Virtual Research: 5 Silver Linings for Clients

By: Ruthie Feinstein, VP, Insights & Engagement

There is nothing quite like moderating in-person research: constantly meeting new people, appreciating their experiences and stories, and just sharing physical space with other humans brings me real joy.  I do miss it, but virtual research provides those same benefits – just in a different way.  

The art and science of revealing people’s authentic thoughts, perspectives, and feelings…. those powerful emotions that give clients better understanding and increased empathy can still be uncovered online.  If there was any question about conducting research of any kind right now, people WANT to be heard, and valued and appreciated, and are willing to provide their insight across multiple channels. This is important for brands to know and embrace.

Additionally, there are some differentiating tangible benefits virtual research offers:

·       Cost Effectiveness and Efficiency.  The most obvious is no travel-related costs. But importantly, along with that are no travel-related hassles, exhaustion or wasted time.  This leaves more time for other work to get done and your head space to really be focused ‘in’ the research vs. the rest of your to-do list.  For some clients, it also means access to more dollars to invest IN research.

·       Flexibility and Engagement: If unable to attend ‘live’ interviews, clients have the ability to watch recorded versions at their convenience, in a relaxed environment.  Some have mentioned that this allows them to watch even more interviews, resulting in a firmer grasp of the overall learning, and increased contributions to post-research discussions and decision-making.

·       Expanded Socialization of Insights:  No travel costs and recorded interviews also mean more client team members are able to participate. Critical functions at all levels and external partners are able to internalize consumer stories and feedback first-hand.  This helps to achieve cross-functional buy-in, truly informed decision-making and innovation from all functions that contribute to the customer experience.

·       Compelling Storytelling: Virtual research often allows for an easier and more natural platform for image and video collection. These experiential artifacts serve as authentic and naturally persuasive tools for communicating insights in an organization.  For example, sales teams, agency partners and executives often prefer and are more receptive to a short, compelling video that summarizes the essence of the learning and opportunities.

·       ‘Freer’ Feedback: I’ve noticed that being behind the screen gives people a little extra permission to open up in ways they might not in person.  I am seeing that participants feel ‘freer’ to provide candid feedback or talk about sensitive topics, which results in even more robust learning.

When it comes to designing your next project, virtual may be a great fit.  But, like all methods, it should be assessed for its ability to meet your objectives, timeline, budget, and organization’s needs.  Please contact Cindy Blackstock at to discuss your research objectives and if virtual may be the right approach! 

Work Life: Human Connection & Empathy Will Help Us Triumph Over Trauma

By: Ruthie Feinstein, VP Insights & Engagement

Anyone else getting irritated by the ‘catchy’ and overused pandemic catchphrases?  The “new normal” is one I’d love to never hear again and p.s. – it’s not even accurate.  There is nothing normal going on here. Normal implies “regular” or “routine”, but our daily routines, rhythms and expectations have vanished.  We are living day by day, sometimes hour by hour and I’d do anything for a big ‘ol heaping cup of normal starting oh…yesterday.

I work hard to stay positive and hopeful personally and professionally, and I do have some really good days.  But there are days I am just exhausted. Exhausted in missing what we’ve lost, exhausted in the newness of it all, exhausted in trying to navigate the flood of news and stats and structureless days.  

And at times, I also feel sad and anxious.  Sad and anxious for the physical and mental health of my family.  Sad for my kids, worried about how this is affecting them short and long term, sad for what they’ve lost (even in the midst of what they’ve gained: cleaning toilets is good for the teen soul).  Sad and constantly scared for the health and needs of my elderly parents and generally living with this subtle, underlying wave of angst.  

I constantly question personally and professionally:  What will this look like on the other side? Will we ever get back to “normal”?  Will we be better for it?  

Thankfully, I just listened to this podcast Adapting to Our Changing World that nudged me to “yes”.  Yes, we will be okay, and yes, we will be better for it.

This podcast features Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, a dear friend and colleague of SIVO Insights. Amelia is the CEO of Alia Innovations.  Alia’s mission is to drive transformative change for the people and systems entrusted with the welfare and care of children.  Amelia and her team have since applied their expertise to organizations for workforce wellbeing, leadership development and coaching.

I promise business leaders at all levels will feel inspired with practical advice to establish a sense of safety for yourselves and your teams. 

For those of us in the human insights profession, I also noticed an important parallel to the work we do: the power of human connections.

As qualitative researchers, it is our job to authentically connect with people to gain insight into their lives, gain texture around the choices they make, their values, what is truly important to them.  Through deep and layered conversations, acute observations, stories and experiences, we help clients see people as more “human” vs. data points. 

