Brands must grow and evolve or risk getting left behind. But how do you maintain your brands while taking advantage of new trends? And some new trends aren’t really long-term changes in consumer behavior while others are.
So which new trends are worth following and which ones aren’t can be a challenging question for brands. What kind of trends are we seeing?
“There are so many,” said Jennifer Saenz, then global chief marketing officer at PepsiCo and now EVP at Albertsons Companies, during her chat with Zappi President Ryan Barry, at the 2021 Virtual Insight Summit. “There are some trends that are everlasting and we don’t want to forget them. For example, there’s a need for indulgence, fun, entertainment, and enjoyment across food and beverage. When people are eating and drinking they want to enjoy it. It’s silly to classify that as a trend, but it’s not going away.”
And with the COVID pandemic people have needed an uplift more than ever, she said. Also, some new trends aren’t truly new, but the pace of change is faster than it was before.
“You cannot forget the basics,” Jennifer said. “It is dangerous as you get pulled toward new development or new technologies you forget those basics.”
Those basics include knowing your audience and understanding what do they want to hear from you?
“It’s harder and harder to get the technologies to work for you if you don’t know the ‘why’ behind it,” Jennifer said. “There should be a lot of humanity in data-driven marketing.”
Don’t just chase new things to chase new things. Keep in mind how they are going to help you and how they fit in or replace what’s currently in play.
Consumer insights can help us understand what trends are worth pursuing and which ones aren’t.
Making the process easier to spot new trends
Dave mentioned that people sometimes make consumer insights harder than they need to be.
“The insights should literally be able to be explained in one sentence,” Dave said. “It should be something that should be succinct, but it should surprise you.”
That also makes understanding new trends easier.
Inefficiencies in internal workflows also can present a problem. Somebody has a PowerPoint somewhere that shares consumer insights. Then somebody else comes up with the same insights and confirms what’s in that PowerPoint — a PowerPoint they didn’t know anything about.
Read next: The importance of centralized data
“It needs to be simple and surprising but also needs something you can make decisions on,” said Jenn Vogel, senior vice president of marketing at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk.” “It’s got to be actionable. It’s not just information for the sake of information. You have to do something with it. I think that’s really crucial.”
How has the global pandemic impacted customer insights?
Certainly, a lot happened in 2020, 2021, and into 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic kept raging, Texans lost power after a snowstorm, and other disasters have impacted consumer behavior, which, of course, impacts businesses.
“The industry was already in a fairly aggressive stage of transformation,” Dave said. “You were seeing us adopt technology, both on the quantitative and qualitative side of consumer insights.”
Dave reports seeing businesses increase their investment in categories like experience management. Also, “listening to customers certainly is gaining traction.”
COVID and social distancing have pushed advances, especially in qualitative research, Dave explained. Before, you might have been able to go into somebody’s home or meet in person. But now, much of that contact has moved online.
“It’s funny when people talk about ‘mobile research,’ ” Dave said. “That’s the medium now.” It’s no longer a standalone strategy.
Jenn added that the insights function has become more important in companies, in part because of recent events.
“Understanding a brand’s customers has been an even bigger challenge than it had been,” Jenn said.
Before the pandemic, market research was seen in some companies as a support role, Dave added. “Market research had kind of lost its seat at the boardroom table.”
That changed with the pandemic, and “things aren’t just rolling back into where we were,” Dave said. “What we’ve seen is insights teams inundated with requests by executives.”
Author and marketing expert Mark Schaefer said so many consumer behaviors have changed during the pandemic.
“The data coming out of the pandemic is profound,” he said on “Reel Talk.” “Many consumer habits have changed for good. If you thought you knew your customers before, we need to suspend those ideas right now. We need to go out and see our customers.”
The uptick in the use of market research technology
“The realization that customer insights are essential has become more and more apparent,” Rick said on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”
Bianca Pryor, vice president of insights at BET, added that insight teams now are asked to help drive business decisions and results and can’t just function as a librarian that reports back data.
Understanding the person
To truly understand trends and customer behavior we have to understand the person for a while.
Megan Kehr, analytics insights associate manager at PepsiCo, mentioned that insights professionals have talked about understanding “the person behind our consumer.”
