Adding the human touch

Editor's note: Jim Nowakowski is president of Interline Creative Group. He can be reached at

William Wrigley, Jr. originally turned to chewing gum as a way to bring attention to the premium baking powder he was selling. He included gum along with the powder as a kind of cheap, easily portable premium he could carry with him as he made his rounds. According to Erin Blakemore, “Wrigley may not have come to gum first, but he brought a salesman’s savvy to the product. He knew that in order to get gum to consumers, he’d have to hook dealers. Soon, gum itself was his main attraction alongside free perks like display cases or coffee grinders that sweetened the sale for retailers.”1

How much research do you think Wrigley did on gum and baking soda? How much research should he have done? No one knows the answers to these questions but Wrigley knew (consciously or unconsciously) the secret of research whether B2B or B2C: emotion drives sales. His instincts guided his decisions but the decisions themselves were based on observations, encounters, testing and the best of all research tactics: his own experiences.

We call this idea – of bringing a salesperson’s savvy to the research – the Wrigley Effect, which is remembering to use your own human experiences outside of the data to shape research for clients. This makes research more than just a numbers game, something anyone can play.

Always doing research 

In one sense, Wrigley had it much easier because the pace of business, the pace of life was slower. Yet that didn’t change the fact that he was probably always doing research on his sales trips, talking to people, observing behaviors. His personal, emotional involvement was really research – the best kind.

Wrigley’s experience as a salesperson gave him the psychological insight to connect gum to baking powder and then, over time, to see gum’s potential. If researchers could be more like Wrigley the salesperson, we would rely on our personal experiences to help drive the data and not let data be the only driver on the path forward for our clients. Purchasing decisions, after all, are made by human beings, and researchers can’t forget to layer the human element into the data.

Speaking on a webinar, Emily Walgenbach, shopper insights lead, frozen divisions for Nestlé USA, said, “We can’t get to perfect, but we have to get as close as we can get to it because it is better than throwing up our hands. We should plan for good-better-best…certainly. But aligning ourselves with ‘what’s the insight we can get for right now’ versus ‘what we can get in nine months’ is critical. That means research should take three months tops. But even then, every month, if not even faster, we are reevaluating and updating our scenario-planning.”2 

Walgenbach was expressing that the speed of change at which information travels necessitates measurement and remeasurement. In other words, no matter how much research you do, there’s always more to do. But ask a simple question: What is your client doing with the research you just produced? If the answer isn’t “selling more,” you’re probably doing the wrong research.

Another complicating factor is the decrease in response rates3 because everyone is constantly bombarding their lists with surveys! Our insatiable need for insights is overtaxing our main sources of obtaining them.

One or two or 10 surveys or focus groups aren’t going to cut it these days. For B2B researchers to be successful, they have to become salespeople and be researching all the time. Every piece of evidence – every encounter, planned or unplanned – can play a role in eventual outcomes for a project. This accumulation of insights gives you unduplicated power to recognize the smallest, most insignificant detail that might just spark a meaningful recommendation for your client. 

Wrigley didn’t hit the road with the idea that chewing gum was going to take off. He let the conditions of the road shape his thesis. And then once he found it, the rest was history. As a researcher, your personal experience can be the single most important factor in guiding clients properly in using any research tactics. 

Moving targets

There’s a principle in quantum theory (don’t stop reading) that says the more the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the velocity is known, and vice versa. To put it another way, the more you figure out where something is, the faster it changes position. And the more you figure out how fast it’s going, the more you don’t know where it is.

Sound familiar? The conclusions you drew from your last research project are obsolete but research that merely feeds more research is waste; research that feeds sales is progress. And because human beings are being measured, you need that Wrigley Effect (randomness and experience) to make it work.

When measuring emotion in B2B we find a purchaser is almost 50% more likely to buy a product or service when they see personal value – such as opportunity for career advancement or confidence and pride in their choice – in their business purchase decision.4 And, purchasers are eight times more likely to pay a premium for comparable products and services when personal value is present.5

It’s always been about emotions and the Wrigley Effect is the way to bring in emotions around a piece of research. If people were rational and not emotional, there would be no need for research, would there? 2+2 would always equal 4. 

Uncovering emotions in any project comes from your own emotional involvement in that project – and personal experiences that you’ve gathered over the years. 

Case study one

Once, on a direct-mail campaign, the client called, irate about the response rate. We were conducting A/B testing offers and the client said response was “…horrible. It was zero. You better find out what happened.”

I have learned there are always – always – reasons for things and so after driving out to see the client immediately, I asked to see the non-deliverables. I wasn’t formulating a research study to find out what went wrong; I was letting the situation dictate the recommendation.

