Decoding Human Emotions for Deeper Consumer Insights

Quantitative market research agency Bigeye’s podcast features Lana Novikova of Heartbeat, an AI-driven tool that decodes human emotions from textual data.

IN CLEAR FOCUS: Emotions are central to human decision-making, but research has traditionally lacked the tools to accurately capture and assess them. Building on her experience as a quantitative researcher and studies in neuroscience, Lana Novikova has developed a tool that decodes human emotions from unstructured data. In this week’s podcast, we hear how Heartbeat AI provides marketing researchers with unique insights that can be applied to the creative development of advertising campaigns.

In Clear Focus: Decoding Human Emotions for Deeper Consumer Insights

In Clear Focus: Emotions are central to human decision-making, but research has traditionally lacked the tools to accurately capture and assess them. Building on her experience as a quantitative researcher, and studies in neuroscience, Lana Novikova has developed a tool that decodes human emotions from unstructured data.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: In today’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS…

Lana Novikova: We market researchers have responsibility to understand our consumers and shoppers at the deepest possible level. And I wanted to build a tool that can reflect the nonbinary nature of human emotions. Heartbeat is all about emotions.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond.

Thank you for joining us. Many of us like to believe that as consumers, the buying choices we make are rational – based on reviewing what’s available and considering the alternatives. The reality however, is a little different. Many neuroscientists and psychologists have concluded that emotion is a necessary ingredient to almost all purchasing decisions. Emotional responses to advertisements strongly influence consumers’  reported intent to buy a product. Studies conducted by the industry have consistently found that likeability is the measure most predictive of whether an advertisement will increase a brand’s sales. Because emotions can greatly influence or determine our buying decisions, researchers use specialized tools that attempt to identify consumers’ often unconscious feelings, for example, when exposed to TV advertisements, or while shopping in a store. Our guest today is an internationally renowned research expert who has published papers on the role of emotion in consumer behavior. Lana Novikova is the Founder and CEO of Heartbeat AI Technologies. Based in Toronto, Canada, the company’s text analytics platform measures emotions to understand the customer experience and identify the drivers of human behavior. Born and raised in the former Soviet union Republic of Kyrgyzstan and educated in the US, Lana’s career has taken her from the United Nations field office in Central Asia, to UNICEF in New York, and on to corporate market research and analytics, including several years with Nestle. Lana has designed, executed, and managed research studies for dozens of clients in a wide range of industries. She’s also a serial entrepreneur with an award-winning portfolio of research inventions. Today. Lana is joining us from her office in Nicaragua. Lana, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Lana Novikova: Thank you so much, Adrian – thank you for inviting me to be a part of this podcast. I’m honored and excited.

Adrian Tennant: Well first, as I mentioned in the introduction, your company is based in Toronto, but you’re currently in Nicaragua. Why are you there?

Lana Novikova: Interesting question. You also mentioned that most decisions that we make in life are not rational, so I guess it’s a result of one of those emotional decisions! I came to Nicaragua exactly a year ago with my  daughter for a meditation and yoga retreat for just a couple of weeks to unwind. And that was my first vacation after five years of running a technology company. So I came here and I really fell in love with the country, and, come March. I decided to come for a longer time. So I came with my dogs and my kids and, lo and behold, COVID happened. And I made a decision to stay, instead of going back to Canada. And the longer I stayed, the more in love I got with the country. So I ended up buying a piece of land and hopefully, we’ll build a dream eco village here in this country, while still traveling to Canada a lot, traveling around the world, when the travel happens. So it’s an emotional decision.

Adrian Tennant: Well conducting background research about you for this podcast, I read some of your published papers and it’s clear that you’ve been interested in interpreting human emotions in the context of market research for quite some time. But what first sparked your interest in consumer research?

Lana Novikova: I have an educational background in linguistics and my master’s degree is in journalism and public relations. I wanted to work in PR and my first job ended up being in research. And then I discovered my natural inclination to be an analyst, and I went back to study statistics and market research methods and became a very strong quantitative researcher. We’re talking 2000, that’s when the data was still collected using pen and paper surveys and online surveys just were appearing as a new technology thing. So that was my journey in market research: six years in quantitative market research I really learned how to ask good questions, good, closed-ended questions. And then one unanswered was the “What if we ask open-ended questions in surveys? Can we learn more about consumer behavior by asking the combination of questions?”

Adrian Tennant: You have described your company, Heartbeat AI Technologies, as existing “at the intersection of human emotions and unstructured data.” Let’s unpack that. First, how do you define emotions in a consumer research context?

Lana Novikova: Back in the 1800s, William James, the American psychologist, posed the question, “What is an emotion?” And, after more than a century, psychologists and neuroscientists can’t agree on what exactly is emotion. Do animals have emotions? How do human emotions appear in the brain? And how do we express emotions? But, I’m glad you asked it within the context of consumer research and, after thinking a lot and reading a lot of literature about emotions, I very simply define it as: emotion is a conscious, explicit manifestation of that complex process we have in the body and in our mind in different parts of our brain that manifest in different ways and that’s what we call data, right? It manifests in language, how I can express emotion about a particular product, service. I can say it verbally. I can show it in my face. The emotion can go and you can see through my body, including pulse including biometrics and so on. And that’s why it’s so hard to measure emotions in the context of consumer research.

Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways have market researchers typically attempted to measure consumers’ emotions?

Lana Novikova: In a quantitative market research world, you know, we ask closed-ended questions because we want to control what data we get back. You can present a question, a context, “How do you feel about this product and this brand?” And give a list of emotions. You can show smiley faces and little cartoons and responders will pick the one that’s more closely related to their presenting emotion. Biometrics for example, it’s not very easy to use in field research, but the more and more they’re coming, possibilities of using  EEG devices to measure your brainwaves. And, you know, certain measurements for brain waves indicate high effect, low effect, attention, no attention, eye tracking is another way that can help you show attention. And if you measure pulse, you can see what people look at and if the pulse is increased, for example, we know that the person is in a state of affect. We don’t know if it’s positive or negative. We know that, you know, your heart beats stronger when you look at that particular brand. For example, that’s why I called my company Heartbeat AI, because there was an experiment that actually, 150, I think unmarried women were given a box that looked like a Tiffany box. that’s a turquoise kind of blue color box without even a brand name on it. But they were given a Tiffany box and their heart rate went up considerably, I think by 30% or something and like that. So their heartbeat went up. And then the reason why for unmarried women the heartbeat goes up? Because they associated the Tiffany box with a  surprise proposal of marriage. Think it’s such a beautiful story

Adrian Tennant: Why do emotions matter in market research?

Lana Novikova: Back in my corporate career days, I was running  consumer and shopper research for Nestle ice cream category. And imagine how emotional the category is. We wanted to know why loyal users of Haagen-Dazs go in the middle of the night to a convenience store and buy a small tub of ice cream for $6 or $10, and then come home and eat it all at once. Hiding it from their family. You see, this is the consumer action all driven by emotion. It’s – none of that is rational. So I wanted to know why it happens. Beyond that, you know, it’s yummy, it tastes good, but what actually drives that human behavior? So why it matters? Because I think we market researchers have responsibility to understand our consumers and shoppers at the deepest possible level. Not to be satisfied with very shallow observations, with very shallow insights, with just boxes and charts putting people into segments. So, for example, if I identify frequent users of premium ice cream, and I know what’s the segment of population, and I know their demographics and even psychographics, I still don’t know why they do what they do. The behavior that I just explained. So I wanted to go as deep as possible to understand what drives that human behavior and yeah, that’s actually one of the reasons why I left market research eight years ago to study psychotherapy and psychology and neuroscience

Adrian Tennant: Well, anyone that has used social listening or text analytics tools is probably familiar with seeing posts or open-ended survey responses classified by sentiment. So that is either positive, negative, or neutral. But I know Heartbeat AI goes way beyond that. Can you explain how?

Lana Novikova: Yes, and it came from my understanding of psychology and psychotherapy. Actually, after I studied psychotherapy, I ran a practice for two years, sitting with clients and listening. When you work as a shrink, you get presented with a lot of emotions. And that  confirmed my belief that people are just not negative, positive, neutral. They experience way more emotions than that and can experience negative and positive emotions at the same time. So imagine, we have these binary measures of sentiment in the market, but in reality, they don’t reflect how we humans experience emotions. Right? And I wanted to build a tool that can reflect the nonbinary nature of human emotions. And that tool is Heartbeat.  We took one of the most comprehensive segmentations of emotions by Gerrod W. Parrot of George Brown University in the United States. And he qualified about 136 secondary emotions going up to 8 primary emotions and the sentiment. So we scaled it down a little bit. We edit a category of body sense, which is not an emotion, but an indication how people feel in the body: whether hungry, thirsty, pain, and so on. So it’s a very useful category for some surveys or for some data. So we adjusted the psychological classification of emotions to market research: shopper insight, patient insight, and so on. And so we came up with 100 secondary emotion categories, the sub categories laddering up to 9 primary and 1 body sense emotions. And then we built a taxonomy of words and phrases. So each word and phrase in English that indicates emotion falls into one, or most likely, two or three different categories of emotions – that’s how it goes. So for example, we can show 15 different kinds of anger, 14 different kinds of joy, 5 different types of trust. And so that’s how we build it. So we can give you a little glimpse of what’s inside and that provides high accuracy of text analytics. It provides obviously, depths. Some clients still need to see a hundred emotions, you know, some categories are very dry, but it’s good to differentiate between trust and joy, for example, when you talk about your clients in your bank or your insurance company. So those are just a few examples.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Lauren Fore: I’m Lauren Fore, and I’m on the operations team at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as agency professionals and reflects the way that Bigeye puts audiences first.  For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with our clients’ audiences. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Lana Novikova, founder and CEO of Heartbeat AI Technologies. As an agency, our typical use case is the analysis of quantitative data that we’ve collected through online surveys. Do you have any recommendations for writing open-ended questions to provide good quality data for emotional analysis with Heartbeat AI? And is there anything researchers need to avoid?

Lana Novikova: When we really care about the quality of the data and about the responder feelings, we want surveys to be shorter. What’s important really to find out? What would you want to learn from your shopper and consumer from your responder? Like in any conversation, when you start a conversation, it’s good to ask. How do you feel about this category or that? So I would put, open-ended questions about emotions at the beginning, not at the very beginning, but after pre-qualifying questions. So somewhere where people are not tired yet. We can go into neuroscience and understand where the answers come from. For example, if you ask closed-ended questions with multiple choice, it’s a very left prefrontal cortex action. So your brain needs to analyze, look at different choices, and select them. That’s what our prefrontal cortex does. When I asked, how do you feel about elections in the United States? Right away, most likely it’s not a prefrontal cortex question. It’s a very emotional question. So people will answer from a combination of the amygdala and hippocampus in different points in the brain.  And, you know, there’ve been great studies to actually show what happens in the brain when people talk about emotional subjects. Right? So I would say knowing that, ask very simple open-ended questions earlier in the survey in a context, and give people a reason to trust that the data will be used in a good way. And just like in any conversation or they will reveal deep, amazing insights. And sometimes it’s not just the lines, it’s not just the words. Sometimes people write a few phrases or if a few paragraphs even, and with the text analytics tool like Heartbeat, it’s very easy to analyze long responses, and the longer [the] responses, the more rich data you get. So very, very simple. Ask good open-ended questions early, don’t fatigue people, and, yeah, just let people trust you and they’ll give you good information.

Adrian Tennant: So just to understand the mechanics a little bit as a client with survey data, including open-ended text responses, does the researcher upload the data to an online platform? How does that work?

Lana Novikova: Once you collect your data, it’ll be closed-ended and open-ended responses. Say it’s an Excel or CSV file. So once we have a CSV file, it’s very simple to upload in our system. You know, our clients will get the password and then they can upload themselves or we can upload for them. We show all the metadata, all your closed-ended questions, your demographics will be on one side. And the open-ended responses we’ll show in a dashboard. Each word and phrase that is emotional in open-ended responses will be tagged into one or many categories of secondary emotions. You will actually see in our survey, words highlighted in blue, with anger, and you’ll see that word or phrase, it represents anger in that particular context. We use human curation to clean the data and we want to guarantee 95% accuracy. So we’ve worked with every data file. We clean it. F or example, the word cheesy. Right? So they drew a cheesy showing up in your survey responses.  When you talk about “pizza” or “pasta” [it] is not an emotional word. If your context is advertising for shampoo and you say, well, “The ad is cheesy” that’s an emotion. So things like that are full of disambiguation. So we would clean the data for those words to be disambiguated. So again, I explained to you what’s going on the back [end] and then the front [end], you see a very clean, very easy to use dashboard where you can slice and dice by gender, geography, and all your metadata. And see each word and phrase in the level of primary emotion, the level of sentiment, you see positive, negative, neutral, charts, and there’s all kinds of data mining also. You can do it through the dashboard. It’s very easy and fun to use.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the most interesting consumer insights that you’ve been able to yield with text-based emotional analytics that isn’t typically possible with other methods?

Lana Novikova: I like examples from patient experience and employee experience because usually that’s where we get very rich data, very emotional data.  If it’s collected well. For example, a few years ago, we worked with  qualitative data, actually – [they] were interviews with patients with multiple myeloma, which is a very late stage of cancer.  A number of interviews where patients were asked their journey with their disease at the beginning before diagnosis, then later through treatment, remission, and now they’re at the last stage. So imagine it’s a lot of words, a lot of uh, dialogue. And when a human analyzes this qualitative data,  they usually pull topics and themes, it’s very, it’s impossible to quantify emotions in that situation. What happened is we split interviews into different stages, journey of that patient, downloaded the data, and it showed a very simple chart showing the emotional journey of the patient. And, it showed a very interesting spike of joy at the last stage. So there was a lot of joy, the beginning, then the patients go into that, you know, fear and anger stage, and sadness. There’s a lot of dark emotions, obviously. But then at the end of the last stage, when they kind of reconcile with the disease, joy showed up  – and a very particular type of joy – bliss. It was unexpected. We went into the data, looked into the joy and we found quite a few people were at peace with their life at that stage. And once you quantify that insight, it becomes very strong and it was beautiful, a marketing campaign for fundraising for multiple myeloma. And because of that insight, the campaign was built in orange colors with a beautiful picture of this older woman with glasses and with a big smile, instead of their, you know, typical kind of very dark, very sad campaigns. I love working with data like this, the rich data where manually it’s impossible to find it. But the system pulls it very quickly. And then the intuition of a researcher and a marketer will tell you, “Well, that’s interesting,” as something comes up, unexpected, “Let’s go deeper.” And when you go deeper, you uncover that gold mine.

Adrian Tennant: Now, you’ve mentioned the use of artificial intelligence and a combination of human and machine learning. But as you know, such systems can be biased based on who builds them, the way they’re developed, and how they’re deployed. So Lana, how do you mitigate the risk of bias in your technology?

Lana Novikova: It’s a very, very important question for all of us and for the future of technology. We mitigated from the very beginning. Our algorithms are not based upon deep learning. Our algorithms are based on supervised learning. We, you know, we engineered our system. Then we manually coded a taxonomy, the training data, I think we started with 10,000 words and phrases and manually coded them into those buckets of emotions. And that’s been done by professional, psycholinguists. So, first by one person, and then a few other people validate it, and that’s how we dealt with bias.  When, you know, a few people code the same word in the same bucket, we believe that that’s an emotion is such a… it’s not numbers, it’s a matter of opinion or the feeling. But when a few coders agree, that’s good coding. That’s how we build the system at the very beginning. And after that, we build a lot of algorithms that can take that solid first taxonomy, first training data, and extrapolate it into more words and phrases. So after that semi-supervised machine learning is used. It takes longer, but it’s worth it, because the accuracy is there. And then if we ever discover a mistake, we know exactly where to go and fix it. So I never liked black boxes, I always like open systems where I know where to go and fix it. So we just took a different approach.

