Marketing Research Teams as a Growth Engine

Editor's note: Automated speech-to-text transcription, edited lightly for clarity. 

At The Quirk’s Event - LA, Instacart’s Manager of Market Research, Kene Aningo gave a presentation on how a marketing research team could become a growth engine. This session was recorded and then re-broadcasted on March 15 during Wisdom Wednesday. 

Webinar transcription:

Joe Rydholm:

Hi everybody, I'm Quirk’s Editor, Joe Rydholm. Welcome to our webinar “The Marketing Research Team as a Growth Engine: Insights from Five Fortune 500 Companies.” This is a recording of a session from the Quirk’s Los Angeles event in February. And if you're a client side researcher you'd like more information about speaking at an upcoming Quirk’s event, I'd love to talk with you. My contact information is and that email address will also be available in the chat tab during the session. Speaking of the chat tab, there's no Q&A portion to this webinar, but if you'd like to interact with other attendees, you can use the chat tab to post your comments during the session. Enjoy the webinar!

Kene Aningo: 

Hello everyone. My name is Kene and I go by Kene or Ken. So thanks for coming to my session. I recently stepped into a people management role at Instacart within the market research team there. And my team works on brand campaigns and sentiment research. But before that, I was very fortunate to have worked in market research or consumer insights roles across five different Fortune 500 companies. 

I would be remiss if I didn't say that my market research journey actually started in the MMR program at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. Shout out to Dr. Madhav Segal, for those of you that might have gone through the program as well. His marketing 548 class still haunts me, for those of you that are familiar. Also shout out to the Edwardsville cougars.

I've spent a lot of time over the last few years, I'd say particularly over the last two to three years, just really reflecting on how I got to be in this position, why I got to be in this position, and then also what I've learned over the course of my career. 

I think by the end of this session, I hope to share where I'm landing with answers to those first two questions with you. So, how and why I got to be in this position. I'll also be sharing what I've learned over the course of my career with you today. Some of the key things I've learned, probably not everything.

Before I get into that I'd love to make a quick disclaimer, for obvious reasons, I cannot speak about Instacart today. So, I might speak about some general examples from my experience there. I won't be talking about anything specific. So if we do get to, if we do get some time for Q&A we'll probably just try to stay away from questions about Instacart. 

Let's get started. So, in reflecting on my experiences, across those five companies, there were three key things that stood out to me. 

The first is that regardless of what industry they were in or what the maturity of the businesses were all those companies were constantly trying to figure out how to grow. And I think that applies to pretty much any company out there. 

The second thing that stood out to me is that the leadership teams across those companies typically went to other teams to help them figure out how to grow. They typically went to teams like the engineering team, the analytics team, the product team, so everybody but, mark research first. 

The third thing is that, the market research team was often consulted last. Typically they came to us to help measure, or test the ideas that they already came up with or to measure if they were successful a lot of times to tell them that it was successful. 

Let's take a step back here and just think about what growth means in a business context. They're basically three key ways that a business can grow. First by getting more people, more human beings to buy their products and services, right? That's one way. 

The second way is by getting their current customers who are also people or human beings  to buy their products, more, their products and services more than they are currently buying them. And then the third way is to get their current customers, again, those human beings to, buy their other products and services that they offer.

So basically business growth is about people, right? It's about human beings, regardless of what the industry is. Regardless of how you measure growth, what metrics are used to measure growth. Whether it is using guest counts and average ticket price at McDonald's, or if it's using market penetration and buy rates in the beer industry, or if you're using monthly average users or user engagement in the tech world. Regardless of what it is, it requires a good understanding of people and what makes them buy basically. 

With that in mind, I can argue that within any company the market research team typically has the best understanding of people within the context of that business. They understand people. We typically understand their values.

We typically understand their motivations, their interests, their attitudes and how all those things change over time. And we have a really good understanding more so than the data science team or the engineers and so on and so forth. And more importantly, we have the ability to understand all those things at, at scale typically. 

So with that in mind, I think there are two key ways we can help our businesses grow with that understanding of people that we have. The first is by helping to identify and understand the needs that people have within a specific market. So like, helping to identify what those opportunities are, and then helping to develop the products and services that help to meet those needs. 

