dinner-time conversation, it is not exactly the goal pursued by the growing responsible research movement. 

Instead, responsible research aims to be societally relevant and useful. It is gaining increasing prominence in marketing, as evidenced by the Responsible Research in Business & Management (RRBM) network. This virtual organization combining leading scholars, major accreditation bodies and leading schools worldwide stipulates that business research should serve society by being useful and credible (i.e. reliable and valid).
In a guest editorial in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, five scholars including ESCP Business School marketing professor Michael Haenlein, bring to life the core principles of responsible research for marketing. 

The principles of responsible research in marketing

The first principle of RRBM is decidedly ambitious. “To remain relevant, business research in general and research in marketing, in particular, must devote more attention to developing new knowledge that benefits businesses and the broader society for the ultimate purpose of creating a better world (RRBM Principle 1),” write the researchers. 

How can research benefit various stakeholders? Individual research projects must have two characteristics, according to the authors. Responsible research must be credible, that is, “provide findings, tools, propositions, or frameworks that can be trusted,” and must be useful, that is, “have the potential to change the behaviour of one or more major stakeholders in ways that improve their well-being or that of the broader society or the planet.”

Many forces, including accrediting bodies, rankings groups, and society at large, encourage business school academics to undertake research with greater societal and even planetary impact.

Credibility results from the rigour with which a research project is executed, both theoretical rigour (soundness of logic, precision of constructs) and methodological rigour. Regarding usefulness in changing stakeholder behaviour, the authors recall that the list may extend beyond the stakeholders traditionally considered in marketing (customers, managers, policymakers, etc.) to include funding agencies, public news media, and business school deans. Ideally, these stakeholders should be “actively involved” but without compromising the independence of the research.  

Last but not least, usefulness requires “broad dissemination of research findings.” The authors lament the fact that academic research in their domain is published in outlets “primarily read by other academics to the near exclusion of other stakeholders.” Rather, published findings should break out of academic circles and make their way into the popular press and focused outlets targeted at a wide range of stakeholders.

Usefulness applied to marketing research

Building on these RRBM principles, the authors propose that research usefulness in marketing be viewed as comprising two dimensions: impact magnitude and impact breadth. The former refers to the potential change in stakeholder behaviour leading to an improvement in the well-being of a stakeholder, society or planet; the latter refers to the span of entities likely to be impacted by a piece of research. 

The focus of marketing scholars has historically been on the firm and on its immediate stakeholders (customers, employees, managers), but this research, argue the authors, leads to “minimal or very small changes in their behaviours or well-being.” So Haenlein et al. call for research that leads to greater change and/or greater well-being of more of these stakeholders. They cite research on consumer well-being as a nascent field to be encouraged. For instance, work on consumer financial decision-making has enabled consumers to have more secure retirements and reduce debt more quickly. They also advocate research that results in better outcomes for multiple stakeholders, for example research on addressing biases in algorithms, which can benefit both firms and customers. 

They also call on academics to broaden the contexts and outcomes. Among “non-firm-related outcomes” that should be considered, they cite reduced income and education inequality, reduced hunger and homelessness, and better public health. These objectives could be achieved through socially beneficial corporate behaviour such as green products, employee wellness programs and sustainable supply chain practices.

Avenues for future research

To conclude their guest editorial, the researchers point their peers in the direction of issues that may be examined to potentially impact one or more stakeholders in significant ways.
Regarding firms and their immediate stakeholders, they suggest addressing marketing issues revolving around digital technologies, or consumer privacy. Another potential area of research (among others): “How do firms' reward and recognition policies affect the health of their employees?”

Regarding research with greater societal and even planetary impact – which many faculty are eager to embrace – which areas and topics are relevant? Sometimes, academics need not look very far. One way to start is simply to think in terms of dependent variables such as pollution or illiteracy levels instead of the traditional sales figures, market share, etc. Another simple step could be taking traditional research methods and theories and focusing on a societal context, for instance underserved communities or non-profits. “How can established marketing communication theories and practices be applied and extended to solve the vexing challenges of vaccinating the world during the Covid pandemic crisis?” is one such example. 

To achieve impact in a planetary domain (climate, energy and so on), marketing academics might find that they need to become part of interdisciplinary teams across business domains or even work with non-business disciplines such as medicine or engineering. While these goals sound ambitious, the authors write that they are encouraged to see more marketing scholars paying greater attention to the usefulness of their current and proposed research projects.


Michael Haenlein - ESCP Business School Michael Haenlein Professor of Marketing at ESCP Business School, Chair in Responsible Research in Marketing at University of Liverpool Management School
Mary Jo Bitner Mary Jo Bitner Professor Emeritus and Emeritus Executive Director of the W. P. Carey School's Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University
Ajay K. Kohli Ajay K. Kohli Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair, and Regents Professor of Marketing at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech
Katherine N. Lemon Katherine N. Lemon Accenture Professor at Boston College, Carroll School of Management
David J. Reibstein David J. Reibstein William Stewart Woodside Professor and Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania