Professional Prognosticators? Market Research and the Formation of Business Expectations in West Germany and the United States after 1945

PD Dr. Ingo Köhler, Göttingen (Principal Investigator)


The project traces the development of market research in the second half of the twentieth century. The emphasis will be both on the emergence of prognostic methods and on their practical application in company-level decision making. The question of how the fundamental basis for economic actions of companies changed as market research experts offered a growing array of market analyses since the 1950s will be at the core of this study. I hypothesize that well-established intuitive forms of strategic planning were replaced by more systematic management concepts when internal adaptive expectations intermingled with external market perceptions. While it is clear that market research became an established instrument of marketing management only after 1945, historical research has largely ignored this development up to today. To fill this gap, this project offers an empirical analysis of the rise of commercial market research firms as information agencies and of the parallel institutionalization of in-house market research departments from the 1950s to1980s. Consumer goods firms in West Germany and the United States and their consulting agencies will serve as case studies. The comparative approach aims to reveal spatial, temporal and qualitative differences in adaptation processes while calling into question the common narrative of an “Americanization” of management strategies.

The project is located at the intersection of the three defined areas of emphasis of the Priority Programme: “Expert Knowledge,” “Companies,” and “Consumption.” First, it aims to sketch the development of a (global) market for economic prognoses and to theorize the commodification of market information as information goods. Secondly, it will trace the diffusion of new methodologies in survey design and prognostic modeling from the academic realm to their practical application within companies. Here, the tensions between claims to increased scientific objectivity and the demand of an increasing profit-orientation will receive special attention. This leads us thirdly to the central question of how companies operationalized such newly acquired information goods as part of their decision-making processes. Based on a wealth of company records and other empirical source material the project will show by means of a micro-level analysis, how established practices of experience and expectation formation were not only devalued in the eyes of decision makers, but increasingly augmented or even substituted by new, more standardized and seemingly more objective prognostic models. The comparative framework will make it possible to discern differences in speed and intensity in this process as well as possible cultural preferences in modes of information management. Before the backdrop of changing economic contexts, finally, I will be able to analyze, if changes in expectation formation followed patterns of sequential learning or were rather driven by situational crisis management.


Köhler, Ingo/Schulze, Benjamin: Resilienz. Unternehmenshistorische Dimensionen der Krisenrobustheit am Beispiel deutscher Brauereien in den 1970er Jahren, in: Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook, vol. 57, 2/2016, pp. 455-491

Cross, Gary; Köhler, Ingo u. Logemann, Jan, Beyond the Mad Men: Consumer Engineering and the Rise of Marketing Management, 1920s-1970s – An Introduction, in: dies. (ed.), Consumer Engineering 1920s-1970s. Marketing between Expert Planning and Consumer Responsiveness (Worlds of Consumption Series), New York: Palgrave 2019, S. 1-20.

Köhler, Ingo, Imagined Images, Surveyed Consumers. Market Research as a Means of Consumer Engineering, 1950s-1980s, in: Gary Cross; Ingo Köhler u. Jan Logemann (Hg.), Consumer Engineering 1920s-1970s. Marketing between Expert Planning and Consumer Responsiveness (Worlds of Consumption Series), New York 2019, S. 191-212.

Köhler, Ingo, Marketing als Lockmittel des Konsums: Innovationen in Marktforschung und Werbung, in: Christian Kleinschmidt u. Jan Logemann (Hg.), Wirtschaft und Konsum. Konsum im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Handbücher zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte, hrsg. von Marcel Boldorf und Christian Kleinschmidt), Berlin/München/Boston 2020, S. 459-482.