To do this successfully, we artfully establish trust and reliability, so people feel safe opening up.  We show vulnerability and a real respect for their points of view.  We are genuinely open-minded and curious about what they have to say. Most importantly, we feel and show empathy as they graciously invite us into their lives.

I now recognize these characteristics in the workplace, in ways like never before because of this universal pandemic.  Our guards are down and our vulnerability is up.  Two months ago, I NEVER would have showed up on a Zoom call without makeup, with my dog on my lap or pausing mid-thought to make sure the house isn’t burning down as my younger daughter makes her own lunch. I see make-shift offices in messy kitchens, cranky babies, laundry hanging in the distance and tons of personal artifacts.  Glimpses into people’s homes and their lives.  We are making the time for real conversations around how we are really doing, exposing a full range of emotions: the good, the bad and the vulnerable.

What was once considered ‘unprofessional’ is now considered profoundly human and real.  The connections we are making are deepened – and this is a very good thing.  

We are in this exhausting, worrisome, devastating trench together and we will crawl out of it together.  This pandemic is the great unifier and it is bringing more humanity to our work life.   

From this, we can choose to NOT go back to what was “normal”.  What if we internalize and embrace this increased level of empathy for who we are as individuals, parents, partners, children and friends and bring those nuanced aspects to work in addition to our skills and expertise?  What if we choose to redefine what is “normal”?  I believe this new level of humility, trust and respect can do wonders for productivity, loyalty, creativity and innovation and we can all be better for it on the other side.  

The Best of Us

By: Ruthie Feinstein, VP Insights & Engagement

Our company retreat in January centered around infusing more joy into our work.  We were asked: What is one thing you would do more of on a personal level that brings you joy?  My answer: I would cook.  Cooking is my creative outlet, it elicits beautiful childhood memories, and most importantly, it is a tangible and real way that I express love for my family.  Problem was I had no time.  Not even on the weekends.  Who knew two months later, I’d have the opportunity due to a global pandemic.

I am one of the lucky ones who gets to work from home right now.  And with this privilege, I am cooking, and baking and it looks very different than how I’ve cooked in a long time. I am not stressing or feeling rushed.  I am cooking with my girls, passing on tips and tricks my mom taught me.  We are digging up familiar recipes and creating new ones, being creative with what we have in the house. We are having longer dinner conversations, and every night is family game or movie night – some sort of activity that ensures we are physically and emotionally ‘together’.  

During this chaos, we wake up every day to new revelations, some contradictions from hours/days/weeks before, and constant fear and anxiety. Stress on so many levels for everyone.  No one will come out of this untouched in some way.  Yet, I am seeing another powerful force at play.  A hopeful, inspirational one that is critical to our emotional health.  Myself and my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community, and the world around us are looking for ways to create and contribute joy and kindness

Inspiration right outside my front door.

In my family, we now have regular video chats with grandparents and extended family, telling jokes and playing games.  We bake and leave treats for friends on their doorsteps, and they ask if we need anything when they run to the grocery store. We brainstorm ways to bring more joy and act kindly. Some ideas:  

  • Give someone a compliment
  • Be a good friend to someone having a hard time
  • Donate food
  • Make a family TikTok
  • Be more patient with my little sister
  • Offer to walk our neighbor’s dog
  • Paint a picture for my best friend’s Grandpa who has Alzheimer’s

Human kindness unites us. Each one of us has the capability to make someone feel good, feel genuinely appreciated, feel like they matter.  In our current state, where so much is not in our control, this is.  When we make someone else feel good, we feel good ourselves. 

Kindness in business

I’m seeing it with businesses too, where kindness drives decision-making and innovation.  More than feel-good emails, forgiving late fees, waiving change fees, or extending return policies.  It is real, purposeful and memorable actions rooted in bringing joy and acting with kindness.  Some examples:

  • Leaders placing employees with family health issues on furlough status so they can maintain insurance benefits even when business is unstable
  • My company, SIVOInsights, offering emotional, intellectual, and professional support to our clients that has nothing to do with our core offering and everything to do with what they mean to us
  • Distilleries across the country converting their operations from making alcohol to making hand sanitizer – and giving it away for free, starting with healthcare workers as a priority
  • KFC partnering with the nonprofit “Blessings in a Backpack” to help provide weekend meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry, donating $400,000 to provide prepackaged meals
  • Starbucks paying all workers for 30 days regardless if they show up to work and catastrophe pay, mental health resources and childcare support to those who opt to keep coming in
  • DollarGeneral, Walgreens and other retailers dedicating early hours to seniors, a key at-risk group, to avoid busy shopping periods
  • TheCoca-ColaCompany immediately diverting millions in brand advertising to support COVID-19 relief efforts globally 

And the list goes on.  These actions tell the story of how these businesses operate and the human beings who lead them. These actions strengthen loyalty, making it almost unbreakable, because they are rooted in deep emotional needs.  People care and notice how they are treated in each of their relationships, including those with brands.  And people will always remember how those brands show up, especially in the worst of times.   