And the second one is by helping to uncover the deeply resonant human insights that can help our brands communicate and connect with people and then ultimately give them reasons to buy our products and services.

Okay. So from my experience there are three levers that we can use to better position ourselves as that growth engine within our respective companies. The first is our market research tools, methodologies and techniques. 

The second are the skills that we've developed over time. In this line of work, I'm going to particularly talk about one that I believe is very important. 

And then third are the talents that we have on our teams. 

Great. Let's talk about the tools first. These are some of my favorite market research tools that I say that are in my toolbox. These are not comprehensive of all the market research tools. I know I'm preaching to the choir here. You have a very deep understanding of the different methodologies and what they are. But these are the ones that I like to reference the most.

I would bucket them in three categories. The first are, I would say, are the tools that we use to identify and understand the needs that people have within the category. And within that bucket, we have trans research, ethnographic research,  discrete choice modeling and concept testing. 

And then the second bucket, I would say are tools that help us communicate and figure out how to best communicate and connect with consumers around those needs that they have and the products that we have to meet those needs. And the tools within that box, within that bucket are things like positioning, research, campaign development, research and creative testing research. 

And then the third bucket I'd say are tools that help us measure our progress towards meeting consumers needs with our products and services. And then also in communicating the benefits of our products around those needs. Again, I'm sure you're all very familiar with these methodologies. I won't go into all of them in detail, but I will highlight my very favorite of the bunch.

So the first is ethnographic research. I really like ethnographies because they help us to uncover the deeply resonant insights about people, help us to really understand people and why,  and how best to meet their needs with our products and services. So these insights that we can uncover from ethnographies, I think can like really help to drive business growth.

I'll give two examples of where I've used ethnographies in my experience. 

The first is from my time at McDonald's. We were looking to redesign the packaging system globally. So we conducted ethnographic research where we recruited consumers and met them in the restaurants, actually went through the restaurant experience with them, got to see how they interacted with the packaging, got to ask them questions and so on. 

And then we also met some consumers in the drive-through, and we got to sit with them in their cars, got to see how they interacted with the employees, got their food, how they placed their food and the packaging on their seats, how sometimes people dipped their hands into the bags and ate some fries. So, got to really capture some of those, like, natural rituals that people naturally wouldn't, normally wouldn't tell us about. Like we got to actually observe them. 

And then the third thing we did is we actually followed some of the customer's home and watched them set up their food in their dining tables or wherever they ate the food, and just watched the rituals that they had around that process. 

Ultimately all the insights that we gathered across, like, you know, from the questions that we asked to what we observed that helped us to inform the design requirements for the packaging system that we recommended to the leadership team. 

And then another example of where we used ethnographies was in my time at Molson Coors, I was working on the Miller Light brand at the time, and we're trying to figure out how to more authentically connect with one of the new target audiences we had identified.

These were gamers, right? So what we did was we again, recruited, gamers and went into their homes, watched them playing video games in their living rooms, went into their bedrooms in some cases and watched them play video games and just like really observe them in their own natural habitat. 

Then in the course of that research, we were able to refute some of the hypotheses that we went into the research with. One of them was that gamers typically don't drink beer. They typically drank energy drinks cuz they needed the energy. We found that to be false. They were actually drinking the full range of different beers from sessionable beers to IPAs and so on. So that's one thing that we found. And then ultimately, from the insights we gathered from that research helped inform the strategy that we used to try to connect with gamers.

So those are two examples that I would lean on there. 

Then in conducting ethnographies, I've come to learn a few different things. I'll highlight some of them here. The first is that we should try to conduct ethnographies as early as possible in the business. So when we are building out our foundational research studies, I think ethnography should be one of them cuz it really allows us to build the business around the truest insights about the humans that we're ultimately trying to build products and services for. 

The second thing is that with ethnographies we should try to get as holistic and understanding it as possible about the people. So not just going in and asking questions about how they interact with the category or the brand, but taking a step back and trying to understand who they are as people observing the context and observing the environment.

I think doing the research that way would allow us to find the most authentic way to insert the brand into our products or services into the consumer's lives. 

