Welcome to the WIRe Series. Recorded live in Austin, this series is bringing interviews straight to you from the WIRe MRx Meet & Mingle event. In this interview, host Jamin Brazil interviews Rebecca Brooks, Founder and CEO of Alter Agents.
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My guest today is Rebecca Brooks, the CEO and founder of Alter Agents, which is a super cool name. It’s totally like 007’s research, I think in a good way.
How are you doing?
I’m good. How are you?
Good. Yeah, we’ve known each other for ages in the industry. It’s been ages since we’ve seen each other at the same time.
I know. It’s really good to see you.
So, we’re at the… live at the WIRe events today with… in Austin with IIeX. I have not been to Austin in literally over 20 years, and the city has completely changed. How long have you been part of WIRe?
I’ve been part of WIRe… I mean I feel like since the beginning. I started going to the first meetings in L.A. about ten years ago, which is when it started. And I’m really happy to be more fully engaged with the group than ever before. So, I’m the Los Angeles event lead in program. I’m also a mentor; I’m part of the Executive Group. We’re going to our Summit next month. So it’s become a really integral part of my professional life. I love it.
We’re going to dive into your business in just a minute, but I want to just focus a little bit on WIRe. Talk to me little bit about the Mentorship Program. What sort of person are you looking for to fill that seat? And the other side of it is the mentee. What kind of person is a good fit in that role?
Yeah, I think that anybody with ten plus years of experience in the industry, whether it’s all on the client or all on the supplier side, is a valuable mentor. And really someone that will help younger women navigate the corporation world. A lot of them are trying to come up in their business. So, they’re looking to get promotions; they’re looking to get raises. And that’s a difficult thing for anybody to navigate but especially young women, particularly if their organization is very male-dominated. So the WIRe mentors really have invaluable experience in that regard because they’ve all been successful enough to navigate that path, right? And then, in terms of the mentees, I mean we’re really looking for women that will not only benefit from the program but that will also continue the legacy of WIRe and, in a few years, turn around and mentor themselves and that are really committed to the program.
It’s an important work on both sides of it. What kind of time commitment is involved?
For me… Well, I’ve been with my mentee now for two years.
Yeah, she had the option of leaving and going to somebody else, but she stuck with me, which was nice. So, we talk every month. We try to do it in person if we can but schedules don’t allow that. We usually have a list of objectives that we’re going through from short-term goals to long-term goals; so, we’re always addressing those, talking about them. And then I’m available to her if things arise. Yeah, but usually once a month.
So, shift gears a little bit. Alter Agents, tell me a little bit about what you guys do.
So, we’re a full-service market research consultancy. We’re really methodology agnostic, vertical agnostic. We do qualitative and quantitative. We work with large companies like Hyundai Motor America and Viking River Cruises. We work with smaller brands like Humm Kombucha and Evelyn & Bobbie. Really what we found is that our niche isn’t in a particular type of research or with a particular type of industry, but really more around those clients that need a more consultative partner. You know a lot of people can execute a project but those clients that really need somebody to guide them through the study design… We get really in deep with why the research is being done, what questions are going to answered from it. What are they going to do with that? What decisions are going to be made? And then, we work with them on really evangelizing the findings throughout the organization at the end. We don’t just deliver a report, but we’ll do workshops; we’ll do additional deliverable for the C-suite. So we really try to be more of a partner in a broader sense. So we tend to work best with companies that have small research departments or are really understaffed in that area or overworked in that area where we can take on a heavier load than the traditional research company.
Have you seen this activation of research as a trend inside of our space?
Yeah, I think I’ve always gravitated towards it in my career. It was very challenging for me when I would deliver something to a client and then it would just go into the void. And I wouldn’t get to see what happened with the data. And I loved having clients come back because then I could see: What have they done? What decisions were being made? So for me, it was always kind of a personal desire and itch I needed to scratch. So I tended to gravitate towards those clients that wanted that back and forth communication. But I do feel that the industry, as a whole, is kind of pulling into either DIY (Here’s your technology and your product) or pulling more in the direction that my company is, which is more sort of consultative, white-glove, hands-on kind of servicing.
So, you’re launching some research on how brand category affects purchase behavior. Tell me a little bit about that.
Yeah, I’m really excited about that. We should have our data out in the summer. But the idea is that we’ve been noticing a lot with our clients that the influence of technology in any industry has been driven towards consumer convenience, the idea that you want to eliminate as many barriers as possible for the consumers they can go to purchase. And what that’s creating, whether we’re talking about luxury cruising or automotive or a beverage drink… what that’s creating in this environment where, depending on the context of the purchase, the shopper can actually be almost mindless about it. So, if you think about a subscribe-and-save feature on Amazon, where you set it up once and then you never have to think about it. Your dishwasher detergent is coming every month, right? It’s great for Amazon, and it’s great for the brand that won that subscribancy. But if you’re a brand trying to break into that or if you’re trying to convince people, you have an additional barrier now not only to convince them to try your product but to delete their subscribancy.
Yeah, that’s a big… That could be a big… I mean the whole reason you set that up is to one-and-done and forget it.
Right. We’ve been talking for years at Alter Agents in our e-books that we’ve been putting out about how traditional research isn’t addressing the questions that marketers need to answer. And this, in particular, I think is something that we’ve been seeing affecting more and more of our clients the way that consumer expectation for convenience counteracts traditional marketing efforts. And so, we need research to be a lot smarter about the context of the purchase, the priorities of the shopper. So, the research that we’ll be doing and distributing this summer is really about demonstrating that there are different questions that we should ask beyond awareness, familiarity, consideration. We need to really get deeper and talk about it from the consumer’s perspective. So we’re hoping to have some really strong numbers behind that.
Talk to me a little bit about the gap that… I was talking with Michelle earlier that your point of view is that there’s a gap that’s widening between everyday CPG products in the marketplace and then how it’s engaging at a category level. Tell me a little bit about your thesis there.
I really think again it comes back to the technology has been working to make those everyday purchases as simple as possible for people, whether it’s a subscribe-and-save or whether it’s the way that grocery retailers have been reorganizing their shelves to put the most desired products upfront and all of the science behind the way people are physically shopping. All of those things are pushing the consumer to not have to think about it. And that is a very different kind of shopper context than when you’re looking at brands that are pushing more towards the purchase as an experience where the purchase itself is part of what you’re getting from the brand. It’s not just the end product.
It’s almost like the box as Apple can redefine packaging as part of the product experience, but now you’re actually going upstream further it sounds like.
Yes, yes. There’s the high-end luxury stuff like BMW flying you over to actually pick up your car in Germany and drive it around the country and then ship it home. That’s a very high-end extreme. But even things like a Patagonia jacket: you go into that store and you have an experience that is as memorable as the jacket itself. There’s this real sort of pull into these strong extremes. And this sort of blanket, “This is how people shop” or “This is how we should market to people” just doesn’t work without understanding the context of the category.
This is a super interesting topic. Google and Amazon have been gobbling up generic brands. Paper towels, for example, I can’t remember which one won it, but that happened last year. As opposed to Brawny or Scotts… So now, when you’re acquiring your product if you’re blind from a consumer-journey perspective because you’re ordering in a voice environment, that’s a big problem if you say paper towels versus Brawny. I have to pick on Brawny. I don’t know why. ‘Cause I grew up with the commercials of the Brawny guy. With your connection to customers, are you thinking about how they’re standing out from generic? Is that part of the conversation?
Absolutely, it is. I mean one of the things that technology has really done is pushed brand further away from the decision-making process. I mean everybody shops on Amazon. You’re filtering by… Well, first of all, you’re searching on the type of product you want: “I want blow dryer,” “I want markers.” And then you’re filtering on things like Prime or price or whatever. And then brand comes into at the end, if that. I mean maybe at that point, you’re picking the best reviewed product and not even thinking about the brand. So what does a marketer do in that context? Right. They need to understand the triggers that are pushing people to those products; brand may not be one of them. Maybe, your marketing strategy isn’t so much about the brand name and the brand feeling as it is about the distribution channels. So that’s really where we’re trying to push our clients and push our researches sort of what is that space that they’re making that decision in.