So, as we work hard to protect the physical health of ourselves and each other, could this also be a terrific opportunity?  

What if these actions, rooted in joy and kindness, were simply our ‘modus operandi’, our usual way of doing business and building brands, not just when in crisis mode?  How inspiring and completely transformative could that be?  Think about the authentic loyalty that would really earn.

What if we looked at this as an opportunity to level-set, reprioritize and change habits and behaviors for the better, both personally and professionally?  An opportunity to slow down, strengthen connections and actively demonstrate to people that they matter to us – our families, our friends and in business, our employees, clients and customers.  To show that we really see you, we really value you as human beings.  To show up and bring the best of us

Smart advice

Building Executive Empathy: Three Takeaways from My Experience

By: Ruthie Feinstein, VP, Insights and Engagement

Executive empathy is a hot topic in the workplace right now.  The more genuinely empathetic a leader is, the better their teams and businesses are for it: operationally, emotionally and financially.  So much so, that there are formal training programs around developing, shaping and strengthening the ‘empathy muscle.’  

Recently, I had the great fortune of leading an Executive Empathy initiative and it was a highlight of my career.  Guiding consumer conversations is what I do all the time, but this time was different.  This time was for the C-Suite of one of our beloved national retail clients.  I led real and honest conversations into how the retailer delivers a positive customer experience, and where they miss the boat; what they love about the retailer and what they wish the retailer really understood they needed.  Sounds risky for some Executives…unless they are fully onboard and ready to hear and accept the truth. 

Here are a few things that stuck with me and contributed to the success of the project:

  1. Be authentic.  Although potentially risky, we needed to build in topics and exercises that would flush out consumer truths.  That is my No. 1 job.  Nothing would have been a bigger waste of time than safeguarding these leaders and only delivering ‘good news.’  There was plenty of good news to hear, but there were also moments of harsh reality; some things they knew, some surprising.  In debrief sessions, it was the surprising news that lit the biggest fire and they were most excited about learning.  And hearing it in-person vs. a PowerPoint presentation made all the difference in the world.
  2. Be agile. Importantly, behind the scenes, we also built in enough space throughout the day to be agile and pivot as needed based on what the Executive team was learning. Doing this was key so they felt they were getting the most out of the experience and had a voice in shaping it. As the conversations evolved, the day did too.  We flexed with them.  We could do this confidently because we were so well prepared (see next point).
  3. Be prepared.  Obviously, it was important that recruiting, the flow of the day, timelines and budget went off without a hitch.  Weekly check-in’s and tight collaboration with the Consumer Insights client team ensured the Executives were appropriately prepped, understood what they could expect (and not expect), knew necessary logistics, and roles were clearly defined.  Know your audience: just ‘enough’ information so they felt informed but not overwhelmed.

Unexpectedly, I also walked away feeling inspired. This Executive team showed up to the day excited, engaged and ready to go.  No phone distractions, no multi-tasking, no ‘other meetings’ they had to attend.  They were taking detailed notes, talking to each other about what they were learning, respectfully challenging one another, ideating in the moment, asking to go even deeper on certain issues they needed to hear more about.  

They were truly living out one of the company’s core values of customer-centricity. We all know it is too easy for Executives to lose touch with the people that make or break the brand; too many demands on their time, too much financial pressure.  

It is inspiring to witness, first-hand, when leaders believe and act that their customers are at the center of what they do and be in the company of Executives who ‘walk the talk.’  This leading by example reminds us that everyone is responsible for the customer experience, not just those in the insights department.  

Quality Insights Using Research Tech
SIVO’s 4 Tips to Get Started

By: Cindy Blackstock, Co-Founder and CEO & Ruthie Feinstein, VP of Insights and Engagement

We love this quote by business and consumer behavior genius Steve Jobs.  He had an innate belief that technology should exist to make our lives easier, keep up in a fast-paced world, and fuel our creativity. Yet, he understood the true power of the technology rested in the hands of its users.

The same is true for Research Tech / DIY Tools; the latest hot topic in the insights industry. Our experience has taught us that they work best when applied in the right situation, there is a genuine understanding for how they work and how they can best be optimized.  This takes the savviness of sophisticated researchers, because like any other technology, it needs to be in the right human hands to be most effective. 

Across brands and categories, sophisticated client-side researchers are being challenged to deliver insights faster, without sacrificing quality and some are turning to these tools to address this need. However, often times they face issues with ample time to learn the platforms, execute the research and/or fully take advantage of their analytical capabilities.  Others have yet to be made aware of or access to these tech tools and all they have to offer. With so many options, it can be overwhelming and they’re left thinking, “where do I even begin?” 