Adrian Tennant: Now, how do you see the role of technology in consumer research specifically, developing over the say next five years or so?

Lana Novikova: I think it’s going to be even faster than the next five years. The transition to research companies to merge with technology companies. And you know, I’m biased, of course I’ve been running a software company for five years now, before that I was a researcher on the supply and on the client side. But now knowing the tech world, knowing how fast, how innovative the tech world is, to have a chance and having a job and career and business in market research, researchers will have to keep up with technology. As hard as it is we have to become aware, not to hide. We have to re-educate ourselves. It doesn’t mean we need to become programmers, but for example, if you are a statistician, knowing the principles of machine learning, text analytics, we’re already 80% of the way there. For example, the multivariate analysis or the algorithms that are used in machine learning, often statistically are similar to what we use in stats in multivariate. So it’s the same tool, same principles. So researchers need to kind of be brave and go and retrain themselves and just open up to technology instead of pushing against it. But it goes back to 2000 where, you know, the traditional pen and paper, quantitative researchers were saying that, “No surveys will never go online.” And lo and behold now, we know where this story is, right? In the same way, you know, embrace machine learning – it’s coming and better be friends with that than not.

Adrian Tennant: How do you keep up to date with the constantly evolving landscape of technology platforms and possibilities, and perhaps equally importantly, how do you determine what’s most deserving of your attention?

Lana Novikova: I’m an innovator. I’m very excited about anything new. Five years ago, actually, we got an award for best innovation in market research,  in Amsterdam at one of the big research events. So that sparked even more to keep looking for new things. For example, I’m very, very excited about chatbots, and how chatbots are going to influence research from data collection  all the way to analysis. And we are going to launch our first chatbot this year. I just love playing with things. So I guess if you’re curious, if you’re open, if you’re not afraid of technology, the rest is just play with that. And, I allocate time in the schedule to look for innovations, always read, keep up with innovations in market research and also outside of market research, because it’s very important to see what’s out there and what could be brought to market research. For example, Alexa or Google devices. You know, can they be used in a survey right now? We’re all at home, right? Can we use it as an interviewing device or collecting good qualitative data? For example, all of that could be done. And of course I have a team of programmers and that makes it easy for me to experiment and to program things. So I can just imagine it and my team can program, which makes it easy. So I’d say curiosity,no fear, you just go for it. And yeah, it’s, it’s easy to get lost in all these new things happening, but after a few years, you kind of develop a taste and you look for, “Okay, here’s the actual trend,” or “This is just a fad and is going to go away.” And, of course, Heartbeat is all about emotions. We’re not doing anything else but understanding emotion. So it’s really easy when you focus so deeply on one thing to do it really, really well. So any research that new things that come about emotions in neuroscience, I keep track of that with passion or obsession, I would say so. Yeah. And that keeps you going and innovating. Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: Well Lana, in parallel with your professional career, I know you’ve also been a very active supporter or there are a number of causes, but you mentioned a plan for an eco village in Nicaragua. Could you tell us more about that?

Lana Novikova: At the beginning, when you introduced me, you mentioned that I worked for the United Nations in Kyrgyzstan, and then in New York. So when I worked in Kyrgyzstan, it was 1993, for a couple of years. We ran UN offices just opened in my country. And I was a project manager. So we did beautiful work of building capacity in the poor country, building schools, building orphanages, and bringing Western knowledge and tools into a poor country to help people and that feeling of building something. For children who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to go to school because it was destroyed by earthquake. That was one particular project. The feeling of meaning and purpose that it gave me was unforgettable enough so that I worked for many years in a corporate environment in North America. And I will always miss that feeling of fulfillment of doing something for people. So now in Nicaragua, I mentioned that I bought land and  I was planning to build a home on that land for me and my family and friends, maybe a few small homes, like a small eco village. But just a couple of months ago, we had  two hurricanes actually hit this country from the Caribbean side, and many, many families lost their homes. You live in Florida and you understand what’s happening, the more hurricanes will be coming. And  more people will be displaced by the environmental disasters. And this country by itself cannot support people who left without homes, the government is doing only so much. And the international community is doing so much. So that kind of opened my heart to think, “You know, I have the land and I can fundraise actually to build not five homes, but maybe 50 homes on that lot of land that I bought and just donate it to the village for people who otherwise wouldn’t have homes.” So that’s my dream to do it. It’ll take some time, but that’s another dream, so that’s back to the feeling of fulfillment and purpose.

Adrian Tennant: Lana, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners want to learn more about Heartbeat AI Technologies, where can they find you?

Lana Novikova: I would love them to find me. We have a website at www.HeartbeatAI.com. And to reach me directly, you go to Lana@HeartbeatAI.com. It’s my email. Yeah. I would love to have conversations and I would love to offer mentorship to people who really want to be in the field of text analytics, sentiment analysis, because I know it very well and I would love to share my knowledge with young professionals who want to come and maybe even work for Heartbeat one day.

Adrian Tennant: Lana, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Lana Novikova: Thank you so much for inviting me and thank you for your time. And I look forward to our next conversations.

[MUSIC]

Adrian Tennant: Next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS…

Eric Ortiz: How do I let people know what this product is, in a highly competitive CBD market, and also stay compliant within the ad space to make sure that my ads don’t get disapproved?

Adrian Tennant: A conversation with Eric Ortiz of Magical Brands, on navigating regulations around its CBD and cannabis-related products, that’s next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week, Lana Novikova, founder and CEO of Heartbeat AI Technologies. You’ll find links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com under “Insights”. Just click on the button marked “Podcast”. And if you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, or your preferred podcast player. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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Digital Marketing for Financial Services

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How do you grow revenues over 400 percent in 3 years? Mason Dorner of Fattmerchant shares secrets of successful B2B digital marketing for financial services.

IN CLEAR FOCUS: Bigeye discusses the growth of payment technology company Fattmerchant with the company’s VP of Marketing, Mason Dorner. Sharing some of the tactics that have made Fattmerchant a poster child for Central Florida’s tech community, Mason outlines his team’s structure, marketing technology stack, and his personal philosophy for keeping ahead in a highly competitive industry. Mason also reflects on differences between performance and brand campaigns for high-growth companies.

Digital Marketing for Financial Services

In Clear Focus: Bigeye discusses the growth of payment technology company Fattmerchant with the company’s VP of Marketing, Mason Dorner. Sharing some of the tactics that have made Fattmerchant a poster child for Central Florida’s tech community, Mason outlines his team’s structure, marketing technology stack, and his personal philosophy for keeping ahead in a highly competitive industry.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re In today’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Mason Dorner: Once somebody commits to a brand search, it’s usually pretty tough to peel them off which is why competitive advertising and search typically doesn’t perform all that well for most people.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us for our first episode of 2021, which also marks the start of our sixth season of IN CLEAR FOCUS. According to a report from MasterCard, US retail sales rose 3% during the 2020 holiday shopping season powered by the shift toward online shopping. In fact, holiday e-commerce sales jumped 49% making up almost one-fifth of total US retail sales for the entire year. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes of IN CLEAR FOCUS, during the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have embraced new options such as buy online and pickup in store and contactless payment technologies. And it’s not just the big stores that have had to adapt – small and medium sized retailers have adopted technology to offer their customers more ways to shop and pay for goods. Our guest today sees how shopping is continuing to change for consumers and retailers on a daily basis. A seasoned, data-driven digital marketing leader, Mason Dorner is the Vice President of Marketing at Fattmerchant, an Orlando-based payment technology company. Fattmerchant offers credit card processing solutions designed for a variety of business types and it was named Best Credit Card Processor of 2020 by US News and World Report. It also has the distinction of being the region’s second-fastest-growing private firm with 467% revenue growth in the past three years. Prior to his role at Fattmerchant, Mason held digital marketing positions with Bonnier, Universal Orlando, and The Walt Disney Company. Mason, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Mason Dorner: Thank you. Appreciate you having me on today.

Adrian Tennant: So first, could you tell us what Fattmerchant does?

Mason Dorner: Yeah, absolutely. So Fattmerchant, as you said, is a payment technology company. So we compete most directly with Square and with Stripe. So Square tends to specialize in in-person credit card processing Stripe tends to specialize in online and we can actually do both through a single API. So it used to be that if you were a store owner, and you also had an e-commerce store, you actually needed two different payment processing solutions, and you’d have two sets of books that you had to reconcile two different vendors to deal with. And we can actually do both in a single API so that you’re dealing with one vendor getting one statement and only one set of books to reconcile. And then in addition to that, we’re also cheaper than both of those options that I just listed off and then cheaper than the traditional payment processing model.  What most people don’t understand is to take a debit card transaction from MasterCard only costs about half a percent, but those competitors that I just listed off are going to charge you around 3%. So that’s about a 500% markup. And so what we do is we charge a flat monthly membership, and then that gets you access to the wholesale cost of credit card processing. And that typically ends up saving business owners around 40%. Uh, So we’ve been both disruptive in our pricing strategy as well as in our technology

Adrian Tennant: What is Fattmerchant’s founding story?

Mason Dorner: So the founding story is our CEO was in merchant services for several years. And the industry has a poor reputation – deceitful sales techniques are used by a lot of companies. The service is not great. The pricing is expensive and it’s really all about, how can these companies get the most money out of each small business owner? And so they make it very hard to understand what business owners are actually paying and the rates can be variable. So your rates will go up randomly over time and there’s all kinds of hidden fees. And so just not a great experience, it’s almost like you compare it to a cable company, the way that the industry has typically run. And so our CEO was in that world and just realized there had to be a better way to do this. There’s gotta be a way to provide a good experience and still make money and be a profitable business. And so that’s where she got the idea to start this subscription-based processor that would be transparent and that would save business owners, money but still be a profitable company. And so she left the company that she was with and went out on her own and started Fattmerchant.

Adrian Tennant: Now I’m guessing that as consumers, most of us probably don’t give a great deal of thought to payment processing, other than maybe whether our personal debit or credit card is accepted, or if a digital payment method is available. Mason, could you give us a primer on the business of payment processing?

Mason Dorner: Sure. So like you said, the average consumer, they swipe their card. They don’t think anything else about it. It’s much more top of mind for small business owners though, because as I said, typically three or four percentage points at every transaction are going to go to the payment processor and that’s how payment processors make their money. Now within that three or 4%, there’s also what’s called interchange and that’s the wholesale cost that Visa and MasterCard charge. And that varies anywhere between one and two and a half percent depending on the type of card that’s used. And then the amount of above that is what the processor captures as their kind of piece of the transaction. And so what the processor does is when you swipe that card, the processor is physically taking the money off of the consumer’s credit card. And then they are moving that money into the retailer’s bank account is in a nutshell what credit card processors do in a very simplified manner.

Adrian Tennant: As VP of Marketing at Fattmerchant, what does your role typically entail?


Mason Dorner: So my role entails really anything marketing-related. So I report directly to our CEO. So I oversee everything from our branding, our PR, our content marketing, our digital advertising, anything really that has our logo on it. And then anybody outside the company sees is typically something that I’m involved with.

Adrian Tennant: And what does a typical Fattmerchant customer look like?

Mason Dorner: A typical Fattmerchant customer is a small or medium-sized business owner. They’re typically doing at least $10,000 a month in credit card transactions. And the reason I say that is because that’s the point at which they typically see the most savings. From us below the $10,000 Mark, the subscription pricing, doesn’t save them as much money. And so it’s a little bit less compelling. However, we still make sense for those smaller business owners. We can still offer rates comparable to Square or Stripe. It’s just, it’s going to be one-to-one and not so much of a savings. Whereas once they graduate up to that subscription-based plan, that’s where they really start to save money. And within that, where we work with most businesses, but there are certain businesses that we find we do really well with medical, professional services – so like lawyers and accountants – field services. So think like HVAC, electricians and then retail. So those are our four focus verticals. Again, we do work with other businesses outside of that, but those four where we really excel. Just because they get the most value out of our technology because we started out just being the cheapest credit card processor and having these transparent rates. But we’ve since moved beyond that, where we built a lot of our own tech stack and a lot of proprietary technology such as our bi-directional sync with QuickBooks and we actually beat Stripe and Square to market for that capability. And so that saves these business owners a lot of time where they can export all their transactions directly into their accounting software and save a lot of time doing manual reconciliation. So that’s just one example of the tech that we’ve built and those four business types benefit the most from that type of tech and from the analytics that we provide as part of their package. So we’re able to add the most value to those business types and really supercharge their business with the additional tools that we provide as part of their subscription.

Adrian Tennant: You have experience in both business-to-business and business-to consumer marketing. How do business-to-business customer journeys differ from B2C, if at all?

Mason Dorner: They absolutely differ. It definitely depends on the type of business. But in general, a B2B sales cycle is going to be longer. The leads are going to be more expensive. Your cost per acquisition is going to be higher. The audience sizes and the addressable market is smaller. So the sales cycles take longer. There’s typically more decision-makers involved as well versus a consumer and all of those things get bigger and longer as the business size expands. So a large business is going to have more decision-makers, a much longer sales process, probably take more ad spend and sales enablement dollar spent to get them on the hook, versus a consumer, you’re just dealing with one person a lot of times, depending on what you’re selling it can be an impulse purchase. So it’s typically a faster process to conversion and most sales take place in the B2C world, they take place directly online instantly. Whereas with B2B services, there’s more research. There usually has to be a real human conversation that happens. So like in our sales process, we bring in the leads through digital channels, such as paid search and Facebook. But once the lead is submitted, they get assigned to one of our payment consultants who then walks them through the rest of the purchase process, helps them select what products and what solutions make the most sense for them, helps them feel comfortable and build this custom package that’s going to make sense for their business. And so that’s a component that isn’t typically there in B2C marketing.

Adrian Tennant: Now you’re leading a team of data-driven performance marketers. What are your team’s key performance indicators?

Mason Dorner: So there’s actually a lot of them, I’ll try to pick the ones that are most important, but we’re an inbound lead generation marketing model. And so the way that our funnel works is we have MQLs that then convert into SQLs that then convert into customers. And so those are our three stages of the funnel. So we have volume metrics tied to generating enough marketing qualified leads or enough leads, but we also have efficiency metrics that’s tied to a cost per lead, cost per qualified lead, a cost per customer. And then also conversion metrics. We have benchmarks that we know that a lead is supposed to convert to a qualified lead at X percent and a qualified lead is supposed to convert to a customer at X percent. So we have cost efficiency metrics. We have volume metrics. We have conversion efficiency metrics. And then even beyond that and something that makes I think our marketing team unique because most marketing teams are really just focused on driving leads –  “Okay. I got this many leads and I got this cost per lead. I hit my number for the month.” We’re focused beyond that. We’re focused on lifetime value and on revenue generation. And that’s where a lot of marketing teams in the lead gen space tend to drop the ball as they generate the lead. And they say, “Okay, my job is done.” We spend a lot of time tracking the lifetime value of our customers so that we can go out and use that data to mine for more high quality customers. And so even lifetime value and upsell, cross sell opportunity after they become a customer. Those are things that we have KPIs for that we actively track and that come full circle back to the front of the funnel. We use that data to go out and find better customers.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the key components of your martech stack?

Mason Dorner: So the main piece of marketing tech that really runs our whole company is HubSpot. HubSpot has several different solutions. We use all of them. So we use their CRM. We use their marketing cloud. We use their email deployment system. Their customer service system. So all these pieces within their suite of products that bolt together and they integrate together, we use all of them and that’s really the hub of our marketing stack and any tools outside of that that we’ve acquired. And there are a couple, but the first question that we always ask is, “Does it integrate with HubSpot?” – which is our core – if so, “What does that integration look like?” Because adding additional tools that don’t necessarily talk to the rest of your stack it creates problems. You need to have everybody looking at the same data at the same dashboards and everything, talking to each other so that you can make true apples-to-apples comparisons versus having different departments working in different tools. So for, even for our additional tools outside of HubSpot, they all have to talk to each other, but those additional tools a week, a landing page builder called Unbounce. We are always aggressively A/B testing. So that’s an important tool to us. We have several hundred landing pages within that tool. We also use Google Analytics also Google ads, Facebook ads, a couple of other lesser-known ad platforms that I would say comprises the majority of our tech stack.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Mason Dorner, Vice President of Marketing for Fattmerchant. Mason, immediately prior to Fattmerchant, you managed digital marketing campaigns for Walt Disney World Resort and before that for Universal Orlando. What, if any, strategies or tactics from your time in those entertainment and hospitality driven businesses have you brought to your current role?

Mason Dorner: There’s definitely been a couple of them that were brought over. First and foremost would be just testing aggressively when it comes to new tactics, new ad, creative, new capabilities within the ad platforms. When I was with those organizations, I got to test a lot of things way before they came to market. For example, like Facebook 360 video ads that you’ve probably seen where you can move your phone around and it looks around inside of a video or inside of an app. When I was at Disney, we were the first ones to test that out. We were also the first people to do dynamic product ads on Facebook. So the dynamic carousel retargeting ads, we were the first ones to do that in the travel industry. And we saw massive ROI from it. And at the time, Facebook now has a product called dynamic ads for travel. But they didn’t, it didn’t exist several years ago. And so we actually hack together a way for dynamic product ads to show hotel inventory. And it proved that this concept could transition. From e-commerce and work really well for travel. And so now every hotel chain in the world is using this ad product that we helped Facebook pilot. And so that’s something that my team has carried forward into fat merchant is always looking for that next piece of tech, that next capability that no one else is doing, because it’s going to provide you an edge, even if you don’t do it necessarily well, If you’re the first one to use this new piece of technology or this new integration or this new capability that nobody else is using, it can do a lot to help you stay ahead of the competition. One area where we did that was with Google actually. We’re in their accelerator program where we basically get enterprise level support, even though we’re a startup company because we’re high growth and they’ve identified us as a high potential company. And we behave like an enterprise advertiser, so they treat us like that. So we actually were one of the first companies in the world to start importing our offline conversions into Google ads. And we used that to build audiences to go out and find more qualified customers. So we had actually ported over our SQL and customer information into Google automatically via Zapier. And that allowed us to then go and say, “Okay, we’ve got all these customers that we’ve piped into Google, Google now knows what our customers look like. And then they can bid accordingly against our audiences and against our search terms based on who they think looks like our customers.” So instead of most marketers at the time, and we actually implemented this almost two years ago now when we first did it, but most marketers at the time were bidding towards cost per lead. And we were actually able to leave that completely behind and start bidding towards cost per customer and cost for SQL. We completely stopped bidding towards cost per lead, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we weren’t up to try this new, somewhat scary integration that Google wanted us to pilot for them. So, in summary, it’s always aggressively testing, always looking for that next new magic bullet that maybe nobody else has tried yet to stay a step ahead of the competition.

Adrian Tennant: With its amazing growth, Fattmerchant is a poster child of Central Florida’s startup sector. It was announced in early December that a Knoxville-based investment firm, Greater Sum Ventures LLC, has taken a majority ownership stake in the company. What does the immediate future look like for Fattmerchant?

Mason Dorner: The future for Fattmerchant doesn’t look that much different with this new investment in terms of, we already had a really solid product roadmap. What this investment and these new partners are allowing us to do is to do it much faster and much bigger. So we started out as a merchant services company that sold payment processing and payment technology to small businesses. And we built an amazing tech stack that we provided just to our SMBs. But what we realized is there were software platforms out there that could also benefit from this API. So different business management tools that didn’t have a payment component but that could benefit from having one. So a real life example is a software for electricians. It helps electricians manage and run their business. The one downfall to the software was there was no payment component. And so the electricians would use this piece of software to do their scheduling, manage their  inventory. But then when it came time to take payment, they would have to pull out another app, pull out their swiper from another company to actually take their payment. And so this software company came to us to integrate payments into their platform. And so we were able to hook them up to our same API that we use for our SMBs to where they could process payments within their platform. Now they have a stickier user experience, their users aren’t having to switch in between multiple apps. And so it allows them to own the whole customer experience and have a stickier product. And these softwares, many of them have thousands of customers. And so by adding just a couple of software partners, we can exponentially grow our book of business. And now the end user doesn’t necessarily know who Fattmerchant is. They don’t know that when they’re running a payment through this electrician software, they don’t know that’s us or who we are, but they become our customers by proxy. And so that’s the vision that Global Sum Ventures saw because they come from the software space, they’ve bought and sold many software platforms, and they understand that it is really hard to combine payments and software and get it right. And so what they saw in us as we were the one company that figured out how to do that, and so that fit their vision and fit their portfolio. ‘Cause this is the space that they’re in. And so now we’re able to grow into this space and also help them supercharge their other software platforms with this same payment technology. So that’s really the future is that we’re becoming more and more of a software SaaS-based company, more and more of an integrated payments company focused on this independent software vendor space. So our SMB space will always be there, we will continue to grow it aggressively, but now we have this whole other business unit that is focused on the software space.

Adrian Tennant: So we’ve talked a lot about performance marketing. It doesn’t sound like there’s much of a role for traditional brand marketing campaigns in your strategy. Is that fair?

Mason Dorner: Yes and no. So we’re in a space right now in marketing, where I think we’ve almost gone too digital and too trackable to where we’re overly focused on dollar-in dollar-out. It doesn’t mean that there’s not still value to brand marketing and there’s not value to traditional media. In fact, traditional media like TV and radio is cheaper than it’s ever been. I think the challenge though is figuring out, “How does it fit into my attribution model?” Like “How can I track back some dollars or some impact? I don’t need to track all of it, but I need to have enough to have a gut feel that it’s working at least.” And so I think that’s where it gets hard. And like display advertising and Facebook advertising, even though those are digital, they’re not offline – what I was just talking about. There’s a lot of people that will see your banner ad and see your Facebook ad and then will go to your site and convert. Google and Facebook will count those conversions, but you won’t see it in Google analytics. You won’t see it in your CRM. And so when I look at my reporting and my reporting says display advertising isn’t working, it’s doing horrible because we don’t see very many post-click conversions. But then I look in Google and it says, I have a ton of post view conversions. So Google is telling me, “Hey, these hundred people converted through this channel.” My CRM is telling me two converted through this channel because it’s only looking at post-click. And so I think that’s where you have to go with a little bit of a balanced view and a little bit of a gut feel of, “Okay, my branded search is probably not doing as good as what I think it is because branded search is all driven from somewhere and my display, or even my offline media is probably not doing as poor as what my charts and graphs say it is because it’s driving that paid search where I can track everything.” And so there’s a certain level of blind spot between the brand marketing and between the performance marketing that I think we as advertisers need to be okay with and accepting of. And as long as there’s enough leading indicators on both sides to where there is some data tie up, like again, I see all these conversions in Google. I don’t see them in my CRM, but there’s enough there that I can tie up that, okay, this is an attribution problem. This isn’t a performance problem. I do think there is room for marketing and branding. It’s not where I would start. If I’m a small business, I’m starting at the bottom of the funnel with paid search and with retargeting. But as I get bigger and as I go upstream, I do think it’s important and it’s important for us. Our goal is to be a billion dollar tech unicorn, and we’re not going to get there without people knowing our name. And we’ve done a good job showing up when people are shopping for payment technology, but we’re at a stage now where we don’t want to show up just when you’re searching for payment tech. We want to be the first name that you think of in payment tech before you even searched for us, you’re already aware of us because once somebody commits to a brand search, it’s usually pretty tough to peel them off which is why competitive advertising and search typically doesn’t perform all that well for most people, because you’re trying to peel off people that have already committed to another brand. So if we can be the first brand that people think of, that’s where our growth is going to come from because the bottom of the funnel is only so big.

Adrian Tennant: Mason, how do you keep up to date with the constantly evolving landscape of marketing technology platforms? And equally importantly, how do you determine what’s most deserving of your attention?

Mason Dorner: Yeah. So I’m going to answer the first part of that here. So the digital marketing landscape is constantly changing. What worked six months ago will not work now, especially when you look at advertising and the ad platforms, what works on Facebook? What works on Google? A year ago, or two years ago, everybody was bidding by hand on Google. Now you’re, you’re crazy and you’re losing out on opportunity if you’re not using auto bidding. On Facebook, a good size audience used to be 500,000 people. Now, if your audience has less than 5 million , it’s too small to be efficient. And so with these platforms changing so rapidly I’ve made it a priority for myself and for my team to always continue learning and actually block off time during the week just to learn and see what innovations are out there, whether that is attending a webinar , going to a networking event , going to a conference for one weekend during the year, reading a book, whatever it happens to be but to make sure that we carve out time for it uh, because as marketers in this day and age, if we’re not constantly learning, you’ll be obsolete in six to 12 months you’ll fall off very quickly. And so I really think it’s just a matter of prioritizing and actually blocking that time out on your calendar every week as if it were a meeting or some other commitment so that you actually do spend that time to enrich your knowledge and get a good view of the landscape of what’s new and what’s changing. Uh, to answer your second question in terms of how to determine what to focus on. That all to me, it comes back to ROI and effort versus what it’s going to yield. So whenever we’re taking on a project within the business or adding a new capability or a new piece of software, a new tool, I’m always looking at it from how much time and effort am I, or my team going to invest into this and what’s it going to bring back? Obviously, we prioritize the low-effort, high-yield tasks first and then work backwards from there. So, you know, It all comes back to ROI and what lines up best with the business goals, because especially within the marketing and tech space, there are so many shiny objects that are very cool from afar but cool doesn’t make money. And so it’s important to keep the business context and keep the ROI in focus ahead of what’s shiny and new.

Adrian Tennant: Mason, in addition to your professional life, you’re also very active supporting a number of causes. What are some of the most rewarding volunteering experiences that you’ve had?

Mason Dorner: Yeah, so I’ve always enjoyed helping people. It’s something that I was raised doing. It was part of my family culture. We used to take trips to Mexico to help build houses in some of the poor areas there. In high school, I took several trips to the Bahamas to help build an orphanage. So it was just something that I always grew up doing and always found a lot of fulfillment from. And I would say helping people is far more rewarding than anything that I’ve ever done professionally. So some of the things that I’m involved with now I’ve done some pro bono work here and there to help nonprofits with their marketing. So there’s a few nonprofits where I’ve set their search campaigns up or I’ve audited their website, or help them optimize for SEO. So it’s a fun cross section of my professional life and this kind of personal passion of being philanthropic. And then another passion that I have is public speaking. And so I’ve built up a pretty good network over the years of influential people who have the means to help when called upon and a lot of these people have platforms and access to audiences. So like several local pastors in the area, people like that. And so when my wife and I have run across a cause or a person or a group of people that we felt like we needed to help, I was able to combine this passion for public speaking that I have with also helping people. And so I’ve been able to call some of these local leaders and say, “Hey, I have this group of people or this family, here’s their need, can I come speak at your church or can I come speak at your company and tell this story?” And they’ve been gracious enough to allow me to come in and tell those stories and to raise money, to help these individuals, which has been that’s definitely the most rewarding, most fulfilling thing that I’ve feel like I’ve ever done personally or professionally is being able to help people like this and, leverage these platforms and leverage  this network. And it’s just, it’s something that fulfills me, especially because it’s helping a real person, a real group of people that I’ve, met and seen versus giving to a charity, which is great, and if that’s what you’re into, that’s how you like to give that’s how you like to help the world, that’s awesome. There’s a lot of charities that do great things. For me personally, I like seeing where the time and the effort and the dollars are going and knowing that it’s impacting real people. So I like you, you’re doing this more targeted approach of finding a person or a family or a group of people, and then working backwards and going, “Okay, where can I find the resources to help these people?  Who do I know in my network that this would resonate with, that would be willing to jump in and solve this problem or help this cause.”

Adrian Tennant: What are your daily sources of inspiration?

Mason Dorner: I would say first and foremost, my wife she’s a huge motivating factor for me. Everything that I do personally and professionally that I’m working towards is really to provide a better life for my family and for her. So she’s a huge source of motivation. She’s always got my back, has always pushed me forward. Whenever I’m maybe starting to get worn down or burned out. So definitely she’s at the top of that list. Outside of that, I’ve always liked doing things that are hard or that are difficult, or that few people are willing to do. Just being able to achieve is something that has always motivated me personally and doing things that are difficult.I guess I have, I’ve always had a fear of like being average and that’s not good enough for me uh, to just be your average, kind of run of the mill nine-to-five type person. And so that’s something I’ve always drawn on is I want to be better than that. I want to be the best that I can be.  I don’t want to get to the end of the race, one day when I’m 80 years old and not have left it all on the field, and not have achieved all that I could achieve. So I guess I, I wake up every day, not wanting to waste that opportunity and wanting to make sure that I make the most of the opportunity that I have in front of me.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners want to learn more about Fattmerchant, where can they find you?

Mason Dorner: They can find us at Fattmerchant.com as well as on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. Be sure to give us a follow.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. Mason, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Mason Dorner: Thank you. It was great to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Mason Dorner, Vice President of Marketing for Fattmerchant. You’ll find links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under insights. Just click on the button marked podcast. And if you haven’t already please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, or your preferred podcast player. Next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Lana Novikova: We market researchers have responsibility to understand our consumers and shoppers at the deepest possible level. And I wanted to build a tool that can reflect the nonbinary nature of human emotions. Heartbeat is all about emotions.

Adrian Tennant: An interview with consumer insights expert Lana Novikova, creator of Heartbeat AI, a unique text analytics tool. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us for the last episode of this season and of this year. During the course of 2020, issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion have been front of mind. In November, a century after women first gained the right to vote, America chose Kamala Harris to be the first ever female to hold the office of Vice President. The organization SeeHer, led by the Association of National Advertisers, seeks to improve the accuracy of portrayals of women and girls in US advertising and media. Women have long been underrepresented in the media’s depiction of entrepreneurship – yet the number of female entrepreneurs in the US has increased since 2007 by over 30 percent. And their firms have grown at a rate one-and-a-half times greater than other small businesses. Female business leaders also tend to begin their entrepreneurial journeys earlier in life than their male counterparts. According to a GuardianFinancial.com survey, 51% of female business owners were under the age of 50 when they launched, compared to 44% of men. The National Association of Women Business Owners reports that there are 9.1 million women owned businesses nationwide, employing 7.9 million employees and generating $1.4 trillion in sales. So in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’re going to revisit conversations with five female entrepreneurs who were our guests this year, and learn how each of them arrived at the ideas for their own businesses. In June, we spoke to Kristen Wiley, founder and CEO of the influencer marketing agency Statusphere.

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Adrian Tennant: When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in marketing? 

Kristen Wiley: It’s kind of funny, although it’s probably not what most children want to grow up to be when they’re little. I actually always wanted to be in marketing. I thought advertisements were actually super cool on TV. I would watch TV just for the ads and I would even make ads myself. So I knew I always wanted to go into marketing, but of course, when I was little social media wasn’t even a thing, so that evolved over time. But I knew from when I went into college that I wanted to go into advertising and marketing. 

Adrian Tennant: So in 2016, you founded Statusphere with a mission of matching consumer brands with influencers. What’s your definition of an influencer? 

Kristen Wiley: Yeah. My definition of an influencer is anyone who influences a buying decision. I actually quite often talk about how specifically influencer marketing, everyone views it as online, but it’s really just word of mouth marketing in the new age. Social networks have allowed real people to build audiences and actually influence outside their sphere of just who they can talk to. So it’s been very interesting to see how platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok allow you to go outside of just your little sphere of influence – where it used to be big movie stars that could do that before social media was a thing. 

Adrian Tennant: So Kristen, what insights sparked the idea that ultimately became Statusphere?.

