Editor's note: If you’re an end-client researcher and interested in participating in a Q&A with Quirk’s, please e-mail me at emilyk@quirks.com.  

Thomas Ware

Analyst II, Marketing Research
Liberty Mutual Insurance

How did you first become interested in consumer insights?

Thomas Ware My interest in consumer behavior and research started with politics. In high school I became increasingly interested in what drove people to vote the way they did and how politicians tried to win over and motivate people into action. I went on to study government at Dartmouth, where I focused on political behavior and messaging, particularly as it pertained to American politics. While it became clear that I didn’t have a desire to work in politics, my passion for understanding why people did the things they did and how to change opinions – little did I realize how relevant the topics in my political misinformation class would become – suggested that I might enjoy working in marketing or consumer research. I was fortunate enough to intern with both the Milwaukee Brewers (MLB) and McCann, which helped confirm that suspicion. 

My work in college opened my eyes to the value of data in identifying and explaining trends in populations, so I began my career at L.E.K., a management consulting firm, where I would learn and sharpen the analytical skills that I now use every day in my role at Liberty. I joined the marketing research team at Liberty at the beginning of last year. The promise of using data to help shape the messaging strategy of a Fortune 100 brand with a massive advertising presence was irresistible. 

Do you have any tips for researchers working to incorporate qualitative into a quant-focused environment? 

I’ve found that qual is really useful in separating your own opinions and ideas from what’s really going on in the market you’re studying. Naturally as researchers we’re going to have opinions and perspectives that are unique to us and inform the hypotheses that we test. Qual is really useful for making sure those opinions don’t blind us to something else that is going on in the market. For example, we may be studying a particular phenomenon and think that the causes might be X, Y or Z. If we were to only do quant, such as with a multiple choice study, we’re forcing consumers to answer in one of those three ways, regardless of whether or not they think it is one of those three things. In that scenario, our own opinions have biased the results, which is going to limit their utility. Running a qual study helps us figure out the full range of potential possibilities, rather than just the ones that come to our minds. 

Just as qual can help define the potential possibilities to figure out the “what” that is going on, it can similarly help figure out the “why” by raising potential explanations that we might not have thought of otherwise. 

The advice I would give is twofold. First, continually be open to the idea that there might be explanations for things that don’t come to mind, whether it be yours or your entire team’s; that idea helps to reinforce the importance of qual. You’re much more likely to get the full range of possibilities when you ask more people. Second, give respondents as much of an opportunity as possible to express their opinions in their own words. Questions like, “Do you have any other thoughts?” or even something as simple as, “What do you think is going on?” help make sure that our own ideas and ways of asking questions aren’t leading respondents toward particular answers. It can also show respondents that we’re interested in their thoughts, not just answers to our questions.

What do you see as the impact of the last year on the industry?

This past year has been really eye-opening in a lot of ways in terms of the pace of consumer research. First of all, we saw a few of the clearest examples yet of just how fast consumer sentiment and opinions of things can change. We saw it with the pandemic as mask-wearing suddenly became politicized and previously mundane activities such as going to a movie or restaurant became controversial actions. We saw it with the Black Lives Matter movement as perceptions of police and understanding of what it means to be a person of color in America changed dramatically in short periods of time. We saw it with Robinhood, MyPillow and even the royal family. Perceptions toward all of these things changed dramatically and quickly, meaning that brands were suddenly operating in a world very different than the one they had been. This meant that new questions arose – Can we play an ad with a crowded restaurant? Is it OK that our main character isn’t wearing a mask? – that we’d never have dreamed of a year ago. 

Researchers needed to respond and mine insights more quickly than ever, which led to the other eye-opening development of this year: how those in the industry were able to rise to the occasion and meet those needs, and the potential future applications of the abilities demonstrated in meeting them. At Liberty, we’ve tested things more often, faster and in different ways than we ever have. This has allowed us to answer more questions, particularly in short timelines and to research in new ways, giving us a deeper understanding of the consumers we’re trying to message. 

What day-to-day aspects of your job excite you most? 

I get to work with a fantastic team of smart and fun people who are as passionate as I am about looking for new opportunities to grow our brand and new ways to do things. In addition to that, the scope of questions that consumer researchers can now answer excites me; the ever-expanding availability of large N consumer data allows us to answer a huge array of questions that we couldn’t answer until recently and with methods that have only recently become available. 

I’m also excited by the impact of our work. Good research can define what steps a company will take and how successful those steps will be. The work our team does helps determine how best we can grow awareness of our brand, which is fundamental to our success as a company. On a more personal level, it’s also a ton of fun to hear my friends and family mention seeing one of our ads and then thinking that they – and millions of other people – saw that because of our work.