Four Research Tech Tips

As we continue to get smarter with next generation research, we have vetted many different research tech tools – through a researcher’s lens– relieving our clients of this time-consuming, but necessary task.  In doing so, we want to share these helpful tips to consider when evaluating which Research Tech / DIY Tools to use OR if you should be using them at all:

Objectives.  While these tools can be very effective, they are not the end-all-be-all solution to accomplishing every learning objective. “Live”, in-the-moment, in-context insights? A quick read on concept testing? Fast-on-shelf retail audits? Research tech can be an effective and fast solution.  Foundational in-depth learning, nuanced empathy-building or sophisticated quantitative work?  Other methods can better deliver on those needs.

It’s about understanding the role research tech can play based on what you need to learn– and right-size the rigor and expectations as they are not intended to be exact replicas of traditional methods.  Participants using research tech by themselves in-store is not the same as an in-person shop-along joined by an experienced moderator.

Recruiting. Sources for building research tech panels and recruiting practices vary from social scraping to organic growth and word-of-mouth, with reach ranging from the hundreds to the millions. Regardless of practice, it is important to ask howparticipants are kept fresh and engaged to ensure you have robust results.  In terms of targeting, often times, these tools provide a great way to reach broad target segments.  However, if your goal is to reach a specific micro-target or consumers with very specific behaviors (i.e. exclusively eats organic green vegetables for the past 12 months) and you are unable to bring your own participants, make sure the platform can really deliver.

Usage.  While the urge may be to just dive in, there are a few key initial questions to ask. Is the platform easy and intuitive to use – for both the researcher and participant? Is there an app and/or desktop version (app option is crucial in particular to reach younger consumers)? Do you have the moderating experience needed to ask the right questions or follow the flow of consumer interactions while staying true to objectives? How long or involved is your study (longer can create participant fatigue)?

Reporting.  Will the platform enable you to get the results you need in the time you need them? Do you have time to synthesize the data? Are the deliverables offered (e.g. data tables vs. word clouds, vs video, etc.) going to help you influence your key stakeholders in telling the insights story? 

Research Tech in Action for Innovation

Research tech allows us to keep up with ever-changing behaviors and reaching people where they are.  And when the situation makes sense, we’ve seen it work very well for several of our clients. SIVO recently partnered with Wells Blue Bunny using a research tech tool to gain quick innovation insights.  It served as an agile solution to efficiently reach qualified consumers, in real-time, shopping the ice-cream category.

Contact SIVO to help you with wherever you are on the research tech tool spectrum.  We are your strategic partner to choose the right tool, execute it with excellence and support the important task of human syntheses needed to mine the data this tool provides. 

Because with the right research tech tool, insights professionals can do wonderful things with them. 

Emotional Loyalty: Two Brands That Have Earned Mine

Loyalty, as defined by our friends at Google, is “a strong feeling of support or allegiance,” but it’s so much more than that. Loyalty is a layered, nuanced, complex emotion. And as humans, there is nothing we covet more than a true feeling of loyalty. Consider how you feel when you experience genuine loyalty in your personal relationships: protected, valued, even cherished. But what causes that level of loyalty with someone? It likely results from shared feelings of trust, reliability, appreciation, and even empathy.

In the “Humanizing Loyalty” research SIVO conducted with ICF Next (formerly Olson 1to1) and Panoramix Global, we uncovered that the emotional drivers of genuine loyalty between brands and consumers are really no different than those we experience in our personal relationships. And for brands to succeed, they must realize they are in a relationship with their customers, where the goal is to be authentic and real – not perfect – just like personal relationships.

Our research showed that when people feel – and experience – core characteristics of loyalty like trust and appreciation, disloyalty actually feels wrong and is less likely to happen. Imagine your customers refusing to leave your brand because it would feel wrong. Wow – pretty powerful. 

I have two of these brand relationships in my own life: Lexus and Spots Gone Carpet Cleaning & Restoration, a local company where I live in Minneapolis. Wait – what? Yes, two completely different companies, two completely different categories, two completely different marketing budgets – both with very important behaviors in common in how they’ve earned my loyalty.

Brand purpose = me

First, both companies have a brand purpose rooted in serving me. They make me feel that they are in business FOR me, to remove the pain points in MY life.

At the base level, they both provide an outstanding product or service I can count on, but that’s just (should be) table stakes. More than that, their actions over time have proven that I can trust them to deliver on their promises – both big and small. They make me feel appreciated with every interaction – not just when I’m buying something. Do things always go right? No, but they’re transparent if they make a mistake and take accountability, and that goes a long way with me. Our relationship isn’t perfect; it’s real and honest.