Kristen Wiley: So actually, when I was in college, I had a professor who told me the best thing that I could do to actually learn about marketing in general was to start a blog. He said, “You’d learn way more than anything you’ll learn in my classes.” What he said. His name was Jim Hobart. He’s actually pretty popular in the Orlando community. He’s a photographer, but he was an adjunct professor at the time. He told our whole class that, and that night I went home and I started a blog and he was so right. I always say that’s the best career advice I’ve ever gotten. I started this blog, had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn how to build a website. I had to learn SEO. I had to learn, you know, photography, really content. If you look at my first blogs, they were just horrific. But, um, but I did learn so much. And that was actually what even spurred me to get my agency jobs, all of my jobs, where they saw my blog and they were like, “We don’t even care about your GPA. You did that? We’re hiring you.” Um, so I always give him major thank you for that, that piece of advice. Um, so I did have that experience. And then when I started working at different agencies, I always got thrown into doing influencer marketing because I was the only one that had experience with it. So they were like, “Oh, you’re young, but no one else on our team has really influencer marketing experience” – this is 2011, 2012 – “but our brands are asking for it. So can you help us?” So I was in this unique position where I was given a budget, I got to test out other influencer marketing platforms. I was on them as an influencer and as a brand. And that’s where I started seeing all these holes where I was like,” there just has to be a better way.” On the influencer side, I was a food blogger and I would get pitched mattress companies and really strange things that had nothing to do with my blog. And I was like, “This is a waste of my time and why is it this way?” And then on the brand side, I was sifting through hundreds, if not thousands of influencers trying to find the right one. And I was like, “there just has to be a better way where we can match the two.” And that’s where the idea was born. 

Adrian Tennant: Now, prior to founding Statusphere, had you any interest or experience in entrepreneurship?

Kristen Wiley: I had interest in entrepreneurship, but I didn’t think that I would become an entrepreneur. Looking back when I was younger, I was one of those people who did always have a side hustle where I sold like really random things door to door. I’ve sold everything from like bows to like purses. I used to like buy stuff from Marshall’s and resell them on eBay. So I used to always do those type of like weird entrepreneurial things to make extra money, but I never thought I was going to start a company. So that being said, I started working at one of the agencies locally  and one of their verticals was startups. So I worked in sales in that, and I started interacting with lots of startup founders. And that’s when I started, I think, realizing in the back of my head, like “This is something I think I could do.” Like I started meeting other female founders and seeing them do it. And I was like, well, you know, “I’ve had this idea for a while. Maybe I should try it.” 

Adrian Tennant: So from idea to establishing Statusphere, what did that look like? 

Kristen Wiley: So I had the idea for Statusphere for a while before starting it. I bought the URL actually like two years, probably, or year and a half before ever launching anything.  I think that’s a story that a lot of entrepreneurs talk about because it just takes so much effort to actually make the jump because, you know, you’re so nervous, like, “Is this what I should be doing? I have a great job.” I actually loved my current job at the agency. So it made it even harder. Like “Why would I do this?” But the way that it looked was I actually had told my boss at the agency about it  and he was very supportive, which I think is also unheard of. And I thank him a lot for being so supportive. Because that was a big thing that pushed me. Like “He thinks it’s a good idea. Maybe I should try this.” And I did on the side. And the way I started was I reached out to a bunch of  influencers with a simple landing page that was like the first subscription box for influencers. It was a really ugly landing page with a form on it, where you could apply. Um, and I just messaged it to 10 influencers that I personally followed that didn’t know me personally. And I woke up the next day and had 12 applications. I was like, “Well, maybe this is something, this is a good idea!” 

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Adrian Tennant: Kristen leveraged her agency-side knowledge of social media and her experiences as an Influencer to identify a gap in the market and then create a solution to satisfy a previously unmet need. If you’d like to hear the full interview with Kristen Wiley, you’ll find it on our website with the publication date of June 18th. Over the past 15 years, Holly Kapherr has made a name for herself in the world of culinary public relations, building on a career that has included cookbook and magazine editing, recipe testing, and food styling. But in 2019, after a personal health crisis had forced her to reevaluate Holly launched The Culinati Podcast with the stated mission of exploring big ideas in the galaxy of gastronomy. We caught up with Holly in October.  

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Adrian Tennant: So what inspired you to launch The Culinati Podcast?

Holly Kapherr: Well, it was kind of a roundabout way. I’ve always had NPR dreams. I’ve always loved listening to public radio and particularly the interview shows like Fresh Air. And I often thought about what it would be like to have my own radio show. And as a journalist, I spent a lot of time interviewing people. And truly that was the best part of being a journalist was being able to get in touch with people, learn about them and learn about the things that they are passionate about and the cool things that they’re doing. And it came to me that most of that stuff that we were talking about, wasn’t going to make it into the articles that I was writing because that wasn’t the subject of the article. So a lot of those amazing interviews and stories were just lost. So they weren’t the things that were being covered. And so I was like “there has to be a place for those things, because those are the real interesting stories.” So, um, I had this idea for a little while. And a friend of mine had a beer podcast. It was a female-focused beer podcast called Pretty Little Pints. And she invited me on the podcast and it was my very first time doing it. And we were going to talk about Beaujolais Nouveau. It was Thanksgiving time. And she wanted to do a wine podcast and wanted to taste the new Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. And she’s “Let’s talk about it. And let’s do it on the air.” And I said, “Okay.” So I went on it and I had a great time. And after the show was over, she was like, “My husband and I bought this domain. And we’ve never done anything with it, but if you would be interested in doing a podcast called The Culinati, we would love for you to record at our studio.” They have a really cool studio that’s located in their house. They’ve turned a bedroom that they don’t use into a full-on podcast studio. And so people can come in and just record their shows. Instantly I was interested. And then a couple of months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everything that I had been working on, as far as creative sort of got pushed to the side, I had to just focus on my full-time job and getting better of course, going into treatment. So my entire world was going to doctors and getting treatment and trying to maintain my full-time job and that kind of thing. So I had to push everything to the side. So as soon as I was done with active treatment in December of 2018, I said to myself, “Okay, I’m going to pick this up. This is something that I really want to do. I need a creative outlet. I want to do something completely different.” And so I went full speed ahead. I started. I had the logo in my head already. And so I got in touch with a friend of mine – Tim Eggert, the graphic designer behind the city of Orlando flag. And so as soon as I got the logo, it felt real. And so I learned everything I could, I read everything I could, I listened to other podcasts on how to do podcasts and thought about the people that I wanted to emulate in my shows. My previous life was in magazines and so I did the same thing that you do in magazines, which is you put together a front of book, you put together a feature well, and then you put together a back of book. And so the intro and all the stuff that we do at the beginning, it was like the front of book. And then I was like, “Okay, now I have to have features.” And so I would say, “Okay, who are like the big people in town that I definitely want to have as my first three guests?” And I chose people who were like very inspiring to me and people who were really interesting and did things in the food world that I thought people would love to hear about and would be a great hook for my first three episodes. And then I put together a back of book, which is a little bit more like a wrap-up and then also we do a really cool section called Short Order. And it’s just quick association questions that I ask my guests that are really lighthearted and food-focused, just so that our audiences can get to know the guests a little bit – a little bit more on it on a different level. So that’s what inspired me. I’ve always loved the radio and always love that medium. I feel like it’s a really intimate medium, being in someone’s ears, going into their brain, getting them to think about something else. And I feel like there’s something really magical about a really good interview. So that was the main inspiration.

Adrian Tennant: Holly, do you monetize your podcast? Do you run paid advertising, special sponsorships or partnerships with any of the businesses that you highlight?

Holly Kapherr: I don’t have any more monetization in my show yet. The reality is that I am doing this show to glorify, to showcase, to feature the people who are doing amazing things. And I have not looked to make any money off of this. The money that I hope that is changed hands is for the businesses that I work with. I hope that the 300 people or whomever that listen to each episode, that they go to the restaurant or go to the website that we’re talking about, they spend their money there and it helps my guests do other cool things or continue doing the cool things that they’ve been doing. The money goes to my guests. That’s the intention. 

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Adrian Tennant: As you heard, Holly found a new creative outlet for her love of interviewing people. And one that helps the restaurateurs she works with attract and connect with new guests. If you’d like to hear more of the interview with Holly Kapherr you’ll find it on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page with a publication date of April 24th. Now, if Holly does decide to monetize The Culinati Podcast, our next guest will be a great resource. Heather Osgood had been selling advertising for over 20 years on radio, print, and trade show booths, but was so passionate about podcasts that in 2016, she founded True Native Media, a firm dedicated to connecting podcasts with advertisers. Heather was our guest in November.

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Adrian Tennant:  What was the insight that led you to found True Native Media?

Heather Osgood: I founded True Native Media because I became a bit of a podcast-obsessed listener. I sold a trade show production company that I had before for about 10 years and for the first time in my adult life, I had so much time to spend listening to podcasts. And the more I listened to podcasts, the more I consumed all of this audio, I was shocked to find that there were so few ad messages in podcasts. And when we look around the landscape of all of the media out there, what we find over and over again are ad messages. And so it seems strange to me that podcasts, almost like this island and while some of the very biggest shows had advertisers, most of the shows that I listened to, which I would classify as mid-level shows did not have advertisers. So I took a look at the industry and I found that, yes, those 1% of top shows were being served by firms that were happy to connect them with advertisers. But then there were all of these essentially hundreds of thousands of impressions that were going unserved without ad messages. And I just felt like there really was a hole in the market and I wanted to help fill that, and given my ad background and my experience as an entrepreneur, I felt that really, founding an organization like True Native Media to really help connect those mid-level shows with advertisers was something that was really up my alley and something that I could really contribute. And so that’s why I founded the organization.

Adrian Tennant: What services does True Native Media offer?

Heather Osgood: So True Native Media is a podcast representation firm which means that we represent podcasts. So currently we work with about 70 different podcasts in the industry and our role is to connect those podcasts with advertisers. So we work with agencies, we work directly with brands, and go about getting advertisers in any way we can for those podcasts that we serve, as well as the advertisers that we serve. But really our focus is to try and fill the podcasts we represent up with ad messages.

Adrian Tennant: Heather, you’re not only involved in the representation of podcasts, but you also produce and host a podcast of your own called The Podcast Advertising Playbook. What topics do you typically cover? 

Heather Osgood: So I created The Podcast Advertising Playbook, because I wanted to share with the world as you can tell, by listening to this episode, I could talk about this for hours. There are so many different topics to be covered. And so I started that podcast specifically to talk about the ins and outs. What is dynamic ad insertion, and how can that serve you? How can you find podcasts to purchase when you’re looking at creating success? What does that look like? How can you track results? What does privacy look like? So we cover all of these important topics and I would say part of the most fun of producing that show is interviewing other industry experts. So we talk to people from these attribution companies, we talk to other  brands and we see what kind of experience are they having in the podcast ad space. What have they done to perfect the results that they’re getting? So it’s really meant to be a place where if people are interested in learning more about how to utilize podcast advertising and make it effective, that they can go to the show. 

Adrian Tennant: Now, do you think the experience of regularly producing your own podcast helps you relate to the challenges many other podcasters face?

Heather Osgood: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think it is. It’s been great. So I want to say that we’re on episode 35, I will be totally transparent and that I have lots of help with the show. So my marketing team is very effective in helping keep me on the straight and narrow. And what I mean by that is actually produce those episodes because that’s one of the hardest parts about a podcast is you have to produce regular episodes. And I think, oftentimes, when people imagine starting a podcast, they think it sounds like so much fun and it’s going to be so easy or it won’t take that much time. And realistically, it is a lot of work. And so it’s been nice to go through the whole experience alongside the podcaster, and really understand and identify what you know, their needs and concerns firsthand. 

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Adrian Tennant: Taking advantage of a career hiatus, Heather combined her love of podcast listening with her professional experience in the advertising industry to seize a new opportunity, one which she uses her own podcast to promote. You can find the full interview with Heather Osgood on our website with the publication date of November 13th. Some of the earliest adopters of podcast advertising to acquire new customers were direct-to-consumer brands. DTC has been a recurring topic on IN CLEAR FOCUS throughout 2020. In October, I discussed the findings of Bigeye’s National Study of CBD Use with Alexandra McClay. Having worked in marketing leadership roles for Johnson and Johnson, Elizabeth Arden, and Burt’s Bees, Alex is now launching her own direct-to-consumer brand in the CBD and supplement space.

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Adrian Tennant: What first sparked your interest in CBD as an ingredient for beauty and wellness products?

Alexandra McClay: I think my first interest was sparked, quite frankly, on a personal level. Once I found out that my mid 70 year old father was using CBD on a daily basis, it piqued my interest. And so I quickly started to study up on the benefits of CBD and started to become  sort of a connoisseur of taking CBD myself. And from there, really just looked at all the multi-benefits of this new active ingredient in what it could do for the industry that I’ve been in my whole career in beauty and wellness. And so from there, as I continued my journey and educating myself in the space, I was bridged to large cannabis companies that were looking to develop branded products within the beauty and wellness space. And from there everything just started to explode.

Adrian Tennant: Are there any special considerations for how products containing CBD designed for application to the skin need to be formulated?

Alexandra McClay: Absolutely. And what we’re doing that we think is a little unique and proprietary is that we actually have some technology and some patented delivery systems that are enabling us to formulate in a new and more novel way with the CBD. Mainly a lot of CBD you’re going to see is going to be oil-based. And would you get it’s problematic if you want to have a water-based formula for any type of skincare products or even a vaginal lubricant, it’s more natural to be water-based. And so we have a water-soluble, a sort of nanotechnology. We also have a delivery system that helps penetrate deeper into the skin that is more efficacious in terms of the delivery method. And so you’re going to get faster, better relief, but it’s a little more challenging to formulate with because it is a powder and it’s an encapsulated powder and it can, at times tweak the formula in terms of the scent or the aesthetics. And so we do have to play around quite carefully with the different aesthetics. It also helps to have a very high quality CBD, but at times the higher quality CBD might have more of that hemp aroma. And it’s a little more difficult to formulate a way from having that really strong, hempy aroma. So there’s a lot, it takes them a long time and a lot of careful consideration to really design something that you’re putting on the skin because you want it to not only feel great, smell great, but work really well.

Adrian Tennant: Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart launched her own CBD wellness line in partnership with a Canadian company, Canopy Growth Corporation, sold online through Canopy’s site. The line includes flavored oils, soft gels, and gum is apparently inspired by French baked goods, including blood orange, cheesecake berries and cream tartlets – sound delicious! Alex, is Martha Stewart’s involvement designed to appeal to an affluent female demographic do you think, or is it more about connecting with Boomers?

Alexandra McClay: That’s a great question. I think, specific to Martha Stewart, her brand I think really does span across multiple generations through some of the partnerships and work that she’s done with Snoop Dogg. I think there’s a Boomer appeal. There’s certainly a Gen X appeal, which is my generation, who grew up listening to Snoop Dogg. So I really think that in general, when these large companies are looking to utilize, whether it’s Martha Stewart or Rob Gronkowski or any of the other celebrities, I think it really is about one dispelling any myths, making CBD mainstream, and also it’s about what size of a megaphone does that give you as a brand? I don’t recall the exact number of followers that Martha has, but it’s in the millions in social media. And with some of the restrictions that are placed on advertising for CBD, having a celebrity who can speak to the masses just helps generate that brand awareness. As well as creates a comfort level for people who are canna-curious and want to jump into trying the products. So as it relates to Martha Stewart, they are looking at her to have a broad appeal across different gender bases and different generations. 

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Adrian Tennant: Inspired by her father’s experience with CBD, Alex used her business knowledge of the beauty industry to create an entirely new brand designed to appeal to customers, seeking multifunctional benefits from skincare products. You can hear that interview with Alexandra McClay as part of our podcast episode about Bigeye’s National Study of CBD Use published on October 16th. Staying with direct-to-consumer brands, in early October IN CLEAR FOCUS featured a true pioneer in the DTC space. Olivia Canlas is the co-founder and CEO of Meowbox, which she launched back in 2013. Olivia spoke to us from her company’s offices in Vancouver.

