Erik Christensen is Consumer Insights Director at Daisy Brand. He’s also worked with brands such as WhiteWave Foods and Procter & Gamble. He has broad experience in areas such as segmentation and competitive analysis. In this interview, I ask Erik to share some ideas about emerging trends in consumer insights and retail.
Alexa Ross: Consumer insights is a field that requires you to collect lots of data. What are some of your favorite tools or methods to find the most useful information?
Erik Christensen: Always depends on the objective of the research. If my company is considering a launching into a new category then I do a combination of leveraging existing data about the category and conducting custom research. In terms of existing data I often turn to Mintel reports and NPD. Both of these companies typically work by subscription but you can also purchase category reports for $1-5k usually. Mintel provides broad data about the category size and growth trends, usage occasions, brand size, claims, etc. NPD is diary data that reports “eating occasions” in great detail. This data gives you a real sense for how consumers fit your category into their busy life.
In terms of custom research, I generally utilize a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. For quant, it is fairly common for me to run an Attitudes & Usage study (A&U). This allows me to fill in the blanks from the Mintel report or any other data that I may have. I use A&U’s to understand a host of factors that a consumer may care about, including:
- Brand Affinity/Brand Attributes
- Purchase Occasion/Frequency
- Category Benefits
- Brand Loyalty
- Needs States
- Buyer Demographics
AR: You’ve worked with brands that have a fairly broad customer base. How should a brand segment its customers to deliver the most targeted message to each group? For example, do you alter the tone and style of ads and messages depending on the type of customer?
EC: I have been fortunate enough to be heavily involved with 3 segmentations from start to finish on three different categories. I always ensure that a segmentation covers the addressable base of consumers, meaning those who are currently buying and those who are not currently buying but have an open attitude toward the category. In the quantitative stage of a segmentation, I ensure that we are covering behavioral questions about the category and attitudinal questions about the consumer as a whole. If you just segment on behavioral/usage dimensions then it can be challenging to find consistency in what matters to your segments. The key is to segment on 50/50 behavioral/attitudinal dimensions so that your segments are distinct from one another yet homogenous within.
Yes, I always recommend that ads be laser-focused on a target segment. Just one target segment. Once you try to cover too much of market you end up using a generalized message, whereas if you know a specific target well you can really hone in on what matters to them and which benefits to really hammer in messaging. This requires doing qualitative “illumination” work with consumers after you get the quant segmentation results. The data is incomplete until you do this qualitative work because it is what allows you to add the flesh and blood to the bones of the quant survey.
Surprising Results of Customer Research
AR: As someone who studies consumer behavior, are you sometimes surprised at what you learn? Do you have any examples of surprising or unlikely facts you’ve uncovered about customers?
EC: I am nearly always surprised by consumers in research. One thing I’ve found to be a constant is that consumers NEVER care about my categories as much as the marketing team does. They don’t put much thought into the purchases. Life is too hectic and complicated to sit there and try to differentiate brands in every category that you’re buying.
When I worked on Silk I was shocked during qualitative research to find that our heaviest users had no idea that we had 50% more calcium in our product than dairy milk. We had it printed in bold lettering on top of the carton for over 5 years and the heaviest buyers all thought we had less calcium than dairy milk. It was a great lesson in how hard it is to capture the consumers’ elusive attention.
How Consumers Have Changed Over the Years
AR: What are some of the biggest changes in consumer preferences and behavior you’ve noticed during your career? These might be related to technology, the type of marketing customers respond to or anything you’ve observed.
EC: We used to know how and where consumers shopped for everything because it was all brick and mortar. The spending shift to Amazon and e-commerce accelerated faster than anyone imagined. The shopper is elusive and difficult to predict.
Millennials are about to outnumber Baby Boomers in the next 3 years. Millennials are not loyal to historical national brands. They look for brands that hold meaning to them specifically. National brands like the ones I work on have to figure out how to become meaningful. It’s not enough to be ubiquitous on shelves.
AR: How are emerging technologies such as wearables, VR, and AR transforming your industry? I can see where it’s helpful in that you can obtain more data quickly. But are there also challenges that come with these advances?
EC: When I first started in research I worked at the industry standard for consumer research. They were exploring all sorts of cutting edge research using eye tracking and neuroscience. The truth is that these technologies haven’t taken hold like predicted. We haven’t figured out how to scale high tech research to do it with hundreds of consumers. It’s one thing for Nike and Gatorade to test stuff with a dozen professional athletes, it’s another thing for a brand to do that with a nationally representative sample.
The other problem with some emerging technologies is that brands don’t have unlimited budgets. We’re usually fighting for dollars and need justification for all of our spends, so “trying” things can be hard to do in terms of getting buy-in. these new methodologies don’t have norms and benchmarks that make some of the standard techniques actionable because they give leadership comfort that they know something is good.
All this said I love trying new research techniques. I’ve had big budgets in some roles and in those roles I try to do several passion projects where it’s okay if it doesn’t work out perfectly.
Big Data vs. Privacy
AR: This question might overlap with the previous one. Between regulations on privacy (such as GDPR) and consumer concerns about privacy, are companies having to be more careful about how they collect data? How do you balance the need for data with people’s need for privacy?
EC: I’m less concerned with privacy and more concerned with oversampling individuals and having professional test takers in the panels. I really haven’t been affected in my research roles by the overall increase in privacy concerns. Part of this is because the vendors I use are the ones who have to make the changes and adaptations.
I don’t really have to think about it as long as they are on top of recruiting regulations. Younger consumers are actually significantly less concerned about their digital privacy than older consumers so in some ways it’s getting easier.
Studying the Competition
AR: How important is it to study your competition? When doing market research, for example, do you find it helpful to study what people think of your competitors as well as your own brand?
EC: It is critical. I don’t know where I stand in the consumer’s mind unless I know where my competitors stand. That’s why I rely on methodologies like Brand Health to gauge my brand’s strength and how it compares to competitive brands on key category attributes. The market is getting more competitive, not less competitive. Brands don’t just compete with other national brands and private label, they compete with mom and pop brands that are inherently more trustworthy in their minds.
Getting the Most From Social Media
AR: Social media has become one of the major tools for accumulating information on customers. Do you have any favorite strategies for getting the most value from social media?
EC: This is an area that needs to develop faster. I don’t really leverage social media to learn about my consumers and my brands because I’m not sure how to best gather data and put it into the proper context. I try to measure brand sentiment across social media/online channels and blogs, but I don’t feel like I’m extracting as much useful information out of those marketing investments.
An Imaginary Dinner Party
AR: If you could arrange an imaginary dinner party with the most fascinating guests, either from history or alive today, who would be a few of the people you’d most like to invite?
EC: Alexander Hamilton, Babe Ruth, Queen Victoria, Michael Jordan, Cleopatra, Plato, Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith.