Our guest today is Hunter Thurman, President of Alpha-Diver.
Alpha-Diver is a consultancy that leverages neuroscience to help brands target the right consumers and identifies the best moments for activation.
Prior to starting Alpha-Diver, Hunter served as a Consultant for WPP in Global Insights, Strategy, and Innovation. Additionally, he served as an Innovation Strategy Mentor at The Brandery.
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Jamin Brazil: Hi everyone. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. Our guest today is Hunter Thurman, President of Alpha-Diver. Alpha-Diver is a consultancy that leverages neuroscience to help brands target the right consumers and identify the best moments for activation. Prior to starting Alpha-Diver, Hunter served as a consultant at WPP and Global Insights of Strategy and Innovation. Additionally he served over a decade as an innovation strategy mentor at the Brandery. Hunter, welcome to the Happy Market Research podcast.
Hunter Thurman: Great, thank you. Great to be here.
Jamin Brazil: The Michigan State University’s Master of Science in marketing research program delivers the number one ranked insights and analytics degree in three formats. Full time on campus, full time online and part time online. New for 2022. If you can’t commit to their full degree program, simply begin with one of their three core certifications. Insights design or insights analysis. In addition to the certification all the courses you complete will build towards your graduation. If you’re looking to achieve your full potential check out MSNU’s program at B-R-O-A-D. M-S-U. edu/marketing. Again, B-R-O-A-D. M-S-U. edu/marketing. WX is a research operations platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions and surveys. For a limited time users seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account visit hubux.com. It’s a huge honor to have you. I like the work you guys are doing a lot which is why we’ve carved this out. This is not a sponsored episode but there’s a lot of value structurally in talking about your business and how other companies might be thinking about, specifically brands, thinking about layering up the solutions that you have. Whether it’s with you or not. But this is really kind of a lift for the industry at large. But before we get into that let’s set a little bit of context. Tell me about your parents and what they did and how that informs what you do today?
Hunter Thurman: Absolutely. They’ve had a pivotal influence on my career. So I grew up, we’re based in Cincinnati but I grew up in Santa Fe New Mexico. Which is kind of an interesting place to be from. And both of my parents were CPA’s. That’s how they met working at a big accounting firm. And they started their own accounting firm in Santa Fe and that was their livelihood up until very recently. And so in that regard this apple couldn’t have fallen farther from the tree. Our CFO is kind of like dude your parents were CPA’s? And I’m like, I know I know. It’s not, I’m not cut from that cloth but what they ingrained in me and I think you hear a lot of people say this but running their own business there was a lot of tenacity. A lot of toughness to it. And I think that’s something I’ve taken from my parents that I think about often. There’s no substitute for a little bit of toughness in day to day life and certainly in day to day business.
Jamin Brazil: For sure. It is interesting the role of accounting. Both market research as a science and accounting foundationally are numbers based, which is super interesting. I think the big deviation here is the risks associated with launching and executing a project versus more of the conservative frameworks of accounting.
Hunter Thurman: That’s true, that’s true and you’re making me realize that there’s more in common to accounting that I previously realized and in what we’re doing here in that our mission is to make this much more objective. This being consumer understanding, market research, insights and strategy. That has really been, and I’m sure we’ll get into this. That’s been my aspiration is to make this a more durable, objective practice. And you’re right that is more like accounting than a lot of market research is. That’s never occurred to me before this.
Jamin Brazil: So let’s talk a little bit about the business. You started it and so there’s like an entrepreneurial component foundationally right? Anytime you start something, I’ve said this a lot. Starting a business is a lot like writing a fiction and then bringing that fiction to life. It’s quite literally taking something that does not exist and then creating that entity. Why did you decide to start Alpha-Diver?
Hunter Thurman: I started, so I started this company in 2011. I was kind of at the midpoint of my career. And the short answer is I became very dissatisfied that there really wasn’t a, as I said a moment ago, durable, tangible, I guess scientific process to insights. I had a great gig going at an insights firm running that firm. And if I was being honest with myself I couldn’t explain how we were doing it. And it sort of every project, every engagement, every challenge kind of felt like opening night. And that, I just grew dissatisfied with that. And along that same- Around that same time I started discovering the academic world of what’s still called behavioral science. Psychology, neuroscience etcetera. And started to really discover, A, how little the enterprise and the market research world and that world interacted and B, how much they had to teach each other. And obviously my interest was more of a one way flow. Teaching enterprise from the world of academia and really just discovered and sort of envisioned this way of more predictably getting to human and consumer truths and really bringing that world of academic knowledge to bear in our space.
Jamin Brazil: Tell me about the name. How did you land on Alpha-Diver?
Hunter Thurman: That’s a great question. So part of what we do internally, our model is about these durable drivers and barriers. So that was one of the first things I learned working with namely Ziggy Hale, who’s our principal neuroscientist and has been with me really from the early days. He immediately kind of said as we were describing to each other what we do and kind of meeting for the first time. He said, we being neuroscientists, we kind of understand why people do what they do, it’s diagnosing it in a context that’s difficult. Of course my ears perked up and with that there are these four durable drivers. These four reasons that people do something. These four lenses that we as humans use in making decisions. And the most preconscious, the most subconscious – many call it system one – of those drivers, our internal shorthand is the alpha mindset and the diver mindset. And so as were naming the firm, we said we want something only we could call ourselves and it’s really meaningful to us. And we liked the alliteration of Alpha-Diver and hence the name.
Jamin Brazil: You said there’s four drivers. Now I want to know what the other two are.
Hunter Thurman: Absolutely. Well so the alpha is the most instinctual. The diver is the most exploratory and experiential. The other two are what? Internally we call the triber or the tribal mindset, which is like wisdom of the tribe, wisdom of the crowd. And then last but not least is the one where most people start the rational, the practical. Internally our shorthand for that is the expert mindset. That’s the place where a lot of market research, or at least traditional research begins and ends. It’s what people think they think and we humans like to think that we’re very rational and make informed choice for comparative decisions but it’s rarely the case out in the real world of yards and inches and brand choice or where to shop or how to shop etcetera.
Jamin Brazil: There’s too much data involved in actually making a decision even as simple as what cereal I should be buying for my family.
Hunter Thurman: That’s right. Well if you tried to make a comparative, rational, informed decision about everything you’d have very little time to do anything else. And there’s really interesting case studies. You may be channeling one there where we need our emotional minds to make decisions. And so that’s really the business we’re in is diagnosing those decision making criteria. The full set including the subconscious at a quantitative scale. So being able to diagnose that really accurately and get to what- The true whys behind human behavior and that’s been very satisfying. And that was sort of what at least generally speaking brought me to this journey 11 and some years ago.
Jamin Brazil: So you talk about like measuring neuro patterns right? The thoughts, am I thinking of it correctly?
Hunter Thurman: To a degree. Most neuroscience when people hear it that’s what they think of. It’s what they would call non-ambulatory. Which means like shower caps and EET and what, and like heat or eye tracking and things like that. Those are certainly in the space. Our unique approach and what Ziggy and team have built is essentially a way to measure the subconscious factors behind decision making but via a survey. So this actually, our platform and our instrument is it sits on decipher. So we run our studies on screens and we do them all around the world. And of course all at large scale because people can take it on a screen. And so Ziggy calls it pencil and paper brain imaging. And what that means is via this mechanism and it’s these kinds of interesting word cloud. A lot of it is word cloud sorting. Where we’ll say, thinking about breakfast, to your point a moment ago. Sort these or rank these, and they rank these word clouds that are very carefully designed by neuroscientists and plug into our algorithm. And reveal to us what the decision making criteria is for that respondent. So yes, we’re using like this really deep rich neuroscience but we’re able to do it in a really passive, easy way for the respondent. They don’t do much thinking and they can simply go through these activities on their phone or their whatever, screen and inadvertently reveal to us their psychology relative to whatever it is we’re studying.