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Adrian Tennant: Can you tell us a little more about what Meowbox is?

Olivia Canlas: Of course. So I like to think of Meowbox as monthly deliveries of cat happiness. So it is a box full of themed cat toys and treats that we choose exclusively for our subscribers. And we deliver that monthly or bi-monthly  in the subscription model.

Adrian Tennant: Now back in 2013, when you launched Meowbox, direct-to-consumer wasn’t nearly as well established as a business model as it is today. What inspired you to start a subscription box for cat owners?

Olivia Canlas: I was a subscription box customer maybe two or three years before I thought of the idea of Meowbox. I was a subscriber to cosmetics. So I knew that was something that appealed to me, to my friends, people in a similar demographic as I was. And so I was aware of the concept of subscription boxes, but specifically like the moment where I thought, “What there needs to be is a Meowbox in this world” was when I started getting targeted on my Facebook for a dog subscription box. And I thought, you know what, instead of just ignoring it, thinking that doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have a dog. I wondered because I’m more of a cat person, I wondered if there was a box for cats and upon my initial research there wasn’t a box that was dedicated just to cat parents.

Adrian Tennant: Clearly the business is successful now, but looking back, do you think being a woman meant that you faced additional challenges as an entrepreneur?

Olivia Canlas: I like to think that everything that I do and that I did to build the company It’s not tied to gender in any way, but I didn’t look at my gender as something that was going to hold me back from succeeding. But in reality, there were a few moments where I was reminded that maybe I might be viewed a little bit differently in terms of, you know, male versus female business leaders. And one example that I can think of was I was at a trade show once looking for some new product with my co-founder, who’s male and a handful of times, the brand representatives would initiate the conversation, speaking to him instead of me as if just automatically thinking that he was the one who was the decision maker. And it was just something that I noted. I wasn’t like offended or insulted, but it was definitely something that I noticed at the time and just little things like that. I mean, very easy for me to step in and  let them know I was the one who was doing the product selection. So it could have just been like a subconscious behavior of people to expect maybe that it was the male who was in charge of making the decisions.

Adrian Tennant: Now in the seven years since you launched Meowbox, have things changed for women interested in starting businesses, do you think? 

Olivia Canlas: Yes. So it’s a lot more commonly seen or at least that it’s apparent to me that there’s more women who are heading businesses. Now, I don’t know if that’s just because I’m exposed for it. Maybe I might have my eye out for that, but I know so many more women-led businesses and female entrepreneurs than I did years ago. Now it could be the way that the landscape of business is changing and it’s just something that was being more brought to our attention. Maybe women in business are being highlighted more than they used to be. Which may in turn encourage more women to want to aspire to be in charge of businesses and turning their ideas into businesses. But definitely from when I started my research into subscription boxes and pet businesses It was a lot more men  leading those industries as opposed to now. And now I just have an endless contact list of colleagues who are women who own businesses.

Adrian Tennant: So Olivia, what inspires you on a daily basis? Are there any journals, podcasts, or social media accounts that you follow – cat related or not? 

Olivia Canlas: You know what? I have to say, my source of inspiration comes from my fellow female entrepreneurs. I have a small group of female entrepreneurs who I look up to whose businesses I follow, whose social media I follow. We’re in communication for best practices or problem solving advice and that kind of thing. And It’s really blossomed and become a resource for me that I’ve come to you know, rely on and go to as of late. And I guess I didn’t really realize how important it was, maybe in early years to have that kind of a network of colleagues. But as time goes by, it’s just, I don’t know, maybe you lose a bit of your ego and are just more open to sharing your challenges with other people, especially people who have, maybe dealt with that before people in a similar businesses to you, and that’s where my inspiration comes from. I see ladies who are running businesses that do certain things better than me, or certain things that I’ve never done before. And I’ll ask “how can I do that? How did you reach that?” And then, and vice versa, it’s the same where there’ll be something that I’m doing really well at Meowbox. And they asked me, “How did you do that? What tools did you use to reach that?” And it’s just this feedback loop of all of us sharing and each of us supporting each other and just doing better and better.

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Adrian Tennant: Olivia thought about her personal experience as a makeup subscription box customer and saw the opportunity to apply the same business model to delight cat owners like herself. During the full interview, Olivia is very candid about what marketing tactics work and what doesn’t work in the DTC space. You’ll find it on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page with a publication date of October 9th. I hope you enjoyed this recap of some of the inspiring stories we heard this year from successful female entrepreneurs. My thanks again to all the guests you heard in today’s episode, Kristen Wiley, Holly Kapherr, Heather Osgood, Alexandra McClay, and Olivia Canlas. As always, you’ll find links to the resources we discussed on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” Thank you for listening to this, the final episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS for 2020. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. We’ll be back with a new season of IN CLEAR FOCUS in mid-January. So until then, goodbye!

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Creating Sustainable DTC Packaging

Direct to consumer marketing agency Bigeye discusses impactful DTC brand packaging with Brandon Frank, President of Pacific Packaging Components in Los Angeles.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: As millions of views of “unboxing” videos on social media demonstrate, packaging is an important part of the customer experience. Industry expert Brandon Frank explains how evolving consumer attitudes are leading brands to embrace sustainable packaging solutions. Brandon shares the inside story of innovative packaging his company, Pacific Packaging Components, developed for premium beauty brand Drunk Elephant, and his role as a member of Credo’s Clean Beauty Council.

In Clear Focus: Creating Sustainable DTC Packaging

In Clear Focus this week: As millions of views of “unboxing” videos on social media demonstrate, packaging is an important part of the customer experience. Industry expert Brandon Frank explains how evolving consumer attitudes are leading brands to embrace sustainable packaging solutions.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Consumers’ perceptions of products are affected by intrinsic and extrinsic cues. Intrinsic cues are a product’s specific attributes, such as their sensory properties: what a product looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like. Extrinsic cues are purchase consideration factors, which in a retail setting, typically include point-of-sale displays, product placement, and the packaging that surrounds or contains the product. Of all the extrinsic cues, packaging is one of the most important since it’s often a brand’s first physical touchpoint with the consumer. Packaging needs to be impactful on store shelves, and, depending on the product, may also incorporate claims, descriptions, and ingredient lists. Designers also have to consider the weight of packaging, their physical dimensions, the visual form, opening and closing mechanisms, as well as color and texture. Packaging is then a really important consideration in the marketing mix. Being impactful on a store shelf while also looking good on a kitchen table or a bathroom vanity presents unique challenges and opportunities. Combining marketing elements into the design of a product’s packaging has been dubbed “packvertising.” For designers, this offers ways to bring a brand’s proposition to life on the shelf or online. And, as millions of views of “unboxing” videos on social media demonstrate, packaging can actually be an important part of the customer experience. To talk about how companies can use packaging to amplify a brand’s qualities, I’m joined today by a packaging industry expert. Based in Los Angeles, Brandon Frank is the President of Pacific Packaging Components, which this year celebrates 50 years in business. Brandon is also President of the Southern California chapter of the Institute of Packaging Professionals. Brandon, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Brandon Frank: Thank you very much.

Adrian Tennant: So, could you tell us about Pacific Packaging Components’ history and what the company offers today?

Brandon Frank: My grandfather and grandmother started the company, like you said, about 50 years ago and my parents joined the company about 40 years ago. And so I was basically raised in the world of packaging. I like to joke that I knew about net finishes before I knew my ABCs, but that’s not probably totally accurate. And it was set up as a packaging distribution company. And that’s what we still are today. And so for, the listeners that don’t know what that is, basically we represent the customer and we figure out what they need from a packaging perspective. And then we go to our preferred vendors around the world and find the perfect manufacturer for their specific situation. And then we broker the deal. We buy the packaging from the manufacturer and sell to the end customer and manage the entire supply chain.

Adrian Tennant: What kinds of businesses do you serve? Is there a specific vertical that represents a significant portion of your business?

Brandon Frank: So I like to say that in 50 years, we’ve learned how to get in trouble in a lot of different ways. But we’re in three primary industries: beauty/personal care, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical and nutraceutical. I would say that our main specialty though is in primary rigid packaging. So think of like, glass bottles and jars, plastic containers, dispensers, closures, tubes, things like that.

Adrian Tennant: Now you mentioned one vertical for your company is beauty and skincare. I understand that you advise several companies in this space, and that you’re a member of the Credo Clean Beauty Council. What does your role with Credo entail?

Brandon Frank: So, the title they gave me was Sustainable Packaging Expert and I’m always quick to qualify that there are brilliant people in the sustainable space, and I don’t consider myself at their level but I am certainly passionate about the topic. And so Credo is a really innovative retailer – they’re actually the largest clean beauty retailer in the United States. And their whole focus is to do things the right way. And so they started with ingredients, basically creating approved and unapproved ingredients for all their products. And so, if brands weren’t able to fulfill those obligations, they couldn’t sell their product through their channel. The next step was to create a sustainable packaging guideline that would inspire brands to choose more sustainable packaging. And that if they didn’t comply with the standards they were setting, then again, they wouldn’t sell those items through their platform. And so they brought me on to basically help craft and create those guidelines and then to serve as a resource to all of the brands currently in Credo and that are trying to get into Credo, to be able to help them make that transition to more sustainable packaging.

Adrian Tennant: Now Credo is an example of a retailer that’s really engaged in the “clean beauty” movement. How do you define “clean beauty?”

Brandon Frank: It’s a great question and I think there’s a lot of different ways to answer it, but generally I see clean beauty or even the topic of sustainability as looking at the entire value chain. And choosing ingredients or materials that are going to be more sustainable, more renewable, easier on the planet, far more natural or more organic sources. You know, there’s always going to be an impact to any type of consumer product, but I think it’s trying to minimize the impact as much as possible.

Adrian Tennant: There’s a lot of competing sources of information about what makes a beauty product clean. What are some of the things that consumers really need to watch out for?

Brandon Frank: I think that the actual ingredients in the product tend to be the primary focus. And so Credo, for example, has their quote-unquote “dirty” list. And that dirty list has a list of ingredients that are the really big no-nos  for their brand.

Adrian Tennant: Now Pacific Packaging Components developed custom packaging for the skincare line Drunk Elephant. How did that partnership originate? And what did the design process look like? 

Brandon Frank: Tiffany Masterson is the founder and owner of Drunk Elephant – and they actually recently sold to Shiseido – but when we started with that company, they were still relatively small and still getting started. Their story with Drunk Elephant is very consistent with a lot of our kind of interactions and processes that we have with a lot of our other brands to where it starts off with a vision from the founder or from the owners or from the people in charge of kind of developing the packaging. And we were right there to basically guide and support and to go bring those things to reality. The other part too, is that we knew that there was going to be scaling with Drunk Elephant. She had a great idea, a great concept. And so we were expecting really great things. And so we weren’t just trying to supply the first round of packaging, but we were looking down the supply chain as well, to be able to make sure that as the brand grew, that there weren’t going to be supply chain issues from a packaging standpoint. But the creative process is really different, you know, for everybody. Sometimes it’s really straightforward and it’s really easy to be able to deliver on what the vision is. Other times it’s a little bit more fluid and a little more dynamic. And I think our agility is a real benefit in that regard because if things start to pivot away from kind of the initial concept or we’re going in a different direction, we have no problem changing manufacturers and going to someone else that can accomplish what we need to in order to make the customer happy.

Adrian Tennant: A lot of direct-to-consumer brands engage with social media influencers to reach potential customers. At Pacific Packaging Components, you develop “influencer kits” for brands. Can you tell us more about those?

Brandon Frank: So influencer kits are basically a way a brand can create a special gift that features their brand,  that gives that kind of special feeling of opening something really unique and innovative. It’s kind of like their own brand, their own vision, their own products, all encapsulated within this box. And sometimes it has a really big focus on the story of the brand or what they’re trying to accomplish; other times it’s filled with lots of different products. And we can make some really creative ones. We’ve had some, with even little mini flat screen televisions that when it opens the video starts and it has an explanation of what’s in the pack. And then from there, the influencers are encouraged to be able to try the products, document what they think about things, review it online, and hopefully tell their followers to go and check it out.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the differences, if any, between packaging components used for beauty and skincare products versus food  packaging? Are there any regulations that you have to take into account when dealing with food or drink?

Brandon Frank: Yes, absolutely. Really any time, you know, it’s going to be a CPG product there are going to be regulations that are going to be relevant, but if it’s going to be food beverage, anything that’s going to be ingested, there are strict laws through the FDA and other governing bodies. With beauty and personal care, there’s kind of less barrier because most of the products obviously are not being ingested. They’re kind of more topicals. But it’s still a really good idea to be able to use products and develop products that can be certified to some degree.

Adrian Tennant: What tend to be the best materials to use for safe food packaging?

Brandon Frank: Boy, that’s a big question, ’cause you could approach it from a lot of different standpoints. So most of the time with food and beverage, the packaging has to be functional. And so it has to protect the product, it has to extend the shelf life or do other types of just really functional, practical things. Usually the cost of food and beverage packaging tends to be one of the most important drivers, because of the margins and the cost of those goods are usually relatively low. For beauty and personal care packaging, the cost of the packaging is significantly higher and usually the price points for those items are also higher. But beauty customers tend to want to feel the quality of the packaging. It’s kind of a representation of the product itself. For food and beverage, it’s a little bit less so, at least that’s been my experience.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

Karen Hidalgo: I’m Karen Hidalgo, Associate Account Manager at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising account professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with your audience. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant:  Welcome back. As I mentioned in the introduction, brands that invest in packaging design do so to make them distinctive and instantly recognizable to potential customers. CPG giant Proctor and Gamble refers to this as the “First Moment of Truth” – that is when a consumer chooses to purchase one brand over competitors. Of course, during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen more e-commerce activity and a greater focus on hygiene. In other words, consumers are discovering another moment of truth: after they’ve used the product, they must dispose of the packaging. International research from Ipsos undertook a study published on Earth Day this year, which found that globally, “dealing with the amount of waste we generate” is a top environmental concern for around one-third of people, just behind “global warming and climate change” and on a par with “air pollution.” Research from Ipsos also shows that “avoiding products that have a lot of packaging” is one of the key actions that a majority of consumers – 57 percent – say they’re likely to do to limit their own contribution to climate change. To quote from the Ipsos study, “if the finished packaging has a large number of components and materials, if it has a high use of plastic and, or is not obviously able to be recycled, this might well have an impact on whether that product will be purchased again.” To talk about this, let’s return to our guest this week, Brandon Frank, President of Pacific Packaging Components. Brandon, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Harrold of Mohawk Fine Papers in New York in an earlier episode of our current season. Chris told us about Mohawk’s Renewal line of papers that use non-traditional fibers, such as hemp, straw, and cotton scraps, which are a by-product of denim and t-shirt manufacturing. Chris explained that younger designers were really drawn to these papers for use in packaging projects, in part because they demonstrate respect for the environment and an embrace of sustainability principles. We know that the youngest consumers – Generation Z – are very concerned about environmental issues. How is Pacific Packaging Components approaching the use of sustainable and recyclable materials?

Brandon Frank: Sustainability is incredibly important to us. And it’s been something that has kind of been, I would say, a focal point of how we’re viewing our own company and then the kind of industry as a whole. Obviously, we have been producing millions and millions of units of plastic and glass and other types of packaging for the past 50 years. And, as a family company, I’m looking at the legacy – what are we going to be a part of for the next 50 years? And so we want to be a part of the solution, and we are, you know, actively trying to improve, not only the sustainability of packaging, but really looking at the entire value chain. You know, I think traditionally we’ve really approached packaging from two central points: is it going to be functional? And is it going to look great and is it going to be on budget? And what’s really required right now is we need to take our blinders off – consumers, brands, packaging companies, packaging manufacturers, everyone involved – and say, “What materials are the best to use right now, according to the capabilities of our recycling stream?” So it’s really looking at the end and saying, “Okay, how can we design and choose packaging right now that it is going to be recycled?” Because it’s not enough to make something that’s quote, unquote “recyclable” if it’s not going to be recycled. We see this a lot with tubes and monolayer tubes people call them recyclable all the time, but they’re never going to actually be recycled, especially here in the US. And so we’re taking a really active stand. We’re inspiring companies to be able to really consider and make sustainability a part of their brand and their ethos. You know, 81 percent of consumers in the US think that brands should be making decisions that are benefiting the environment rather than hurting. You know, we’ve seen the popularity of sustainability really come and go every decade for the last 50 years – It kind of comes, it’s really popular,and then it fades away. But something’s different this time. We feel like the levee’s kind of been broken on the topic of sustainability – whether it’s because of social media, or Netflix documentaries that have kind of shown the amount of plastic waste that’s in the ocean, but sustainability is going to be here to stay. And that’s why I think we’re seeing a lot of large multinational companies and brands like Credo that are making really big statements that 50 percent or one hundred percent of our packaging is going to come from recycled sources. Now, by 2025 is kind of a popular year right now. And we’re seeing massive investments on the recycling stream because there’s going to be this really big opportunity for all of these brands that are demanding post-consumer recycled residence – sorry, that’s what PCR stands for – basically, it’s ground-up plastic that turns back into resin that can be reused to be able to make more plastic items. And that’s going to be kind of the standard going forward is that if you’re going to be using plastic, then there needs to be a percentage of PCR in that plastic and the whole recycling stream is going to really improve to make sure that the plastics is able to be processed, cleaned, and turned into a really reusable plastic resin.

Adrian Tennant: Well, as you point out, sustainability comes in many guises.

Brandon Frank: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, there’s some really practical parts about not reusing or touching lots of packaging, too. I think the days of going into a retail store  and touching a lotion pump that everyone else has touched and sampling things are going to be behind us. And there’s going to be a new normal going forward about those things. And there is an adverse relationship between those two, because really the most kind of sterile way to do it is to have a single use sachet that is opened, used, and then discarded. But even there, there’s going to be more opportunities for innovation. I’m seeing more compostable and biodegradable films, so if they do end up in the landfill that they’re breaking down a lot quicker.  You mentioned fiber-based earlier: I think fiber and different materials in fiber – so paper, hemp, mushrooms, sugar cane, corn stock, – I mean there’s going to be a lot of different, more renewable, natural sources that are going to be used to be able to make packaging that can be effective, that can be affordable, and it will hopefully look good too.

Adrian Tennant: How do you work with design agencies that want to build sustainability into their packaging designs?

Brandon Frank: So most design companies, I’ll be real honest, don’t have a lot of packaging manufacturing experience. It’s really rare to find a really good designer that knows kind of the manufacturing limitations when it comes to sustainable packaging. And so we’ve tried to work as closely as we can with those designers, whether they’re inside of the organization or they’re of a private firm, because really it’s a partnership – ‘cause the customer is going to end up telling the designer, “We want to do this.” And then they’re going to try to draw it up and create it. And before they go through all the trouble of creating this, they need to run it by us and say, “Hey, is this even possible?” You know, “Can we put this number of colors on a glass bottle?” Or, you know, “Can we really do a 360-degree artwork on this type of tube?” Or something like that. So, I’d say it’s a really great partnership and a lot of collaboration and communication.

Adrian Tennant: For designers that are new to packaging design, what are some best practices that you can share when it comes to packaging for say, beauty and skincare products?

Brandon Frank: When it comes to sustainability, one trend that we’re really seeing is don’t make things too complicated. Try to simplify the designs, simplify the amount of materials that are being used, if it can be eliminated or can be reduced, make those decisions. You know, hot stamping was a really popular way to kind of make your item pop. It’s like having a – basically like a metallic look or metallic decoration on the outside of a bottle. Well, for plastics or even glass, having metal on the outside of the packaging is not a great sustainable form of decorating. And so we’re seeing less and less hot stamping. Now people are saying, “You know what, let’s just stick to one pass. Let’s do you know, maybe just multiple colors. Let’s try to achieve that as close as we can with a silkscreen deco.” And so that’s kind of just one example. I think how sustainability is coming into the design process and designers are kind of modifying what they’re doing to kind of accommodate those goals.

Adrian Tennant: Now you mentioned that you foresee new consumer behaviors emerging from COVID-19. What are some of those behaviors that you’re most excited about for the future of packaging?

Brandon Frank: Well, I think, you know, I mean, certainly online shopping and e-commerce is only going to continue to grow. And so I think brands are going to continue to look at the packaging that’s being sent to the brand. I have three young kids and my wife ordered a brand, I think it’s called Hello Bello or something like that. But the box came and there were a bunch of diapers in it and lotions and, All sorts of different baby items, but the box on the outside could actually be converted into a Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin and the kids could interact with it by kind of punching out these different designs on all four sides of the box. And then it would all come together and it would be this really cool thing. It even had a handle on it. I think that the kids could put stuff in and the moms or dads could easily move it around the house. And so typically that box would just be a box. It would show up and it would be discarded. But now it’s coming into our home and we’re actually using it. And it’s having a second life as a toy before it’s being – hopefully – recycled. And so I think there’s going to be more opportunities for creativity in that regard. There’s some really popular blogs out there about how to convert plastic bottles that you’ve consumed into other really helpful household items or in your garden. How to reuse glass packaging by having refillable pouches sent to the house and then you refill this beautiful glass soap dispenser that has a really durable pump on it. So you’re not going out and consistently ordering or buying or having shipped, just more plastic bottles. And so  think that’s going to be one of the significant trends going forward is that there’s going to be a lot of innovation with refillables and reusable packaging, and then also creating fun and innovative packaging that maybe has a second life within the home before just thrown away.

Adrian Tennant: Brandon, it’s interesting, you’re the third generation of a family business. If you hadn’t been working in the family of business, what else might you have done?

Brandon Frank: So, my grandparents and my parents actually had a rule that before I could have a leadership role in this company, I had to go out and the way they said it was, I had to “go make mistakes on someone else’s dime.” And so I went to college and got my degree and right out of college, I pursued a career in real estate. It was a startup company. We did 1031 exchanges into tenant and common properties. And predominantly we’re doing online advertising to be able to find our customers. A fascinating startup experience. And then from there  – I’m a big soccer fan and really enjoyed playing and coaching. And so after I had this stint in startup, I kind of missed just coaching. And so then I went back and I became a soccer coach again, and started running a summer camp in Maine – an all-boys, residential summer camp. I did that for four years. During that time, it was a lot of leadership, a lot of on-the-job training in terms of bringing a group of people together, crafting a clear vision for us, and then making sure that I was taking care of everyone and making sure everyone was having a great summer. And then from there, I’ve always fallen in love with brick and mortar businesses. I don’t know if it’s just because I like going in the opposite direction of the direction society’s going in, but I kind of started from scratch and went to work for a friend that owned a bunch of retail stores across the country and learned the business from him, and then opened up my own store, that I built up for three years and then I sold it to also a good friend of mine. And it was at that time after all those experiences that I felt ready to be able to come back home and end up where I kind of knew I was going to end up anyways, back here at the family business.

Adrian Tennant: What are your daily sources of inspiration? Are you a reader? A podcast listener? Music listener? What’s your thing?

Brandon Frank: So being a kind of lifelong jock and athlete, my best meditation is my daily workouts. I turn 40 next year and I have this goal of doing an Ironman, which is a really long triathlon, and it hurts a lot to do it. But it’s kind of been this goal that I’ve wanted to do. So I try to wake up early every morning, four thirty, five o’clock, and go for a good long run, ride, or a swim. I also try to do as much as I can with my kids. And I’ve gotten them into bike riding at an early age, so when I’m running, they’re usually riding their bikes next to me. I try to make that time as special as I can. I do like to read, but I really like the convenience of audio, of podcast news and other sources. I don’t have as much time as I like, so I tend to just do 15, 20 minutes of three or four different news sources in the morning to just kind of get caught up on what’s happening. And then, I love books on tape as well. So usually when I’m riding a bike or I’m running and I’m listening to some sort of audible, book recording

Adrian Tennant: Brandon, if listeners want to learn more about Pacific Packaging Components, where can they find you?

Brandon Frank: Yeah, so I encourage you to go to our website, PPCPackaging.com and it’s really easy to connect with me on LinkedIn as well. You can search for just Brandon Frank. I’m pretty active there. Or you can shoot me an email at brandon@ppcpackaging.com.

Adrian Tennant: Brandon, thank you so much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Brandon Frank: Thank you for having me.

Adrian Tennant: According to data from McKinsey and Company, across 21 international markets they surveyed, an average of 29 percent of consumers said that compared to before the Coronavirus outbreak, they’re making more buying decisions based on healthy and hygienic packaging. And as we heard earlier, while consumers’ desire for sustainable packaging designs presents significant challenges for manufacturers and retailers, it also presents opportunities. Brands today have much greater permission, it seems, to more radically reinvent their packaging solutions potentially resulting in greater engagement with consumers. Thanks to my guest this week, Brandon Frank,  President of Pacific Packaging Components in Los Angeles. You’ll find links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And remember, if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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DTC Marketing with Ritual Multivitamins

Bigeye’s podcast discusses direct to consumer advertising and promotional tactics with Claire Knebl, Sr Director of Marketing at DTC multivitamin brand Ritual.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Direct-to-consumer multivitamin brand Ritual’s Senior Director of Marketing, Claire Knebl, discusses the evolution of the company. Claire explains how her previous role with Glossier has influenced the way she approaches building the Ritual brand. Sharing the challenges of managing a distributed team during the pandemic, Claire reveals lessons learned in 2020, and offers practical advice for students and recent graduates seeking to secure their first marketing role. 

In Clear Focus: DTC Marketing with Ritual Multivitamins

In Clear Focus this week: Direct-to-consumer multivitamin brand Ritual’s Senior Director of Marketing, Claire Knebl, discusses the evolution of the company. Claire explains how her previous role with Glossier has influenced the way she approaches building the Ritual brand.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. According to a 2019 survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, more than four in five American adults, 86% regularly take vitamins or nutritional supplements. The types of vitamins with the highest levels of penetration in the US market are adult multivitamins, which were first introduced in the 1940s. Although private-label multivitamins generated the highest level of sales last year at around $315 million, the top-selling name brand multivitamins are Bausch and Lomb PreserVision, which supports eye health, and Centrum Silver, a multivitamin specially formulated for adults over the age of 50. Centrum is owned by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Research from the National Institutes of Health found that the consumers most likely to take daily multivitamins include women, seniors, people with higher levels of education and higher than average household incomes, and those who have healthier diets and lower body weights. People in the western United States use multivitamins most often. Someone who is intimately familiar with the highly competitive world of multivitamins is our guest this week: Claire Knebl is the Senior Director of Marketing at Ritual, a Los Angeles-based direct to consumer multivitamin company. Claire has a decade of marketing experience, encompassing campaigns, products, innovation, and launches, social media,  brand strategy, media, editorial, community, and partnerships, including positions with Glossier and Conde Nast. Claire is joining us today from our home in L.A. Claire, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS! 

Claire Knebl: Thanks so much for having me. I’m happy to be here and happy to speak with you today.

Adrian Tennant: The market for daily vitamins and supplements in the US is highly competitive. Why did Ritual decide to take on such well-established brands in this space and to select a direct-to-consumer business model?

Claire Knebl: About four years ago, our founder and CEO, Katarina, was pregnant with her first child and was looking for a prenatal vitamin because, you know, for many women, even if they don’t take vitamins, pregnancy is a time when, prenatal vitamins are really made a priority by oneself, driven by doctors, for the most part, it’s just widely accepted that prenatal vitamins are part of what you do, so to say. So she was looking for a vitamin that matched the standards that she has for the other parts of her life – that’s high quality, one where she knew where the ingredients came from, and why they were included. And not only that she knew where those ingredients came from, but she was really happy with them and felt really confident in each ingredient. So she couldn’t find one that she trusted, which led her to launch Ritual with the help of many of the best scientific minds in the space.  Ritual is a very different multivitamin. It’s entirely vegan. It takes a “less is more” approach,  where most multivitamins have many ingredients Ritual has just exactly what you need. So our Essential for Women 18-plus Multivitamin has 12 nutrients versus the 30 to 40 you would see in other vitamins. Long story short, there was a need for a different type of vitamin, and Ritual became that vitamin, but our business isn’t just the physical product, our business is really the relationship that we have with our customers. So, like you mentioned, the company is entirely direct-to-consumer and on top of that, it’s entirely subscription-based. And the reason why that’s important is because Ritual thinks of itself as a habit company: our mission is to turn healthy habits into a ritual. And we take the products, the things that you use every day, that are foundational, but in time have an impact on your health,  and we help people make those products into rituals. So it’s really important that we help our customers with habit formation and that we help them develop a habit that sticks. So that’s part of why we’re direct-to-consumer because we take pride in managing that direct relationship with the customer.

Adrian Tennant: Claire, what led you to your position with Ritual?

Claire Knebl: I was living in New York before I joined the Ritual team and I was taking their products. So I was an Essential for Women customer, a very early customer of the brand. I grew up taking a multivitamin and was looking for something better and stumbled upon Ritual, and joined the company because as a customer, and someone who observed the brand very closely, I saw that there was a really interesting opportunity to grow the brand that was rooted in and surrounding these excellent products because I can’t stress enough, Ritual products are really best-in-class, the best of their kind. But, when I joined two and a half years ago, there was an opportunity to build and amplify the brand that surrounded those products. So we did our first brand campaigns. We really honed in on brand positioning. And we’ve grown incredibly from there. And that’s still exciting to me today because when I joined the company, one of the things I was really excited about is that Ritual is part of a category of the vitamin, mineral, and supplement space, which is riddled with skepticism, which makes sense – there’s a lot of things to be skeptical about when it comes to vitamins. But I have been really excited and remain excited about this mission to build trust with our customer base and to really uncover the stories around our ingredients, and everything that goes into the products that our customers really want to know in order to form that connection and make sure people feel really good about what they’re putting in their bodies and know exactly why they’re doing so.

Adrian Tennant: What does a typical Ritual buyer look like?

Claire Knebl: One of the interesting things about our brand, and this is both an opportunity and a challenge, is that we at this point essentially have one single product or multivitamin but for every adult stage of life, as well as now kids and teens. So we have a quite wide audience. But I would say our focus has been on developing a relationship with our female customer base. So the Ritual customer – we think of her as a woman, she’s in her thirties, what we know is that all of our customers prioritize their health. So in whatever way they’re doing that, all of our best customers have that in common.

Adrian Tennant: You mentioned the fact that Ritual started with a focus on vitamins formulated especially for women. Today, Ritual also offers vitamins for men, children, and teens. Was that always part of a strategic plan for Ritual or is it something that company introduced in response to customer feedback?

Claire Knebl: We certainly have always thought that everyone deserves a high-quality multivitamin, because we think of a multivitamin as serving a really key need in your everyday health routine. So we’ve been really thrilled to be able to translate Ritual to all of these different audiences. And it certainly speaks to our strategy of really developing our relationship with our core customer base, who I just mentioned as well, because we found that women like myself who are taking Ritual from the early days, have other people in their lives that they want to introduce Ritual to. So that was both – definitely a strategic decision, as well as something that we see mirrored in customer feedback. You know, now that we’ve expanded into new audiences, there’s always something that our customers want. And, that’s always a really interesting input to consider.

Adrian Tennant: Ritual’s brand as expressed in its visual language is distinctively different from the conventions typically found in ads for multivitamins and your signature brand color is a bright yellow and the bold style of photography feels like something we might see in the pages of Bon Appétit. Are these visual elements intended to disrupt the category?