Second, both companies work hard to demonstrate empathy and appreciation, which feels rare in today’s world. Not surprisingly, our research with ICF Next and Panoramix Global found that 79% of consumers want to feel appreciated, but only 64% say they get this from the brands they use most. So, how do my beloved brands pull this off?

Lexus treats me like a guest in their home

It started when I first purchased a Lexus car and was treated with a great deal of respect and honesty. As I looked around, I saw everyone was being treated this way: men, women, young, old. It continued years later when I needed to trade in my car earlier than expected for one that better suited my changing lifestyle and they created a plan that worked for both of us. Then there was a recent experience when I had an unexpected flat tire and they worked hard to squeeze me in because I desperately needed my car for a work trip the next day. Or it’s the countless times I bring my car in for routine service and they welcome me with a big smile, and honestly manage my expectations about how long it will take so I can plan my day accordingly.

On my last visit to the dealership, I noticed The Lexus Covenant and it states that they’ll treat each customer like a “guest in our home”.  I feel this loud and clear. (It doesn’t hurt that their waiting area is nicer than my own living room.)  Four Lexus cars into the relationship, it’s the sum of all of these interactions throughout the years that has sealed the deal for me. And with each interaction they always, always thank me for choosing to do business with them. Yes, it is a choice – and they honor that. 

The Lexus Covenant that caught my eye on my last visit.

Spots Gone treats me more like a dear friend than a customer

Spots Gone has earned my loyalty thanks to the kind problem-solvers who answer the phone when I call in a panic about my stained carpet. Because the owner of the company shows up to make sure the job is done correctly, and because he follows up a week later to see if I’m satisfied. It’s the consideration they show me when they let me know they’re running 10 minutes late and “hope that doesn’t mess up my day.” It’s their transparent pricing, a thorough explanation of the products they use and exactly what will be done, and the pro tips they give me so I don’t have to call them the next time my puppy has an accident (use white vinegar!). 

Google review for Spots Gone

Loyalty is about a mindset, not money

As long as it is financially viable, I will always buy a Lexus. And, I will never call another carpet-cleaning company as long as I live in the Twin Cities. How can an international luxury car company and a local, independently owned carpet cleaner both generate the same level of loyalty in me?

It’s about a mindset. You don’t need deep pockets to be consumer-centric or to act with trust, reliability or empathy.

That’s where we as human insights professionals come in. Companies win your heart when they humanize their approach to earning your loyalty.

We guide brands to focus on their customers as the North Star, realizing the power of their relationship and delivering insights to strengthen that connection. It’s about truly understanding what people value, finding and solving their pain points and delivering a customer experience where disloyalty feels wrong. That’s where the magic happens – the magic of that layered, nuanced, complex emotion we call loyalty.

Ten Years of Consumer Insights: Then, Now and Tomorrow!

By: Marilyn Weiss and Cindy Blackstock

When we launched SIVO Insights 10 years ago, consumer research looked very different from today. Smartphones were far from ubiquitous, with the first iPhone having launched just two years prior. And, social media was in its infancy – Instagram hadn’t even been created yet. All of that meant that back in 2009, brands largely relied on brick and mortar sales and traditional advertising to activate their consumers, with some online shopping thrown in for early adopters.

Since then, technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. SIVO Insights has worked hard to stay a step ahead, helping our clients navigate significant changes in how consumers interact with brands, and as a result, how consumer insights are gathered, analyzed and used. Here are some of the biggest shifts we’ve helped our clients navigate in the last 10 years:

Omnichannel is now the norm.
Consumers now expect brands to be available to them whenever, wherever – from researching an item on a mobile device, to picking it up on their way home from work, to having online products delivered to their doorstep (within a day or two!). Even brands that started online are recognizing the value of having a true omnichannel presence, with Amazon establishing physical locations via Whole Foods and Amazon Go stores. Meanwhile, Walmart and Target are investing $11 billion(1) and $7 billion(2) respectively to create better integration between their physical and online.

What does this mean for consumer research? Consumer insights are more complicated and nuanced than ever, because there are now so many touchpoints between a consumer and the brand, each with its own context. This also makes consumer insights more important than ever, because brands need to understand consumer needs, values and motivations before they can determine the best way to engage them across channels. If brands want to meet consumers where they’re at, they need a deep understanding of what consumers need in each channel.

Convenience is king.
Brands are blurring traditional lines in their quest to be hyper useful and convenient for time-strapped consumers, from Walgreens selling bananas alongside prescription refills, to Kohl’s sharing real estate with Planet Fitness to lure consumers to combine fitness with shopping. Forward-thinking brands in every industry are looking for ways to make themselves more convenient than ever.

