We’re counting down the Top 10 posts of 2011 on “Innovation Evolved”. Originally published November 8, here’s #5 on the countdown.

At TMRE 2011, Diane Hessan of Communispace discussed “The 21st Century Market Researcher” with Stan Sthanunathan of The Coca-Cola Company.

Q: You are VP of one of the most iconic brands in the world. Give us some background on Coca-Cola. Why is Coca-Cola such an iconic brand?

A: The brand is 125 years old. The concoction was brewed 125 years ago at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta. It is an iconic brand not because of the marketing alone but because of the work done in the communities we serve. We are in more countries than are in the United Nations. We have manufacturing in 206 countries. We touch 20 million outlets directly, not through wholesalers. As a system, we employ more than a million people. With such massive scale we touch many communities. Bottling partners and their status in society are defined as being our franchisee in a territory – they might not make a lot of money always, but it [improves their status in the community]. Recent work, such as Melinda Gates’ recent speech, was about Coke reaching the nooks and corners of Africa for improving health. The notable thing that has gotten us a lot of credit is the 5 by 20 program: 5 million empowered women by 2020. We have set women up in business so they have a good source of income: all they need is a wheelbarrow. They don’t need capital, just integrity and honesty. We provide products and even the wheelbarrow, and they pay us at the end of each day. These kinds of things make a brand iconic. A jingle helps but isn’t sustainable.

Q: You grew up in India, became an engineer, went to the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, then went into market research. What could you have possibly been thinking?!

A: Career decisions at that stage of life are driven by influential professors. I had two of them, one who inspired me to think about quantitative approaches and one who inspired me to think about psychology. Market research gave me the chance to apply both, and since then (1985) I haven’t looked back.

Q: You’ve been quoted saying “market research is the world’s greatest profession”. Do you still feel that way?

A: Absolutely! Every morning I think this is the greatest profession. I’m excited by the job and by the company I work for. If you like data and storytelling, this is your profession.

Q: There’s a paradox between “you saying nothing is more important than insights”, but you’ve also said “research quality doesn’t matter” and that “research professionals are in the dark ages”. So you say the profession isn’t in the right place but it is the greatest profession. How do you reconcile that?

A: What choice do researchers want to make? You can choose not to be subservient, to make a huge impact on the business. Any marketing activity has to be informed by insights, however those insights are arrived at. But if you have passion for insights, a passion for research, those words have different connotations. I don’t like the word research: re-search, something that is already there and you are searching for it again. Search is exciting, but re-search isn’t exciting. The end of research is a business outcome and how you can make it the best.

Q: How do you define an insight?

A: We had this problem internally for a long time. Different industry associations have different definitions. Some are two lines, some are ten lines – you have to take a deep breath before reading it aloud! We came up with a definition that works for us: “something that is retrospectively self-evident”. If it is self-evident, that is not enough, but if retrospectively so, then it is something with value! That is the definition we use. That definition has withstood the test of time.

Q: What do you see your colleagues in the field doing that you think is the wrong direction or a waste of time?

A: There are a lot of things we do that are not necessarily right. I can speak about what we do more authoritatively than what others do. Five years ago 80% of our spending was on rear-view research: tracking, measurement, post-mortem in nature. You don’t achieve greatness by looking back. You can’t drive a car looking through the rear-view window. We took a hard look at why we spend so many resources on rear-view resources. In a land of finite resources, I can’t ask for more money to do more forward-looking research, so something had to stop. So we rationalized our rear-view research and began spending on more forward-looking research. When people see the value in that, it encouraged people to ask for more of that. My own personal global budget: we spend 50% rear view, and 50% forward looking. Rear-view research will never go away; it has a place.

Q: It has to be difficult, if you have 20 years of data, to stop collecting that data. Is that difficult to do?