Claire Knebl: That’s a very interesting question. I’m not sure that the colors were intended to disrupt the industry more than the product itself was and is, but I think what we’re doing, in general, is very disruptive and very much necessary in the vitamin space. And I think that the brand really speaks to everything we stand for. So for instance, the choice of the color yellow really speaks to the morning, which is not something we talk about really, but it’s a nice nod to when most people are taking their Rituals, starting the day with us. And I think that beyond the color choice, when you look at our brand on someplace like Instagram, which is where I spend a lot of time with my team, you can see that while we have a range of different types of content, I think everything feels very cohesive, which the really strong branding that has been part of the brand since day one definitely helps guide. So it makes it really easy for us as a team to,  well, not really easy – I… creative things are never easy, I should give them much more credit that they deserve. But I think the colors and the strong sense of brand does make it easier for our team to really create new content within that umbrella on a daily basis. So we can take UGC – user-generated content – or an original meme or something like that, and really make it fit into our brand world by nature of having such strong branding and brand identity.

Adrian Tennant: Ritual details its vegan ingredients and provides information about how it sources ingredients and provides advice specifically for people who identify as trans and nonbinary. What’s the strategy behind this more inclusive approach?

Claire Knebl: That’s a great question. We would love for everyone to have a Ritual product for them, so we do whatever we can to make sure that whoever comes to our website and is interested in our brand gets the direction that they deserve in order to find what’s best for them. And on the vegan component of the question, this is something that we really believe in just from a product quality perspective. We believe that it’s possible to create an amazing, high-quality multivitamin that’s vegan. And I think that’s great for, of course, the vegan community, but also for everyone, because there’s really no need for a non-vegan multivitamin.

Adrian Tennant: How far in advance do you typically have to plan and design new products to allow for the sourcing of materials and the manufacturing process?

Claire Knebl: We are a startup company, so we work on an annual product innovation roadmap, and we have some very exciting things in store for 2021. So I would say we move at a fast pace, but we also have a strong sense of where we’re headed and plan as far out as possible.

Adrian Tennant: Now the COVID-19 pandemic has created heightened concerns among consumers about self-care and preventative health. Multivitamins and dietary supplements that focus on immunity may help defend consumers against infection. I’m interested, has Ritual seen an uptick in sales since the outbreak of the coronavirus?

Claire Knebl: We’ve certainly seen that many people have been prioritizing their health more than ever during COVID, and it’s something that definitely relates back to our brand in terms of new people discovering it. And we’ve also felt a sense of responsibility as a brand throughout COVID, to do whatever we can to support the health of healthcare workers who are on the front lines of our crisis. Because we think that, you know, if our multivitamin can play some small part in supporting their foundational health, that’s such a huge win. And we really just wanted to say “thank you.” So, back in March, we announced an initiative to provide three months of multivitamins free to all healthcare providers on the front lines. And within 24 hours, we received about 4,000 submissions from people all across the country, which I thought was really incredible, and speaks to the fact that everyone is really looking to take care of their health right now,  whether you are a healthcare provider, or whether you are working from home like I am, whatever field you’re in.

Adrian Tennant: You are working from home. You’re based in Los Angeles. How is that remote collaboration working for you?

Claire Knebl: This year has been key in my understanding of how to effectively lead a team into new territory while being remote has really helped us hone in on our communication practices and it has really helped us understand where we succeed in efficiency of workflow and where we don’t. So this year has been so huge in terms of learning. I think it’s been a huge growth year for me and for many people in similar positions. It’s been challenging at times, especially because earlier this year we launched four new products in the span of just about two months. But I’m also so incredibly proud of our team. And I think we’ve really done our best work this year, all while being remote. So we adapted really quickly and successfully.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Claire Knebl, Senior Director of Marketing for the direct-to-consumer multivitamin brand, Ritual. Claire, if you had zero budget or very close to nothing to spend on marketing, what would you not want to stop doing at any cost?

Claire Knebl: It’s a great question. I think marketing at its core, the way I define it at least, comes down to introducing someone to a good idea. And then hopefully that person introduces someone else to that good idea. So if I had a very small marketing budget, something that I would not want to stop doing, what would be to gift our product to influential figures. And that doesn’t mean just influencers with a capital “I” but really just people, bringing additional people into the brand who we think have powerful voices and we would like to get the product in front of. I think that’s a small but effective way to start more word of mouth-driven marketing, to start getting the word out on social, and is something that you can do effectively for a lower budget if you’re really strategic about who you’re gifting to and why.

Adrian Tennant: Claire, prior to Ritual, you held a position with Glossier. What lessons did you learn from Glossier that you’ve applied to the Ritual brand? 

Claire Knebl: Yeah, so I was part of the very early team at Glossier. I built the brand marketing function, so leading many of the product launches at the time from a brand marketing perspective. And I learned so much, you know, I think between Glossier and Ritual, I’ve been very fortunate to be part of these fast-growing companies that, really, you know, in the earlier days, felt like a training ground for my marketing experience. And it helped me develop my own unique point of view. But I think one of the things that I learned, that I really believe in personally, is that I think the quality of your work externally is really only as strong as your culture internally. So when I was involved in creating our go-to-market process for new launches and new initiatives, I really emphasized, you know, just the quality of cross-functional work and the way that we work together to get from the beginning of a project all the way through the project being live in the world, because I really felt like the more we were speaking the same language as a team and really just finding joy in our work for lack of a better phrase, the better chance that work had in succeeding in the world. So I really appreciate a lot of team-building activities and really think that your internal culture is so important. So that’s something I learned there in the early days that’s very true to how I think and operate every day. 

Adrian Tennant: Now you’re a decade into your career. How do you keep up-to-date with the constantly evolving landscape of technology platforms and the myriad of digital tools now available to brand marketers?

Claire Knebl: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, we’re always looking to learn. We’re always looking to understand our brand in the world. And we’re also looking to understand consumers as it relates to our brand and our customers. So, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about the best ways to measure these things and we have both set practices that we really rely on. So there’s a specific brand sentiment survey we’ve been running for years that we really rely on internally. But at the same time, we also talk to different new vendors and try new things as we think it’s relevant with our goals. So we ran a brand study with a new group that I wasn’t previously familiar with called Whisper, a few months ago. And that was a really helpful way for us to understand our brand in comparison to some other brands and the industry overall. So it’s a mix, I think, of building on what we already know and our routines and rituals, as well as having your ears and eyes open and being open to trying new things, as they make sense for you.

Adrian Tennant: Are there any products that are on the roadmap for introduction in 2021?

Claire Knebl: There are no products that I can tell you about. But what I can tell you is that we are in a very exciting period for the company. And I think that all of the growth this year that you touched on in terms of introducing Ritual to men, men 50-plus, teens, for him and for her and then kids, are all really good examples of sort of the rate at which we are innovating as a company and we have some exciting things up our sleeve that we’re excited to share soon.

Adrian Tennant: Claire, as you know, we have an internship program here at Bigeye. For anyone who is currently studying marketing communications or has recently graduated, what advice would you give them for securing their first position?

Claire Knebl: When I graduated college, I actually got started in editorial, in magazines. So I didn’t start in marketing. And I think that’s totally okay. I think you can start in any industry and end up in marketing, if you work towards it, because I think that, like I was mentioning before, I think marketing comes down to really strategic thinking at its core and that’s something that can be honed in many different types of ways. So in terms of exact advice, I think one, I would say, to not be worried about exactly what that first step is like I think the most important thing is to take a step, and whatever that step looks like for you, you can continue shaping your career from there and you have years to do that. The other thing that has been so important to me in my experience, and this was how I landed my very first internship, was personal outreach. So I reached out to  a magazine editor who I really admired. I did so in what I thought was a pretty thoughtful and personal way. And that turned into an internship, which turned into a full-time job, and really was the on-ramp to the rest of my career. So I know it’s not always easy and sometimes people don’t reply or they’re busy or whatever it is, but it doesn’t hurt to try. So if there’s someone whose career you really admire, write to them and see what happens. I think that’s a really good thing to do, and you have nothing to lose.

Adrian Tennant: Claire, what are your daily sources of inspiration? Are you a music listener, a reader, or a listener of podcasts?

Claire Knebl: I try and make time every day to work out in some way. And now that I’m working from home to go on multiple walks a day if I can swing it. I try and do walking meetings whenever possible. And that’s really important to me because I find that I really get inspired just by giving my mind time to do its thing. And that happens most when I’m moving my body. So that’s something that’s really important to me. And I also listen to podcasts. I try and listen to The Daily just to stay really informed. We also advertise on a number of podcasts, so I always think it’s fun to listen to some of the podcasts that we advertise on. I think number one for me is really just movement and giving my mind time to do its thing.

Adrian Tennant: It’s so interesting to hear you say that. We started this season with an interview with a creative director and when he’s looking for inspiration, he goes to the gym.  

Claire Knebl: Totally. Oftentimes I think that if you’re struggling with a challenge, I think sometimes the answer is there, you just have to give it some time to make its way out and make itself visible. So I find that for me, working out as a really clear way to do that. So yeah, I love it. That’s one thing I would never want to give up.

Adrian Tennant: You mentioned advertising in podcasts. Has that become a very important channel for you over the last year or so?

Claire Knebl: Yeah. I can take no credit for it. it’s a different team who oversees it and they do an excellent job. But podcasts, in general, have become a very significant channel for us and it’s something that our team has grown over the course of several years. So it’s been really interesting to see that momentum compound year to year. And I think it’s a really interesting channel from a brand perspective because, you know, I mentioned the power of word of mouth and that it’s hard to scale, but I really believe in introducing someone who has influence – and by the way, we all have influence – to your brand and then hearing them talk about it is such a powerful driver for the brands. So podcasts are really interesting because it’s a more scalable way to hear personalized takes on advertising. It feels very personal because the host is speaking oftentimes. and I think that makes it really special.

Adrian Tennant: Claire, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about Ritual, where can they find you?

Claire Knebl: You can find us at ritual.com and I hope you’ll check us out.

Adrian Tennant: We certainly will. Claire, thank you very much indeed for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Claire Knebl: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Claire Knebl, Senior Director of Marketing for Ritual. Now, if you’d like to try Ritual’s multivitamins for yourself, go to www.Ritual.com. Claire has arranged a special offer for IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners. To receive 10% off your first three months, enter the code INCLEARFOCUS – that’s all one word – at the checkout. You’ll also find a link to Ritual’s site and this offer code on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” And if you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, or your preferred podcast player. And remember, if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Consumer Research

Consumer insights company Bigeye explores research focused on minorities and under-represented groups with Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, the co-founder of Versiti.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Bigeye discusses the results of a Market Research Society report with its author, Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais. Co-founder of Versiti in London, UK, Dr. Gervais conducts research with traditionally underrepresented groups in society. She explains the roots of many market researchers’ unconscious biases, the benefits of engaging with minority audiences, and suggests practical steps we can take to ensure consumer research is truly diverse, inclusive, and representative.

In Clear Focus: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Consumer Research

In Clear Focus this week: Bigeye discusses the results of a Market Research Society report with its author, Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais. Co-founder of Versiti in London, UK, Dr. Gervais conducts research with traditionally underrepresented groups in society.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. In 2020, diversity, equity, and inclusion – or “DE&I” for short – has shifted from being an initiative of corporate HR departments to a more broad-ranging conversation, prompted in part by the international Black Lives Matter movement. Today, we’re going to consider some of these DE&I-related subjects such as gender and racial equality, disability, neurodiversity, and the LGBTQ+ community, in the context of consumer research. Software company Adobe published a study last year that found that 38% of US and UK consumers are more likely to trust a brand that shows more diversity in its ads. Nearly one-third of consumers overall say that they are more likely to purchase products or services from brands with ads that reflect diversity. That percentage rises to over 50% among respondents identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community and those who identify as African-Americans. Authentically reflecting diverse identities and issues requires a more nuanced approach to developing advertising messaging, which in turn requires marketers to develop real empathy for minority audiences’ lived experiences. To talk about conducting research with underrepresented groups, my guest today is Dr. Marie-Claudie Gervais, the co-founder and Director of Research at Versiti. Based in London, England, Versiti helps clients in the public, private, and third sector understand and mitigate against inequalities and strive for greater inclusion and a fairer society. The research firm unearths and explores the experiences, attitudes, and behaviors of Black, ethnic minority and faith communities, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, women, the young, and the old. Marie-Claude, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Hi, Adrian! Thanks for having me. I’m very glad to be here.

Adrian Tennant: So Marie-Claude, what led you to co-found Versiti?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: I think it’s been really a mix of professional, business, and personal factors. So I started my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics many years ago, then I was a lecturer in Social and Cultural Psychology there. And so there’s a very long-term kind of commitment and interest and understanding about what makes people feel and think and behave in the way that they do and the role of social groups and communities and culture in shaping all of that. I had a wonderful time at the LSE, but in 2000, so 20 years ago, I could see that issues around diversity, inclusion, and equality were becoming important and that there were significant ethnic inequalities in particular, in relation to very many different issues. So, keen to have a greater impact, to drive change, I left academia to create an agency that specializes in research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. And that was a great experience. But for factors that are personal more than anything else, I left that agency to my then ex-husband and joined forces with Stephen Cribbett, who is a wonderful guy and a research industry veteran, and together we launched Versiti. And now the scope of Versiti is not just ethnicity, but it’s extended quite beyond that to encompass work with any minoritized group. I said at the beginning that it was also personal factors. So on a personal level, I’m French Canadian, living in London, and I was married for 20 years to a British Pakistani man and we have two wonderful children that have been much enriched by being raised in three different cultural traditions. So Pakistani, British, and Canadian, and it’s the personal level really hugely important to me to get diversity, inclusion, and equality right because I want my kids to grow in a world where they will have the same opportunities to thrive as everybody else.

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, you are the Director of Research. What methodologies does Versiti typically use?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: That’s a good question. We’re not really wedded to any specific methodology. I would say that we, in fact, pride ourselves on being creative and thoughtful in terms of adapting the right methodology for each brief. When I was at the LSE, I also taught research methodology across the whole university. So I’m a nerd when it comes to research methods and I like to try new things. So yesterday, for example, we launched a report which looks at the state of diversity, inclusion, and equality across the whole market and social research, data analytics, and insights sector in the UK. It’s a big piece for the Market Research Society – so that’s the world’s leading research association. They have members in 60 countries. It’s very big. So of course, for something like that, we did a survey. It made sense. But for most projects, we tend to use qualitative research, all sorts – face-to-face, online, individual, group-based, ethnography, – all sorts because qualitative research is just more appropriate because the issues that we are researching most of the time are complex. They are not well understood. So they require more in-depth exploration, more sensitivity, and ability to really adapt to what the participants are saying and to adjust to that and to kind of find our way really in their world. Also, almost by definition, many of the research participants will have experienced exclusion, discrimination, and might have a degree of distrust towards the research industry. It takes time for them and the issues we tap into can be very sensitive, right? So it takes them for them to build rapport with us. The closer we can be to their environment, their home, their workplace in their family, in the shopping malls where they go, in their living room when they watch TV, that kind of stuff, the better it is. Now I would also say that over the last 10 years, we’ve certainly made very extensive use of online research communities. They unfold over a fixed period of time, say a week, two weeks, a month – and they give us time to build rapport and to get, I guess, the closest to some kind of ethnographic approach as, you know, client budgets will typically allow. And also online communities make it possible for participants to share their lives, in the moment. So they document what’s going on in their lives, but they can also give a much more thoughtful, considered view on things. They can upload their experiences or perspectives or views, opinions, feelings through text, or images, or video. They can give us feedback on content, concepts, product, services, advertising, whatever. So for many reasons, that tends to work well and really we’ve delivered many award-winning, kind of transformative insights, really for our clients using that methodology because precisely of the customer closeness and immersions that this makes possible.