What does this mean for research? The quest for convenience creates great opportunities to learn more about what consumers want and need, and for brands to partner in new ways to meet those needs. Ask questions that reveal deeper insights on the role convenience plays in people’s lives and how brands can improve convenience.

Millennials are pushing brands to deliver more, benefiting us all.
While millennials are often misunderstood, one thing is clear: they have upended stagnation in almost every industry, demanding more from the products and services they use. Whether it’s wanting to know that a brand is doing good in the world before they’ll buy from them, or boldly sharing their experiences with a company on social media, millennials bring increased expectations. Perhaps the most revolutionary disruption is how millennials have helped all of us separate the need to own something with the ability to experience it – from Airbnb in place of our own vacation home, to ride-sharing services like Lyft in place of our own car, to Spotify in place of our own music. This shift will only continue as Generation Z enters the workforce with its own expectations.

What does this mean for consumer research? Consumer insights are the key to help brands avoid becoming the next displaced company or industry. In the downfall of any segment, the signs are always there if you’re willing to listen to what customers have to say. As industries evolve more rapidly than ever to keep up with changing demands, stay focused on keeping the consumer – and their feedback – at the center.

The world of work has changed… for good.
When SIVO Insights was founded in 2009, we wanted the flexibility for our work and lives to be interwoven. W e gave talented, experienced professionals an outlet to do great work while achieving balance, and we focused on recognizing the whole person who came to work, celebrating not only professional, but personal, milestones together. While these ideas are mainstream today, many companies still struggle with employee satisfaction and retention. That’s why we launched LINX Workforce Innovations in 2018, to apply our expertise in consumer insights to help companies better understand – and retain – their employees .

What does this mean for employee research? Many companies mistakenly think a fun work atmosphere or flexible schedules equal satisfied employees, yet only 1/3 of employees are engaged at work(3). And, the way most companies have historically measured employee engagement, via an annual survey, hasn’t revealed the real reasons employees stay or leave. LINX guides companies to uncover their employees’ true motivations and needs in much the same way brands do with their consumers.

As we continue to celebrate SIVO’s 10th anniversary, our teams look forward to the next decade of helping our clients gain deeper insights , understanding and empathy for their consumers and employees. Considering how much change we’ve observed in the past decade, we’re excited to imagine what the next 10 years might look like – and we know it will be a fascinating journey to get there.

1 Business Insider

2 Star Tribune

3 Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report

Bringing Humanity to the Forefront for Brands

Written by: Ruthie Feinstein, Director of Insights & Strategy

As a consumer insights researcher, I can get so wrapped up in the rigor of my day-to-day work, I really value the chance to step back and remember why it matters in the first place — and why I love it so much. 

I experienced this recently at the annual Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) conference in Savannah, Georgia. While I didn’t get to see much of the beautiful city, I was compensated by the fact that I was surrounded by like-minded people: Experts in our field, all there not to compete, but to share ideas. Each dedicating their career to connecting with people and learning what’s important to them, and to turning those insights into meaningful intelligence for our clients. (I was pretty geeked out.)

At one of the breaks, I chatted with a colleague and we empathized (commiserated) around the idea that qualitative research sometimes still, after all of these years, gets an unfair rap – it can be perceived as “soft” or not as valuable as quantitative research. I get it. Quant is measurable…it’s concrete…it’s “what” people are doing. You can easily connect the research investment back to the value of the data. Qual is more intuitive…it’s personal…subjective, it’s the “why” behind the what…. it’s well, human. It’s directly related to the human beings that brands desperately try to better understand and convince to move toward them.  

Qual brings a humanity, an empathy and true understanding to the way people choose to interact with brands and how brands earn their loyalty. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this. Looking at our own relationships – if we acted solely on “hard data,” how rich and deep and special would those relationships be? The same is true for brands. Yes – qual is pretty valuable in my book.

Let me be clear: This isn’t a competition – there is great value behind both types of research. There is most definitely a place for it depending on exactly what brands need to learn. My point is, I have seen the real power behind qual and its ability to shift minds and hearts, to inspire and drive action, and there’s nothing soft about it.

In the spirit of this topic, there were two sessions at the QRCA conference which left a lasting impression about the work we do as insight researchers that I hope will inspire you as well.

The Role of Neuroscience and Qual Research

One session I attended by Dr. Carmen Simon, a leading cognitive neuroscientist, talked about the role neuroscience plays in helping brands be memorable. She shared that “every single move people make is driven by a memory – not by what we forget.” Think about that for a second – it’s simple, but powerful. Often what is memorable for us as humans is emotionally meaningful. It’s this emotion that can be a vehicle for connection between brands and people. Qual research plays a critical role in uncovering emotions surrounding perceptions and decision making by understanding people deeply and profoundly: what are their life experiences and what verbals and non-verbals do they share in the retelling of those life events? What truly motivates them and why? What values do they hold dear and how do those drive them, and across it all – why do all of these things matter? So, how as thoughtful, analytical human researchers do we get at these insights? One way is through the art and science of storytelling.