When the batch of non-deliverables came in from the mailroom, I picked up one envelope from the stack and knew immediately what had happened (the weight of the envelope told me). I opened it with my finger and saw, lo and behold, that the offer had been sliced off the letter in the lettershop process: There was no way for the target to respond!

You would never know that from a spreadsheet. No amount of research would provide that insight.

After being embarrassed, I told the client, “I’ve seen this before…and I would recommend doing the mailing correctly to make sure that this was the reason for the lack of response.”

The redo actually beat the control mailing we were measuring against. 

I could have recommended another focus group, another survey, another whatever. But being in the field…constantly researching…my experience gave me the clues to solve the problem. Was this analysis research from a survey? What made me ask for the non-deliverables? The Wrigley Effect!

Case study two

Another time, the IT person came running into my office saying there was an angry person on the phone demanding to know where we got his name from for the e-mail campaign we had just launched for a client. I immediately got on the call, first apologizing and telling the person we would remove his name from our list, never to bother him again.

“Fine, but I want you to tell me where you got my name,” he said, still fuming. “I’ve been getting e-mails all day long and I don’t know where they are coming from.”

List sources are always interesting, and in this case, the source was a comprehensive construction database our client had; we were looking for key people who controlled the specification for faucets in retail stores. This person (call him Charlie) was listed as the key specifier for over 2,750 stores in the U.S. for a major retailer. Our client wanted to get on the company’s list to supply the faucets.

I told Charlie the truth, that we were doing an e-mail campaign, we got his name from so-and-so, etc. There was silence on the phone for five seconds after I finished my story.

“Are you still there?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m still here,” Charlie said with a sigh of relief. “What did you say your name was again?”

I told him and he thanked me – profusely. He was grateful that I had taken the time to tell him where I got his name, because he was unable to get through to any human being anywhere else for the past half hour. It was voicemail after voicemail, so by the time he got me on the phone, I was hearing all the frustration that had built up.

We actually had a good, three-minute, spontaneous conversation, especially after I asked him about his work. Before he hung up, he said to me: “By the way, I’m not the guy.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I’m not the guy you are looking for. You want Dave O. for faucets in our stores.” 

And he gave me Dave’s e-mail and phone number and told me to say that Charlie sent me over. “We work together all the time and he’s the one your client will want to talk to for putting their product in our stores.”

No amount of research would have turned that up. No research technique could do this – turn what was not a mistake but an emotional encounter into an important piece of evidence: the exact contact to begin the sales relationship. Only the Wrigley Effect could do that.

Case study three

We were conducting phone interviews with people who purchased and used our client’s product. We developed a script, found the targets and started down the path.

After a dozen calls, the client changed the parameters of the research, switching the product type they wanted to know about. We adjusted and continued, merely altering the script.

I often participate in these studies myself because it’s not only good practice, I use the Wrigley Effect: I go off-script when the situation presents itself – and it always does! These off-script variations more often than not produce key sales insights for clients.

I was talking to an industrial engineer who owned this product and our conversation moved toward his work and his passion for the client’s product. He had learned about it from his father, purchased it and “loved” it. The conversation turned on his owning a Tesla. The conversation went like this:

Me: And you've been enjoying it [our client’s product] ever since. Right?

Engineer: I say it's my favorite thing I own. I joke – and it’s no joke – and say the Tesla Model 3 is my second-happiest purchase in my life. The [client’s product] is number one.

Me: I would love to hear more about this.

Engineer: Absolutely. You think I'm obsessed with that thing [client’s product]? I tell everyone, “You need to get one.” Honestly, it's true. It's like, if I could only pick one, where I’d be banned from buying a Tesla or banned from having [client’s product], I give up the car. 

Me: Really? 

Engineer: Yeah, for sure.

Me: What do you attribute that to that kind of passion?

For the rest of the conversation (which lasted another 22 minutes) he told me why, breaking it down like the engineer he was. This is the Wrigley Effect on full display, because it offered unduplicated insight into the level of advocacy our client was uncovering about their product – only totally unsolicited, unscripted and so, so human.

Best secret weapon

Research – all research – seeks to guide clients on which way to go. Using the Wrigley Effect – letting the types of personal experience so often found in sales guide the research, not just data – can be the researcher’s best secret weapon.

When Alice meets the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree during her adventures in Wonderland, this conversation takes place:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in classic literature, and like Wrigley and the Cat, we have to walk long enough to get it. Our problem today is not walking but running. When you run, you don’t see what’s around you; when you walk, you see everything. It takes longer when you walk, and in this speedy society, walking gets overlooked and bypassed.

However, your accumulated experience can’t be duplicated. Your knowledge gives you the Wrigley Effect basis to make recommendations based on what you see and hear – not just data.