Adrian Tennant: We’ve actually addressed online research communities previously on this podcast and we’ll include a link to that episode in the show notes. Minorities are by definition, not the majority of consumers. So why do you think brands now seem more interested in addressing sometimes tiny percentages of a given market? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: In this sense, a lot hinges on how you define minority, and I – alongside many people who have a more kind of a legalistic mindset when it comes to this – tend to define the minority not by their demographic size, but by their access to power. So that’s why women are protected by the equality legislation. For example, of course, women are 50% and a little bit more of the population, but because historically women are experiencing discrimination, we are protected by law. And so the size of the group is not what defines minority status. And I sometimes say to people, if you consider white people, especially during Apartheid in South Africa, clearly they were a demographic minority but a political majority – in a sense – they had the huge amount of power. So I think we need to complexify our sense of what the minority is you know, if women are half of the population and people from non-white backgrounds, I think in America it’s currently about 40% of the US population and it’s expected to reach 50%, in the next 25 years. So 50% will be from a non-white background. And then disabled people on top of that would be 26% I think of the adult population. And, probably LGBTQI+ people would be a little bit less than 5% – it’s similar to the UK percentage. So even if you allow for overlapping categories, the net kind of percentage would be more than half of the population. Now, people who belong to minority groups are particularly interesting because if you understand their needs, you get things right for the majority of the population as well. For example, you know, most of us will have an iPhone that has some kind of a fingerprint for opening your iPhone, right? So a way of identifying yourself and it saves you having to remember yet another password, and that was designed, in order to address memory deficit and dexterity problems with some disabled people. And wow, it’s a lifesaver for so many of us, right? So getting things right for a minority can really serve the needs of a majority. So I think the import of your question is more about why brands should care and why actually have some started to care? And clearly, Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have both shined the light on structural inequalities, especially in relation to race, of course. And that’s triggered a whole raft of reactions. So in some cases, brands have been jolted into action because they suddenly became aware of the nature and the scale of racism. So that became a moral imperative, right? An ideological and emotional reaction with brands, deciding that they need to do more and to focus, addressing these inequalities. I was listening to Lewis Hamilton, Formula One driver, who was saying in an interview that it’s not enough not to be racist; you have to be actively anti-racist. And I think that’s the kind of attitude that many brands have taken. But we also have brands who came to us because they were under pressure from their own staff. And so their diverse workforce approached them and demand that they would do something to respond to Black Lives Matter, in particular. So then it’s brands as employers that are beginning to think, “Whoa! We have to react to this and to somehow demonstrate our commitment to social justice, otherwise our staff are going to go!” right? And then more generally there’s purely a commercial imperative because there’s growing evidence really that brands, as you said in your introduction, you know, brands that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better. A study by Heat, which is an agency that is owned by Deloitte, shows that brands that include a broad variety of demographic and cultural groups in their ads improved perceptions amongst their consumers and actually gained a significant stock market value. The average stock gain was 44% in that study and brands with the highest diversity scores showed an 83% higher consumer preference. And that’s because for more and more consumers, especially younger people, that brands that are seen to be diverse are more trusted because diversity makes them seem caring and relevant and progressive and innovative and dynamic. So for tons of reasons, they appeal more. Now, I would also say that it’s really important to avoid thinking only in terms of representation. So having, an Hispanic or gay person or disabled person just plunked on an ad because it feels very quickly tokenistic or box-ticking, or exploitative in some way, kind of just jumping on the diversity bandwagon without any connection to the brand’s purpose. Right? So it’s the way in which diversity is portrayed that matters. And people want to see authenticity. They want to see full people, three-dimensional characters, people in situations that they can relate to, that share their concerns, their strengths, their values, their lifestyle. So it’s much more subtle. It’s much more nuanced, as you said and it’s about normalizing diversity and kind of getting everyone to see that actually everyone uses washing powder, everyone uses tomato ketchup, everybody drives cars, you know, we all love chocolate. And that’s the shape of the modern consumer. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.

Adrian Tennant: In my introduction, I framed our conversation today as a reflection of a broader societal focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Marie-Claude, could you explain how you typically define these values?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Diversity is a little bit more factual, a little bit more like a head 

count in a sense. So it refers to the full spectrum of differences and similarities between individuals. Typically, we think about that in terms of socio-demographic variables, like, you know, people’s age and gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, social class, but diversity is also more encompassing than that can be of course, a diversity of beliefs and values and life experiences and personal preferences. So catering to that breadth of life experiences, and preferences, and needs is what diversity refers to. Inclusion – it’s more about a feeling and a set of behaviors and practices that are about making individuals, whatever their background, feel welcome and valued and confident that they’ll be treated fairly and respected. So for me, inclusion is almost like the normalization of diversity. It’s the point when we take it for granted that the whole world is diverse and we build this awareness in everything we do. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across that, but it’s a lovely way of thinking about the difference between diversity and inclusion: some people say diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. And I think that’s just a very nice way of putting it. Now, equality is more complicated. It can mean equality of access, equality of opportunity in that sense, but also equality of experience and equality of outcomes, which is a trickier still way of thinking about equality and it might be more precise in fact, to talk about equity than equality. So too often people assume that they are fair because they treat everyone the same, right? They equate in their mind sameness with equality. So if you treat everybody the same, that surely that makes you fair. When in fact, fairness might very well be treating people differently saying, “Ah, okay, I’ve looked at your specific needs. And in order for you to achieve the same outcome, I’m going to have to give you a slightly different approach. Maybe I need to give you a bit more training on this, or create an ad that will be tailored to your life experiences and not somebody else, or a product that will meet X need and not another.” So equality of outcomes, I think, in a sense, it’s a richer way of thinking about that.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

Lauren Fore: I’m Lauren Fore, and I’m on the operations team at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as agency professionals and reflects the way that Bigeye puts audiences first.  For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with our clients’ audiences. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, Director of Research at Versiti. Of course, a word we’ve heard a lot in 2020 is intersectionality, which can be defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations, such as race, class, and gender, as they apply to a given individual or group regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” As a researcher, how do you identify intersectionality and assess its influence on the ways in which participants respond in studies?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Our thinking keeps evolving on this. I think to be fair, 10 years ago, I did a piece of work for the government, it was called “Ethnic Minority Women: Routes to Power” And it was specifically doing interviews with the 23 most powerful ethnic minority women in the country to map out their roots to positions of power and, you know, work backwards from there and identify what had worked and hadn’t worked for them. So that was an early study into intersectionality. Earlier on in this podcast, I talked about the survey we just published for the Market Research Society, and in that report, the way in which we kind of grappled with intersectionality is we looked at all of the data and we analyzed it by three types of researchers. So we created a type – type one, which I really don’t like the expression, but I think it’s going to be the simplest way of conveying what I mean about people that are known as “pale, male, and stale.” 

Adrian Tennant: [laughter]

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: I know, not very nice! But older, white, straight, able-bodied men who typically have never experienced much discrimination. So they don’t tend to perceive it. So that was one type. Then there was another type, which was essentially the same thing, but instead of men, women. So women who are white, British, straight, age 35 and over, and able-bodied. And then the third type we group together, researchers who belong to any visible minority over which they didn’t have control. Right? So people see that you’re Black or Asian, or you wear a hijab or you are a wheelchair user – so visible minorities. And when we analyze the data by these types, which really were heuristic devices in a sense, right? It was just about seeing how advantages and disadvantages cohere, when you start considering intersectional factors, the results were fascinating and they’ve really revealed radical differences in perceptions of discrimination. Of course, in pay and rewards. And of course, in, you know, commitment to driving the change. So to me, that’s been a really, really valuable way of looking at the evidence because actually older, white men, straight, and able-bodied, hold so much power in society and if they never experience discrimination, it’s so much more difficult for them to see that it exists and to be motivated to do something about it. I think that from what I’m looking at in the communications on LinkedIn or whatever, that’s resonating with a lot of people they’re suddenly getting it and going, “Wow, we need to address that.”  I talked a bit about online communities and why they have advantages for that kind of research. Another reason is that it may be easier to explore empirically intersectionality. So you’ve recruited your participants, right? So they’ve taken part in the community and then you can analyze your dataset by discrete variables. Right? So the experiences of men versus women, or older people versus younger people, or middle-class versus working class, or whatever, but you can also compare data, say, for working-class gay men versus working fast lesbians, or young Black men versus young Black women and bring out all the data for these kind of combined characteristics and see the patterns. So I find it much easier to see patterns and to test hypotheses about intersectional experiences in that research platform.

Adrian Tennant: For your clients,  what does an engagement with Versiti typically look like?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: We have a few guiding principles. So the first is, before we start working with anybody, we’re a bit nerdish so we do a lot of research on the client and the sector. We try to learn as much as possible about the clients or their organizational culture, their corporate aims, their business objectives. And we look at the literature to identify interesting things to start an interesting conversation with the clients about their circumstances, but also opportunities, new target audiences, whatever. We’re very aware that for many people, the world of diversity and inclusion and equality is very tentative. It’s a bit scary. And they don’t want to work with people who are so ideologically committed that they fear that the hard left is walking into their office somehow. So for us, meeting with clients, connecting, building a relationship and a sense of trust is really important. And once we have that, then the relationship is so much more fluid anyway. It’s wonderful. In the kind of same vein, a little bit, we always have a good kickoff meeting with internal stakeholders to make sure that everybody is aligned and that we are very much attuned to the diversity of agendas in a room normally, and the insight requirements across the organization and there will typically be different people with very different understandings around diversity and inclusion. So being mindful, sensitive to that, is very important. And of course it’s the standard stuff about, you know, firming up the aims and objectives and the methodology. And we sometimes, depending on the scale of the project, we’ll have a whole risk register. It’s also, you know, agreeing timeline and deliverables and the standard stuff. We are very diligent in terms of having regular touchpoints so that it’s part of the trust-building and the open communication, and giving clients an opportunity to ask questions, right? In our reporting, we try very hard to make sure that clients obviously understand the issues and get the insights and go, “Aha! Wow! Okay, I get it.” But it’s also empathy. To us, it’s so important to bring consumers to life. Usually, we use quite a bit of video so clients get people and they also feel much more confident and empowered to have new discussions within the business and externally. And then I would say also our strapline, right, is “Evidence to drive change.” So, for us, research is never, ever an end in itself. It has really no value until it’s used. If it sits on the shelf, we feel we have absolutely failed. So we focus a lot on activation, and impact, and change. So we want to have an activation workshop at the end of the project. Once all the stakeholders have digested the insights, then we meet and we really workshop hard the implications for the wider business and begin to think through the next steps. Sometimes we bring research participants in the room, right? So that lived experiences are found in that conversation. A lot of it depends on how the client relationship started. So most of the time, I would say people come to us with a brief, some have a very strict brief – so government departments, for example, would have a very strict brief and so we adhere to that, but often it’s much less well-defined. So we did various pieces of work for Jaguar Land Rover, the kind of luxury carmakers. They needed to understand  – they knew they lacked an understanding of ethnic minority consumers, but they were not prescriptive at all about how to do that. So really left it to us to develop the approach. I think, if I recall, that combined an online research community with I think minority owners of luxury cars, but also ethnographic visits in car dealerships – so where we accompanied owners of luxury cars to kind of shop in a car dealership for their new car. And we also did interviews with ethnic minority members of the company, their staff, to understand the culture of the business. So that’s one thing. And then the really exciting thing for me is that we often completely generate a brief from scratch. So a good example of that is work we’ve done with RNIB. American audiences might not be familiar with that, but it’s the Royal National Institute for the Blind. So that’s a big charity that is supporting blind and partially-sighted people. And I kind of knew that some research had shown that the biggest barrier to full civic participation reported by blind and partially-sighted people was not their sight loss, was not their visual impairment. It was public attitudes towards them. So I went to the RNIB and I said, “Well, what are you doing about this?” I suggested five different programs of work we could do for them. And they went, “Okay, we would like this and this.” And actually, we were kind of finalists for an Insight Impact Award this year together. That piece of work led to a complete rebrand, a new logo, new strapline, a new website, a new corporate strategy that reduced their strategic priorities down from five to three. Now the research is a part of the induction of all new staff, it’s really been helpful and impactful. So yeah, sometimes we see the opportunity and we go, “All right, let’s set up a call.” And if people are open to that, it tends to really work well

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, from a practical perspective, how do you recruit participants for qualitative studies or find respondents for quantitative studies from underrepresented populations?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: So if you don’t have the right people in the room, you’re never going to get the right data. So it is clearly very important to recruit the right research participants, but I would say the more fundamental question where the expertise is required is more about creating the right sampling frame in the first place. So “Who should we be speaking to?” Not just, “Where do we find them?” but “What’s the profile of the people that we should be speaking to? Do we expect generational differences? Do we expect regional differences, age differences?” So that basic thinking – it’s really quite important. So let’s first of all, kind of,  think about the sampling frame and then it’s the process, which is kind of, you create a screening questionnaire, right? And we work with a team of specialist recruiters – so people who have a lot of experience in recruiting underrepresented groups often called, “hard to reach,” which we never use that word. We talk about “seldom heard” people because we think that the onus, you know, should be on institutions and organizations to reach out. So we work with people who have deep networks in communities in some cases, community-based organizations in order to meet quotas. So, yes, most of the time we work with quota samples, but we might also use nat rep samples. 

Adrian Tennant: That means nationally representative samples – is that correct?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: That’s right. Sorry about that. And if it’s relevant, for example, a study of perceptions about people from minority groups, we sometimes use maximum variation sample, if that means anything. So that’s kind of for deep insights piece, we would find people who are extreme in one way or another. So they are really early adopters or they are real laggards or they are, I don’t know, in the world of sport, it might be they do Extreme Sports, for example, or they have never, ever lifted anything more than a fork and a spoon and the knife in their lives. So extreme people to try and understand what’s going on. And of course, we also work with clients’ own databases. What we try desperately to do is to avoid snowballing and all sorts of kind of convenience sampling which makes it really hard to derive like really valuable, robust insights from.

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, thinking about the work you’re doing with Versiti, what are you most excited about in 2021? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: There’s so much uncertainty about it, that it becomes exciting. The political landscape is changing. In the States there’s of course, a lot of uncertainty still in relation to the results of the election and how President-Elect Biden’s going to be in power. In the UK, of course there’s COVID, and Black Lives Matter. It’s now, you know, an international movement that has affected and made people much more aware of structural inequalities in the UK, even though the triggers might’ve been in America, so that political landscape is making everybody much, much more aware of structural discrimination. For 25 years, I found it incredibly hard to talk about discrimination and sexism and racism because people were individually defensive. They’re like, “Well, I’m not racist. I’m not sexist.” And now they see that it’s not about individual attitudes and prejudices. It can be that your customer segmentation is biased in favor of certain customers and not others. So, you know, it’s processes as opposed to individual behavior and that awareness is making it so much easier to have different and more productive kinds of conversations. So I think the dial is moving. I’m excited by the sense of community. Also a sense of, you know, grassroots power that is emerging, which is great. I’m also excited to see how digital research is becoming the mainstream as we can’t do face-to-face research. So driven by necessity or by big COVID constraints, we might have an explosion of really good quality research if people embrace that and do it well. And I also have a sense that we’re going back to basics in a sense there’s a kind of resurgence of great quality qual and big data and, you know, artificial intelligence and that the miracle cure has not been delivered. So we go back to great insights and people who can do that will be hugely prized, I think, and, and valued. That’s the hope anyway. 

Adrian Tennant: If listeners want to learn more about Versiti and your research studies, where can they find you? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: The simple answer is just our website so www.Versiti.co, which is VERSITI.co and you will find Versiti and our work. 

Adrian Tennant: Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, thank you very much for joining us today! 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: It’s been a real pleasure. I’m very grateful for the tough, challenging, and interesting thought-provoking questions. Thanks, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, Co-Founder and Director of Research at Versiti, based in London. You’ll find links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under Insights. If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. And remember if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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