Other things I'll highlight here one is just to conduct a good number of the interviews. I typically go for about 15 to 20. I know ethnographies are expensive, but I think you need some scale to really get those rich insights and to see the connection across the different interviews. 

And in the final one, I think this is true across different methodologies. It's just trying to involve the stakeholders as much as possible, uh, throughout the process.

And then my other favorite, my second favorite tool is discrete choice modeling. 

I think after we've understood, we've uncovered the needs that consumers have within a category. The other thing that we need to do is to try to understand the trade-offs that they're willing to make across those different needs across the different things that they say are important to them. 

For example, we know that during the pandemic, a lot of consumers across different industries were prioritizing health and safety over almost everything else, over cost, over quality, over speed. Everyone wanted to stay safe. And as we came out of the pandemic those tradeoffs started to shift, I think it's less about health and safety now. And now that we're in the macroeconomic environment that we're in, it's more about cost. Like how do I save as much as I can?

So I think DCM models help us to, uh, understand those trade offs and keep a pulse on what is actually really important to consumers so we can design and develop products and services that have the best chance of meeting their needs.

In designing DCM studies, the few things I've learned here as well. The first is to design the study in a competitive setting. So when we're trying to understand the trade-offs that consumers are making, we're not just trying to understand if they'll buy our product or not. I think we're trying to understand if they'll buy our products and the competitive setting, so when there are other brands that are offering similar products and services. So designing it, designing it in that context, I think is super, super helpful and yields a lot of powerful insights. 

Second thing I'll say is to try to simulate the impact of new ideas. So not just going into the research with existing features, but also making space to test ideas that we haven't yet released into the market to understand what the potential impact of those ideas might be. 

And then the third thing is I think the typical output of a DCM is the lift in choice share or share of choice. So I typically like to try to convert that into the business metrics for whatever business I'm working in. 

For example, in some of the tech companies, is that monthly average user. So instead of sharing results that say, you know, this feature will potentially drive a 5% increase in share of choice or share of preference, I try to convert it into monthly average users just so the stakeholders within the business can try to understand it a little bit better. 

Then the fourth one is something I haven't done yet, but I'm working to try, is just to conduct the same DCM study over time in different external environments just to see how those trade-offs are really changing. So conducting a DCM study when we're in this macroeconomic environment, and then maybe a couple years later just to see how consumers trade offs within the context of our business might have changed. 

The last set of studies that I'll talk about is the brand health tracking study and the customer sentiment tracking study, I'm sure this group is very familiar with these studies. I will highlight that I feel like when we use them jointly, they can be a really rich source of insights that can help drive the business. 

I see the customer sentiment tracking study as a study that gives us a zoomed in view of the customers that use our products and services. So what they like, what they don't like, what they see as our strengths versus our weaknesses. Whereas the brand health tracking study gives us that zoomed out view of the market, not just people who use our products, but then users of competitive products as well. 

So going between those two views helps us to really uncover the insights that can help grow the business.

Okay. So now that we've talked about the tools, the next thing I wanted to do, just to talk about the one skill that I've found is very important in positioning a market research team as that growth driver within the company. And the one skill across my experience that I've seen is the influencing skill. 

So the influencing skill to me, I think it's about really understanding the context of the business, having a good sense of who the players within the business are and trying to build a relationship with them. Trying to build a credible, trusting relationship with them. 

And then understanding the timing in which you need to deliver the insights to be the most impactful. One experience, one company that I've seen that that's done this really well, I wouldn't mention the company, but I'll say that they built in the share outs of one of the tracking studies to align with the quarterly business review that went up to the CEO.

So every quarter we had to deliver insights that were meaningful. And in delivering those insights, we worked with a cross-functional team to just make sure that they understood the insights that we're gonna be sharing with the ceo. 

And then also that, we collectively came up with an action plan before we got into that business review meeting. So we went into that meeting with the insights, along with a plan for what we were going to do. By far, that's the best that I've seen a market research team influence business decisions. 

So that's one that I, that I actually look to, to replicate and within the context of my current company. 

Okay. And then as we move into the talent that I think is needed within market research teams, I'll go back to my experience for McDonald's. 