Yeah, which we saw with the Berkshire Hathaway announcement about Heinz getting crushed in that context because they weren’t… They were considering the brand piece of the thesis but not necessarily channel distribution, which as it turns out a big problem.
Right, if you think about traditionally we’ve grown up on the 50 top global brands and now a lot of them have been CPG and I don’t think that will be the case in ten years.
And it’s really hard for a brand to position themselves as the Kleenex in their category. I mean that’s very hard to pull off.
And we’re seeing it not just in CPG but we’re seeing it across the board when we work in a lot of different categories. Even our Viking River Cruises client, their target demographic are people over 60, and they’re expecting a lot of technology and convenience and ease-of-use when they go to their website. They want a lot of those decisions taken away from them to make an easy purchase. So it’s really across the board.
The consumer is valuing time more than anything else right now. More barriers there are… It’s a no-brainer kind of point that I’m going to make, and everybody already know what it is: The more barriers there are, the higher the likelihood of drop-out through that process. But I think we need to pull back more and re-envision. There’s a lot of sites that I shop where I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, where is the Buy Now?” Like I’ll add stuff to my cart and I can’t figure out how to check out. I’m like, “What the hell is going on? How is that the hard part of this?”
People experience a really amazing convenience in one category like being able to dial up an Uber on your phone, and then they expect the same convenience somewhere else. So, why is it so easy for me to get a car to take me from one place to another, but I have to hunt down my broker with smoke signals? So there’s a frustration that’s growing. I emphasize this a lot: It’s not the younger generations only, either; everyone is getting really used to convenience, and everybody’s expectations are rising. You have these sorts of tensions of brands needing to meet consumer demands for convenience but then in doing so, are losing some of the brand focus.
Last question: How do you think market research is going to adapt over the next five years?
It’s hard to be in the prediction business in this industry these days. You know I started in market research when things were still done on paper, and online was something where there was a lot of skepticism about it. So I’ve seen the industry go through a lot of changes, but I think that the changes that are coming now are coming at us from all angles. It’s coming at us from machine learning, and AI, and automation of analysis, which is really fascinating and kind of scary at the same time. There’s no stopping technology, and there’s no stopping how quickly it’s going to advance. And I think it’s going to continue, in really our industry as well, the consumer’s convenience. Our research buyer’s convenience is paramount for them also. So, a lot of these technology tools are pulling in that direction, but then you have companies like mine that are also trying to retain the quality and the depth of analysis. Honestly, who knows? It’ll be really interesting to see.
It will. The other point I riff on there is the point of insight consumption is interesting too because tools have democratized access to the consumer. It used to be the case that it was just the researcher that had that capacity to conduct research, thinking about the old days of pencil and paper and phone. And now, all of a sudden, anybody and everybody does, in fact, conduct research. From a market research category perspective, we really need to think long and hard about who really is our target customer, and how we’re going to help the organization as a whole adopt insights.
Well, on a tangent, I really feel like market research is very similar to what’s happened to the news media since the internet has begun where…
That’s a really good analogy, actually.
Yeah, there were a few people in control of the information, and everybody was getting the same information. We used the same methodologies, the same basic principles, and then the internet came along and democratized information and that’s what’s happening in market research now too. And I think one of the startling things about it is that we have some quality concerns.
That’s an understatement. It’s capital concerns, right? I mean that’s a big problem.
That when people can go out and do it themselves without the background, without the information, what is the quality of that data? And even though it’s very accessible and easy to get to…
Ton of misinformation.
Accurate, right. So yeah, I mean I think we’re in that… beginning to see that transition start to happen. It’ll be interesting to see how our industry reacts.
My guest today has been Rebecca Brooks, CEO, founder of Alter Agents. Thanks so much for joining me on Happy Market Research Podcast.
Let’s enjoy the WIRe event.