“For example, take somebody like me and not just seeing me as a Pepsi drinker… and while my consumption behavior is part of who I am; I’m also a wife, a sister, a daughter, I’m a cat mom,” she said. “There are all these other aspects of my life outside of the beverage I drink that make up who I am.”
She said the idea of getting closer to the consumer isn’t new, “COVID has accelerated it and in the last year, everyone’s lives have basically changed overnight. And what better way to do that than hearing from the customers?”
“To that end, speed is super important,” she said. “Keeping our ears to the ground to understand what’s shifting and changing in our consumers’ lives.”
Truly understanding the customer also goes deeper than demographics, she explained. Megan called that the gift analogy. If you were told to buy a gift for a mom of a certain age group, that’s not highly useful information to get them a meaningful gift, she said.
“But then if you consider buying a gift for somebody much closer to you, it’s much easier to pick a gift that they really like because you know them on that deeper level,” Megan said. “Applying that analogy to a brand, it’s the same. If we don’t know our consumers at that deeper level then how are we going to do marketing campaigns or make brand decisions?”
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Understanding the customer’s life tensions
Megan gave the example of a mom who wasn’t taking her medication because she felt that was tainting her picture of “Super Mom” in her children’s eyes. Once you understand that you can consider product updates.
“Maybe a patch would be better here,” Megan said.
But how do you get to that level of depth?
“There are so many layers that you can peel back,” Jenn added in her podcast chat with Megan. “So many stop at that first layer. What’s the best approach to peel back those layers and best understand the drivers and motivations?”
There certainly is value in asking specific questions about the products and the experience, Megan said. But also consider asking about family, lifestyles, and tensions.
“When we do certain qualitative work, don’t just focus on the tactical,” Megan added. “We are putting blinders on when we do that.”
And keep in mind, as April Dunford said in “Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning to Customers Get it, Buy it, Love it,” that “trends can only be used when they have a clear link to your product. Start by making the connection between your product and the market obvious.”
It’s also important to understand what irrational behaviors are causing certain trends or apparent trends. Take the run on toilet paper during the pandemic.
“I would say the study of consumer behavior, in general, is studying irrational behavior,” said Elena Lyrintzis, marketing and culture insights lead, Devices and Services at Google, on “Reel Talk.” “I would say humans are always irrational. That’s my perspective. So we always have to get into those research methods to start to crack the code and understand what they are really thinking.”
Consumer behaviors change
Things change so much. When the pandemic shut down downtown metro areas, people weren’t working downtown, which affected bars, restaurants, and all businesses in the area.
“It impacts snacking behavior, how people aren’t commuting, sports,” Dave added. “All of that is having an impact on clients. Many of our clients are seeing this as an opportunity to reinvent their business.”
Consumer insights can help them enter into and innovate in those open areas.
“This innovation shouldn’t happen in a silo,” Dave said. “The customer needs to be front and center in that change.”
And while change might not be as rapid when there’s no pandemic raging, change is a constant.
John Geraci, president at Crux Research and author of “POLL-ARIZED: Why Americans Don’t Trust the Polls and How to Fix Them Before It’s Too Late” said on “Reel Talk” that the change in behaviors and circumstances is especially apparent in political polling.
“Pollsters will get it right in 2024 to the extent that 2024 looks like 2020,” he said. “To the extent the world doesn’t change. And I would never bet on that anymore that the world won’t change. So they basically applied a model that would have worked well from 2016 to 2020.”
But 2020, was widely different. There was a pandemic, how people voted was different, turnout was way higher. So to get consumer insights right right today, we have to consider what has changed since the last time we’ve run a similar study.
Consumer behavior can also change because the consumer base is changing. Elena said that some countries are seeing a shift to an older population and fertility rates going down, which also impacts consumer behaviors, attitudes, and choices.
“The Census is really slow-moving, but some of those demographics are great sources,” Elena said.
React to what consumers are doing
Can Cheetos be stretched into Mac and Cheese, for example? Yes and consumers were already mixing the two, said Jennifer, the PepsiCo CMO.
“There was a pull for it and there was permission from consumers,” Jennifer said. “There was a need in the market to infuse this tasty treat into a product. A great place for a brand to stretch.”
Sometimes the answer is yes to try new things. Sometimes it’s no and sometimes we may have to readjust.
Always listen to the customer base and its mood.
“What are people feeling?” Jennifer said. “That’s really important to brands like ours. They move with the culture. We have to understand and also look to the future.”