We went through a training there where we, where we defined a true insight as something that is composed of a truth, a human truth within the context of the business, a tension that needed to be solved and then a motivation to solve that tension. That's what an insight is. 

And as you can see, the truth is central to that definition of an insight. So when I think about the talent that we need on market research teams, I think truth is central to that as well. So I say like, we need the talent on the teams to find the truth, and that means using our methodologies, our techniques to figure out what the truth within a given context is when we're given a specific business question.

So using those tools to figure out like, what is the real answer as opposed to just reporting out the first piece of data that we find. 

The second, I would say, is the courage to speak the truth. I think we've probably, a lot of us have been in those situations where we've tested a campaign idea that the CMO or the CEO is super excited about. And we know that it's not going to resonate with consumers based on our research, but we, you know, that's very difficult. That's very difficult news to share with the business.

I think having courage in those situations to tell that truth, I think that's really important within our teams. 

And then the third one is to have the skill to influence the truth. I think this is one that sometimes can be a hit or miss, but it's one that we need to continue to work at. I think is not  just important to be able to find and to have the courage to speak the truth, but also having that skill to make sure that it lands well and people actually act on that truth.

And then the other thing I'll talk about within the market research team that I feel is important is, is just making sure that the team is, is diverse and that the folks that make up the team are from diverse backgrounds. 

This is one that I actually didn't think too much about when I first started my career, but over the years, I think like the 13 years or so I've been doing now is actually starting to become like the focal point of why I'm doing this. Beyond the fact that I feel like it is common sense, I think having a diverse market research team is important because, you know, firstly, representation matters. I think if we're looking to grow our businesses within the context of a diverse market it is important that our teams, particularly our market research team, reflect the market that we're looking to grow in.

Secondarily, I'd say from my experience, having a diverse team, a diverse market research team, often helps to interrupt. I'd say that the group think that happens within some of our teams we've all seen or heard about the marketing campaign that shouldn't have aired. I think making sure we have a diverse group of stakeholders, particularly on the research team, can help to mitigate some of those issues. 

And then finally, um, there's a lot of research that's been done on this. I think McKenzie released research on this in the last couple years or so. There's empirical evidence that actually shows that our diverse teams actually perform stronger. That teams that are composed of women or people from minority backgrounds actually perform stronger in the long run.

I think in the short run there's some temporary discomforts, but I think in the long run, the benefits benefit the business, right? 

I have some thoughts around creating a more diverse team and industry. The first is around  recruiting students. I think there's an awareness issue here. Not a lot of students know about market research. I know I stumbled upon it myself as I was actually an engineering student first, and then I found out about market research and it changed my life forever. 

So I think like just driving awareness among the student population and then providing the mentorship, the sponsorship, and then the internship that they need to help guide them through their career, I think that, that's important. 

And then finally trying to address the biases in our hiring processes.

The second thing is around addressing the existing talent pool. So just like looking at the folks within our existing talent pool and trying to create environments where they can thrive. I think people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, like we all have different levels of support that we need. 

So just being intentional about understanding what those people's needs are, and then providing the support that they need. And then the rest, I think, is up there. I won't speak to them individually. 

Okay. So in trying to position our market research teams as the growth drivers within our companies, I've talked about the tools that we have at our disposal to help us identify and understand people's needs. And then I've also talked about, the influencing skill that we need to continue to further develop, to position ourselves, as that growth engine within our organizations.

And then also I've talked about the need to build that diverse market research team and to empower them to influence with the truth. 

So I talked about how,, I've been reflecting on how I got here and why I got here. And the answer that I have is basically this, I think with talent. I think through a series of very fortunate events, my natural abilities got aligned with a career that I really love and a career that I can make a living from. So that's how I got there on the talent piece. 

And then I've had to develop this mindset where I'm constantly looking to learn and grow. I've tried a lot of things. I've failed, in some cases I've picked myself up and I've kept going.

I think that has been central in me being in this position today. 

And then the last thing I'll say is the opportunity. I think along the way, when I think about this, there have been so many people that have opened the door a little bit for me. There have been so many people that have given me opportunities that I probably wasn't sure I was, I could handle, but somehow I was. I think that has contributed to my quote unquote success of me being in the position that I am today. 

And that's how I'll sum it up. Thank you.