Storytelling is an Influential, Strategic Tool

I attended a brilliant session by a compelling storyteller strategist, Lisa Lipkin, and learned (or re-learned, rather) that we as humans are hardwired for stories. We’re an oral culture, and our brains are designed to tell our own stories and remember the stories of others. It’s a mechanism for survival, actually. But in our work, it goes beyond just using stories to bring brand-focused messages to life. 

We can get incredibly useful insights in our research when we prompt people to share their stories and life experiences versus asking them direct questions. We call this “projective techniques,” but it just means we’re allowing people to let their guard down and share more deeply about their motivations, attitudes, beliefs and values. And it works mainly because, unlike with direct questions, there are no expectations — in the telling of their stories, people naturally open up. And getting at these deeper core emotional drivers reveals how people function in their lives.

A favorite example of this was when I led an in-home ethnography discussion with moms to learn more about the joys and challenges of motherhood so the brand could create an authentic, relatable communications campaign. Yes, I could have simply asked direct questions about the joy and challenges of motherhood (and frankly the client would have felt much more comfortable with the discussion guide if I had!). But I knew that wouldn’t get us very far. 

Instead, I asked my client to trust me… and they did. In thoughtfully guiding the conversations, we got to know the participants as people. They shared stories about their own childhood, recent examples in their lives of proud moments and embarrassing ones, and, through an interactive exercise, chose objects that most represented what they treasure about parenthood and what they feel most challenged by. The stories and tears that followed were invaluable and created such a true connection, revealing a much deeper understanding of these women for the client and their ad agency. It was pretty remarkable, and something my clients and I still talk about to this day. 

Time after time in my own work, I’ve seen the power of bringing humanity to the forefront of how brands interact with their customers through memories and storytelling. When I bring an open mind and an open heart to my research, I’m consistently amazed by what people reveal and how it impacts my clients and their organizations. The timing of this conference was just right – enabling me to kick off 2019 motivated and inspired by the love and energy for the work that I do.

Over the River and Through the Woods: Letting Consumers Lead Us to Discovery

Written by: Katy Koestler, SIVO Research Strategist

Even though it can feel risky, sometimes you have to throw out a few pages of the rulebook to get the best results. Our client, a leading recreational vehicle manufacturer, was seeking to expand their side-by-side vehicle product market. So, we set out together to understand hunters, farmers and ranchers and how their lifestyles determined their off-road vehicle needs—in their territory, not ours.

Instead of holding steadfast to the objectives alone, we adapted our model. We absorbed and experienced the hunting, farming and ranching lifestyle on the ground, and this “shared experience” helped inform even more of what we needed to learn. If we had been too rigid about letting only the objectives guide us, we would have missed so much. We actually understood our questions more after the research, and this approach resulted in deeper, richer learning.

Andy, an Iowa farmer, showing me the ropes in his brand-new combine.


Hitting the Road: Meeting Our Consumers On Their Turf

Our discovery mission started last fall as we traveled to 15 states to meet with several hunters. We would fly to our destination and rent a huge truck, all pile in, and just drive. Traveling state-to-state, we took part in several road trip shenanigans, sometimes with two vehicles and Snapchat conversations bouncing between them. We stayed in “off the beaten path” lodging, ate in some unique and colorful restaurants, and visited many homes and hunting locations. When we arrived in one Missouri home, we had venison waiting for us on the table. At the meal’s conclusion, the hunter promptly pulled the head of the animal out of the freezer in order to introduce us to our dinner.

This past summer took us to Texas and three Midwestern states, visiting several farms and ranches, from small, mom-and-pop farms to large industrial agricultural operations. While there, we watched farmers’ and ranchers’ lives unfold, sometimes hauling hay, feeding livestock, fixing fences, and even pausing one interview to chase down a cow that had escaped. We got to see, feel and touch the farming lifestyle before even talking about the product.

One thing that stuck with us was the farming way of life. It’s not just a stressful, big job; it’s a family affair, a community, and a life led with a deep connection to animals and the land. Farmers are constantly adapting, changing and using new technology. They told us that side-by-sides (or UTVs) are handy and simple, but they could be improved to better meet their needs.

Experience = Empathy

After many states, treacherous weather, plans cancelled, and roads closed, we persevered. Though we had a basic plan, we also had to be flexible 100 percent of the time with both the logistics and respondents. I personally discovered that I had a lot more grit than I expected; these were challenging circumstances, but we were learning so much that we didn’t have time to let it get us down.