Understanding new customers
Sometimes new customers are buying your products. I still remember when Under Armour was really just for professional athletes, then other athletes started wearing it. Today, I sit here wearing Under Armour shoes and pants. So now writers wear high-performance gear, too. Don’t forget about all the kids wearing the brand now. So brands and their customers can evolve.
Red Bull was focusing on high-energy type sports and experiences in their marketing and then they realized that another group drinks Red Bull energy drinks as well: Moms. Ross said moms were drinking several Red Bulls to get through the day.
“If you listen to your customers they will tell you what they want.”
Trendspotting can also happen for just emerging changes. Elena said she considers trends analysis for anything that is a year or more into the future.
“What are we trying to understand for the next year or really much longer-term – three to five years from now,” she said. This area of trends is more about product development and decisions on what to build next.
For culture, Elena added, it’s important to look at the now and the next six months. This area is typically more for marketing to determine what we should be talking about right now that is relevant.
“Those are the two different lenses that I start with,” she said.
The pandemic showed that things can change, too. Some of the longer-term predictions went out the window when the pandemic hit, but basic needs don’t change.
Those needs include wanting to be:
- connected with people
And no matter, the situation, people run through these basic needs, Elena said. And current situations can influence, what kind of research is needed.
For example, during the pandemic, people drove less because many worked at home. But research surrounding cars didn’t need to stop as the trend wasn’t expected to last. In addition, people were still searching for road trips as an example. Research could just adjust to the current changes.
Personalization at scale and data privacy
Understanding our customers also means that companies know more about them.
“We always see these articles that consumers want personalized messaging but also want their data protected,” Ryan said.
That can be a challenging balance.
“Consumers do want to see things that are relevant,” Jennifer said.
But, that also means companies know a lot about their customers.
“There’s definitely a tension,” she said. “And it’s also what people feel comfortable with. There might be some data that some people have no issue sharing and others want to keep it quite close.”
Be transparent about how you’ll use data and share that, Jennifer said.
“With personalization, there’s a lot of opportunities but there’s also a great responsibility,” she said. “The best thing is that we can just be transparent in what we are doing and what safeguards we have in place.”
So much data
Certainly consumer behavior is changing but the amount of data available to researchers has changed tremendously.
“Today we have evolved to more sources of connection and understanding of these consumers,” said Sebastian Schuliaquer, insights director at Kellogg, on an episode of “Reel Talk. “To make that matchmaking possible that’s the role of insights professional and that role has evolved.”
Of course, that’s the role of the researcher to bring all that data together and make sense of it. Sebastian also mentioned that humans contradict themselves. And sometimes data contradicts itself. So all those nuances need to be considered as we are looking at presenting an insight.
“For example, there’s never been a time where people are more concerned about personal privacy but at the same time they’re posting everything to social media,” he said. “How do you reconcile both of those points of view?”
With all this data available, qualitative research is becoming even more important, he said. Ask people why they’re doing something.
How can consumer insights help brands adjust to new trends?
“Brand loyalty has been under attack, in my opinion,” Dave said. “We just have an abundance of brands, and the cost to switch for consumers is so easy. In this kind of time period, we – consumers – are open to exploring new opportunities.”
You have to look at the signal-noise ratio, Dave explained.
“What’s a temporary change, and what is a trend that we can actually see?” Dave said. “That’s been a focus for our clients. What’s a knee-jerk reaction to a situation we are under … how can I really understand what’s happening?”
Good consumer insights come back to being empathetic to consumers.
“What are people going through, and how can we help them?” Dave said. “We certainly have seen a quick move to technology. How can we still stay in touch with others during the pandemic?”
- Come up with a hypothesis
- Quickly test it with customers
Some businesses even pivoted completely in a short time.
“Had they not been able to bring the customer into the process, they would have gotten it wrong,” Dave said. “They would have made assumptions. But now with the plethora of marketing research tech, … I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s easier than before all this technology existed.”
Read next: How to use video surveys for market research
“A lot of the trends we are seeing are just an acceleration of what’s already in place,” Jenn added. “It’s interesting to see that from necessity we need to build more empathy with people, and now we have the technology to help us with that.”