Start walking. 

Here are some of the tactics you might consider in using the Wrigley Effect in your own work

Conducting surveys and interviews

Most of us believe asking questions about the target’s needs, pain points, decision-making processes and preferences will suffice. Use the Wrigley Effect before you launch; visit some targets or make random calls to similar targets and engage in spontaneous conversations. You will be surprised by the insights you’ll uncover.

Data analysis

When you analyze an existing dataset and do the usual identification of patterns and trends, purchase history, frequency, average order value, etc., pick up the phone and call some of them. We did this with a dataset of 650 continuing-education course-takers. In scanning the Excel file, my eye fell upon a designer for Netflix. I called her and found out she used our client’s product (lighting) on her set for one Netflix’s major series. The director of marketing looked like the God of Marketing at the board meeting the following day after we notified him and shared this single fact. Stopping at the dataset analysis would have never revealed that nugget but the Wrigley Effect did.

Customer feedback

Traditional tactics tell us to collect and analyze feedback from customers through various channels such as e-mail, social media and customer support interactions. This is true of both positive AND negative feedback. The Wrigley Effect, which draws on randomness and experience to address issues, means not necessarily using additional research to figure things out. That’s what JC Penney did years ago when one of its products (a Michael Graves Design teapot) was compared (because of its shape) to Hitler on social media. Of course, it spiked in views as word spread but the retailer took a team to respond to each and every post regarding this issue. The result? The teapots sold out and became a collector’s item.

Competitor analysis

Study your competitors and their interactions with customers. The Wrigley Effect here is secret shopping – going undercover to understand and help your clients position their products properly. When our client came out with a new product and was about to be copied by a major competitor, we went undercover into the showroom launch of that product. We talked to the product manager for the product, listened as he explained to dealers what the product could do, its benefits, etc. Our report back to the client contained all that information and a simple observation: There’s nothing to worry about. Our client was in the market first and we knew the laws of branding: The first brand into the brain, on average, gets twice the long-term market share of the No. 2 brand and twice again as much as the No. 3 brand. The Wrigley Effect depends on knowledge YOU bring to a situation.

Customer journey mapping

Mapping out the entire customer journey from awareness to purchase and beyond to identify key touchpoints and moments of truth where customers make decisions or interact with your brand is useful, but use the Wrigley Effect to reveal the “wormholes” in the map. These are areas where unseen influencers lurk either to disrupt or help the path to purchase. At one trade show, after the show closed, a couple was examining the display for our client. I walked up to them and began the conversation. The president of the company was still there and eventually saw me and I introduced him to the couple. He took over the pitch and after they left, I asked him if he knew who they were. “No,” he said. “They are architects – at two of the leading firms in the United States. They are married and redoing their bathrooms and they want to use your product in all five of those rooms.” He said I was his best salesperson. I said, “I’m just doing research.” Which is what working a booth at a trade show is really all about: research using the Wrigley Effect.

Building trust and relationships

Emotions such as trust, loyalty and rapport are crucial in B2B relationships. Buyers are more likely to do business with companies they trust and feel connected to emotionally. A study emphasized the importance of emotional connections in driving customer loyalty, repeat business and advocacy in the B2B context: “The B2B elements of value: How to measure – and deliver – what business customers want,” by Eric Almquist, Jamie Cleghorn and Lori Sherer, in Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018.


1 “How Wrigley Chewed its way to gum greatness” by Erin Blakemore. JSTOR Daily.

2 Emily Walgenbach of Nestlé. Webinar “Insights 2022: How Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé are unlocking shopper behaviors.”

3 John Boyle, senior advisor at survey research for ICF, says there are three primary reasons for declining response rates. First is cost. As the response rates decline, you have to work a lot harder – do a lot more calls or send out a lot more questionnaires and possibly offer incentives – just to get enough respondents. Second is credibility. For years, we’ve used response rate as the gold standard of survey quality. We’ve seen the response rates decline on major surveys – in some major federal surveys from 70% to 40% or less – over the last 20 years. The 2018 Survey of Medicaid in Ohio had a response rate of just 12%. The face validity looks bad, which undermines our ability to judge how good these surveys are and how much we can rely on them. Third is non-response bias. The larger the proportion of non-respondents to respondents, the more the opportunity for non-response bias grows. You may have a perfectly drawn sample but if a majority are non-responders, you don’t know how that group differs from the responders. The overall results of the research can get skewed by overindexing on the types of people who are more likely to respond to surveys. 

4 “From promotion to emotion: Connecting B2B customers to brands.” Sam Nathan and Karl Schmidt. October 2013. Think Google Consumer Insights.

5 Ibid.