Our videographer Mark joining in on the fun – but from a better vantage point.


We trudged through the muck with our clients, literally and figuratively. We were not afraid to get dirty, and I think that’s one quality that makes SIVO unique. Taking our clients on this adventure was incredible, and part of why we were successful is because they were all in. They set assumptions aside, absorbed all the nuances of the experiences and used all of their senses to learn as much as they could about their customers.

Clinton, a rancher in Texas, taking me on a tour of his pecan grove.


It’s obvious that this was no ordinary insights project. What’s really cool is how the insights were so meaningful and transformative for our clients—it became part of their DNA. Nearly one year later, they recall riding with a hunter and nearly falling off the side of a mountain in a vehicle that was not suited for the terrain. That experience was terrifying—and enlightening. It gave them empathy, and the power to look their engineers in the eye and say, “This won’t work. I have been on that mountain. The vehicle needs to match the terrain.” In fact, one client told me this research experience was the “highlight of my career.” The time we spent together, allowing our customers to lead us in the exploration and share their experiences with us, was powerful and lasting.

Mission Possible: With Global Savvy, SIVO Helps Launch “Meatless” Meat in Hong Kong

Written by:  Ralph Blessing and Jeri Quest, SIVO Research Strategists


Plant-based food is more than just a trend—it’s a dynamic, fast-growing category that has attracted the attention of food and meat manufacturing companies such as Tyson Foods, Memphis Meats and Cargill.*  Impossible Foods is a leading and innovative brand in the plant-based food space, producing “meatless meat” that is incredibly similar looking and tasting to meat for discerning consumers.

The company launched its “Impossible Burger” in the U.S in 2016. In preparation for a launch in Hong Kong restaurants this summer, Impossible Foods tapped SIVO as a partner.  We were thrilled to travel to China and partner with this trailblazing brand to help them find out if its product tasted authentic and comparable to meat.  Our SIVO expertise helped tease out diners’ real attitudes, needs and reasons for trying Impossible Foods meat to the mainstream alternative of cow meat.  We also managed the true test for a new brand launch:  were consumer’s likely to buy it again or even recommend it to friends?

Influencing the Influencers

Our insights journey started with Impossible Foods’ organic, strategic approach for infiltrating a new market:  leverage and partner with popular, well-known chefs and restaurants that buy into the vision of plant-based meat.  Each chef’s own foodie following helped Impossible Foods get buzz, generate a cool factor and create new fans of the product.  We saw first-hand how the influence of social media buzz on blogs and Instagram was a particularly effective way to reach and engage urban Millennials in this market. Let’s just say we had no shortage of respondents who showed up for dinner wanting to check out the new Impossible Foods menu items.

Hong Kong Local Trying the Meatless Burger


The Hong Kong Foodscape

As we visited restaurants, observed dining behaviors and spoke directly with people, we were struck by the sophistication of the foodie culture in Hong Kong.  For example, we noticed that group dining is especially popular in Hong Kong.  Imagine tables of six young people, ordering two chili fries, one with meat and one with Impossible Foods meat, simply to compare the two out of pure curiosity.  We also noticed the city is filled with a diverse mix of locals, Europeans, other expats, Millennials, and boarding school students, all of whom were happy to share their thoughts and experiences with us.

Servers contribute to the brand experience


At the time of our research, Impossible Foods launched its product in three Hong Kong locales: at an upscale burger chain as well as two hip, chic restaurants run by a notable female chef. Each of the three restaurants tried Impossible Foods “meat” in different ways: a Thai burger, chili fries, bao and a pastry pocket.  

SIVO Uncovers the True Customer Experience

Our consumer insight challenge was unique due to the various ways the chefs used the product.  We had to decipher how diners liked the Impossible Foods ingredient since it was used in four different recipes.  Processing many variables also added to our mission—like the different flavors of the foods, the time of day and day of week, as well as the exciting melting pot of cultures in Hong Kong.

We were really motivated to gain insights in a fresh, new way, identifying how customers interacted and experienced the Impossible Foods menu items in the dining moment.  So, we ventured out into the hot, humid and rainy summer weather in Hong Kong, sometimes even getting lost in the tiny, winding streets of the old city.  We spent five days at selected local restaurants, observing and engaging with more than 200 diners.  To round out the learning, we spoke with servers and the chefs to hear their perspectives as well.

The authors enjoying Hong Kong


The Hong Kong experience was incredible for us in so many ways, but one of the most interesting aspects was witnessing the genuine excitement diners had for trying something new.  They snapped in-the-moment pictures, posted immediate reactions on social media about what they ate, debated with friends about the various flavors they tasted, and purposefully made it one big, fun social experience! We savored this unique opportunity as researchers—and as human beings—to take part in such a dynamic, global experience.






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