Before the pandemic, there were basically two cohorts:
- Traditional methods businesses used
- Outliers trying some new things
“Now we have more people moving into the future,” Dave said. “Like with anything new, people at first can be skeptical. Remember the first time you got into an Uber? So I’m just going to get into this random guy’s car? He drives me where I want to go? And that’s safe?”
And now we don’t even think about getting into an Uber.
What does the future of consumer insights look like?
“What this pandemic has done is re-establish the importance of the market research industry,” Dave said. “Now we have to build upon that momentum we’ve created for ourselves. That’s about understanding the consumer and creating that bridge to the customer. We also don’t want these insights to live in eight different places.”
The pandemic also has reminded us how quickly things can change and how long those changes can persist.
Take March 2020 when the pandemic took off in full swing in the United States. “We said ‘things will be back to normal in September,” Dave said. A year later, COVID-related issues still are top of mind.
“Even with the rollout of the vaccine, the effects of it will still be felt for the next 12 to 14 months or so,” he added.
In the future, technology will continue to help brands have the voice of the customer at the table.
Technology now allows us to turn consumer insights around in 24 hours or less. For example, in a 2021 Valentine’s Day campaign, we gathered 100 love letters from consumers to brands in just a few hours.
“There will be opportunities for brands that are listening,” Dave said. “And to take market share away from their competitors.”
Added Jenn: “Understanding customers, consumers, people is no longer just an important thing. It’s an essential thing. Businesses will not survive without being really connected with consumer needs and empathizing with them.”
How to make consumer insights more of a priority
Review some of the examples of people who already do insights well. That includes:
Then look at what your tech stack looks like. What tools do you use internally that can help you be more successful?
Companies that do consumer insights well have their plan together. They use the right tools internally, with a mix of outside help, with the right people, with the right mindset, in place.
“Change management can be a big hill to climb, but there are a lot of examples of people that have done it well,” Jenn said.
“It’s not easy to drive forward, but if you get it right, the results can be exponential,” Dave added.
Consumer insights also have to be presented in a “snackable” way to decision-makers.
“There’s no reason insights can’t be presented in a two-minute clip,” Dave said. “And if you can’t, it’s not an insight. It’s data, and people don’t care about data. We are just overwhelmed with data. We need to deliver insights, data, and value.”
Insights for non-insights roles
Ryan, the president of Zappi, mentioned that other roles are now also being are being asked to do a lot more when it comes to customer understanding.
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“Do you have any advice for those people on how to cross that and to maybe even unlearn some skills they’ve already developed?” Ryan asked.
“The most important characteristic a marketer and insights professional needs to have is curiosity,” Jennifer said. “A curiosity for the world. Curiosity to learn.”
Read books, learn the skills and keep growing, Jennifer said.
“Learn the fundamentals,” she said.
When marketing roles use insights to drive results the rest of the company is also seeing the investment and how strategic marketing can pay off.
“It allows people to see that we are building our brand and build those connections with our consumers for the long-term,” she said. “And that it’s very much worthwhile.”
Also, be sure to really need to consider your options when testing.
“If you are only testing to get to ‘yes’ you are only looking for that, but if you are taking a moment to be reflective and understand the ‘why’ and pour that into all the work you are doing,” Jennifer said. “It’s a very different mindset if you are testing to learn versus testing to check a box.”
Look at the data you already have
Keep in mind the amount of data your organization already has as well. Keep an eye on trends in there. What can we see from the insights that have already been collected?
“The best predictor of the future still is the past,” said Michelle Gansle, vice president of global insights at McDonald’s.
But remember the basics…
Even though behaviors and industries change quickly, Elisabeth Trawinski, an insights professional at Reckitt, reminded us on a “Reel Talk” episode that yes, things are changing, but the purpose of customer insights is not.
Essentially customer insight are about understanding people and turning that insightfulness into a competitive advantage, she said.
“That’s always been the role of insights and in some ways becomes more and more critical each year as the world changes,” she said. “But there are so many different ways to understand our customers now – like video surveys – that didn’t exist years ago.”
Some things don’t change
Talking and listening to customers remains important.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of substitution for talking to a respondent and seeing their reactions to concepts, ideas … being able to see people’s facial expressions,” said Kristin Luck, founder at ScaleHouse.
Of course, it’s so much easier to spot trends when companies actually talk to and understand their customers.
“The need for information, the need for insights will not change, which means that role of the researcher will always be there,” said Babita Earle.