A: No, because one of the biggest frustrations from my team was that no one took them seriously. That happens if you are constantly providing report carding in a subservient mode: you get treated like that. I asked the team, “How often have you said, ‘Did you know…?’ and dropped a bombshell in the room?” People are capable of doing it, but they didn’t have the time, because they were too busy doing process work. “What is the health of my brand?” they get asked. “What is the trend, is it going up or going down?” People had no time for thinking. We knew we couldn’t get more headcount, so we said we had to create more time for people; we outsourced process and insourced thinking. The routine stuff we lean on our partners for; they get rewarded the business a little more and that releases my people’s time. They found it rewarding and the business found it more useful. We then get invited to come to the table more often.

Q: How do we know what foresight looks like?

A: A good definition of foresight is something that helps people believe. What if Martin Luther King had said, “I have an idea!” If he had, you would say, “Martin Luther King who?” As researchers, how can you help companies dream? From an R&D perspective, we want to spend time, effort and money to convert the tracking data into planning with scenario tools. That helps people play a lot of what-if games. We have created marketing training gigs for brand directors so they could see how to spend money for the biggest bang for their buck. We had a marketing mix model and simulation game for what-if scenarios for a forward-looking view. That is one technique. But that doesn’t get you to greatness: it makes you smarter about what you did yesterday. Instead, where are consumers likely to be tomorrow? Rarely consumers can tell you, perhaps about incremental improvements that produce 3% to 4% growth. You need a point of view about where consumers will be 5 years from today, talking to a diverse set of people: psychologists, counselors, and many other experts. They will tell you about the human condition and what keeps people awake at night and then we apply a point of view to where we think the world will be. And our internal clients find that very inspiring.

Q: You wouldn’t use a survey for that?

A: I question the value of traditional surveys. They play a role. We have a study we do every 3 or 4 years across 60 countries, and the survey is 90 minutes long. How long will that continue? Why do we expect respondents to do that on an ongoing business? We ask a question, and we get an answer. How often are they telling the truth, and will they tell the truth to a stranger? Innovation in research has to move beyond this.

Q: What are the implications for hiring? What kind of people are you looking for? We hired 110 people last year, and we looked at what their skill sets are.

A: Einstein said if you do more of the same and expect different results then that is the definition of insanity. If you hire more of the same people and expect different results that is the definition of optimism. If half the people agree with everything you do, then they are redundant. We have consciously taken a decision to hire a diverse set of people, with diversity in terms of thinking. Now 30% of my team consists of people who are not the usual researchers: a guy who was vice president of sales, an auditor who did internal audits around the world (one of the brightest thinkers I have), a woman who is a concert-grade cello player. We have all kinds of people. What they bring to the table is an uncanny ability to connect the dots. They don’t think in silos or projects. I came from a research agency so for 15 years I responded to briefs, very rarely was I thinking across briefs. These people ask fundamental questions about why our clients need what they need. They go and tell a story based on what we know. We want a culture where people feel comfortable about expressing themselves. That is magical.

Q: Say more about storytelling. How do you capture the imagination of your senior executives? We know language matters. What else do you do to really be a partner to senior management?

A: We consciously avoid doing presentations with a lot of data on the charts. Don’t confuse fact-filled presentations with fact-full presentations. We want to show we’ve done the due diligence – they give you the benefit of the doubt, so tell a story, make it as immersive as possible. We have done presentations with no PowerPoint deck, walking people through a room filled with props. The third thing we consciously do is to ask ourselves one question – “what is the one big provocation that would make them realize what we are talking about?” You can’t do that in every presentation, of course, but maybe 3 or 4 times a year can you say something that will shock them that is totally linked to the business and what keeps them awake at night.

Q: Some people in the room are saying, “Easy for you to say!” You work with one of the greatest brands in the world, have lots of zeros in your budget, you have people who give you a lot of leeway. What advice do you give people sitting here who want to move to the next level? What is the next step?

A: Everything in the world is relative. My team will tell you they don’t have enough budget, despite all those zeros. If you don’t have resources, you become resourceful. I talk to smaller companies without a lot of budget doing a lot of really innovative work, even on the agency side, where the smaller ones come up with some really great work. Culture can be a big bottleneck, but it is easy to change the culture in a smaller company. Being a big company can be a liability. The most important thing is patience: it took a lot of time and effort. And we are not there yet. We are 30% of the way there. It is a journey.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.