Jamin Brazil: We of course seasoned researchers all know this, you get more accurate information or points of view from the consumer if you’re not directly asking them a question. Pricing is a really good example of that. There’s inherent bias that’s introduced in any price. So if you put $100 bottle of wine in front of me versus a $5 bottle I’m going to intrinsically hold more value with $100 bottle of wine. And yet a consumer would tell you, myself included, I’d rather pay $5 than $100. But I would never bring the $5- I would probably never buy the $5 bottle of wine.
Hunter Thurman: That’s right, that’s right. When we tried it and that’s sort of my point on the drivers. When we try to diagnose and explain our own behavior there’s so much stuff that gets in the way. There’s all the heuristics, which is what you’re referring to. These decision making shortcuts that we’re not aware of but influence our decisions day in and day out. And then there’s all these narratives and all this stuff, this subjectivity essentially that gets in the way even of our explanations of our own behavior. So we always kind of joke because we’re getting to the root of why people do or don’t do things. Our studies never, I don’t think one place doesn’t say why do we ask them to explain why and yet that’s exactly what we’re getting to at the really root level.
Jamin Brazil: It is interesting. When you describe the methodology in some ways it kind of sounds like a max dip or even some kind of broader conjoint.
Hunter Thurman: Well it’s from an analytic perspective, that was one thing I learned early on it. When I started, someone said you need to talk to this neuroscientist and I kind of went neuroscience, I pictured it more like neuro surgery. Like physiological, like the parts of the brain and things like that. But what I quickly learned is neuroscientists are actually highly quantitative and highly data involved. And so our whole back end, the algorithm and the it’s called Stabler. Essentially the data processing machine is built and administered by our neuroscientists. And that basically lets us get to this really accurate understanding of what underpins people’s behavior without us really having to ask them to explain it or even trying to observe what it is that they think they think or what their behavior is. We’re able to do these pretty simple activities that essentially strips away all that subjectivity. It eliminates it from the signal if you will.
Jamin Brazil: It’s so powerful. To your point if you can drive down to the alpha mind, then it really does- There’s just nothing more powerful that you’d be able to connect with. I am curious. So alpha and then diver and then all the way down to rational. Is that in order of importance?
Hunter Thurman: In terms of cognition, it is, and so there is, they’re all in play. So when a signal- there’s all these cool stats on the world that I always misquote them but it’s something like 10 billion or 10 million or just a ton of data points assault a person per second. So, there’s just constant onslaught of stimuli. Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, all the senses. We’re just constantly inundated. And that was true before social media and the internet and things but it’s certainly exacerbated now, and so our subconscious brain, that alpha, that most subconscious is like a bouncer at a nightclub, the velvet rope. It’s the thing that the very initial signals it forms an emotion. And essentially those more subconscious emotions are what then translate what gets sent upstairs if you will up to the more rational parts of the brain to be considered and thought about. And if everything went up we’d be exhausted because our brain is actually really inefficient organ. So we have- We, meaning our subconscious minds have to be really discriminating about what gets through. So there is this thought process that includes all of them and they do go kind of back to front. Interestingly what we find and given a market context of food or drink category or whatever. One of the four drivers, sometimes the rational but sometimes that most crude kind of caved brain, that alpha mindset, will be the point at which the decision-making sort of stops and gets processed and drives actual behavior. So it’s not that in any context you have to say well what’s the first, second, third and fourth thing that happens? What we’re saying is and what we’re measuring is which of those is most influential? And which is the data that person is using for that context, for that category, that decision to actually make their decision?
Jamin Brazil: So is it most important or is it proportional? Meaning that – I always think like it maybe it feels to me like it’s almost zero sum and alpha is some, and then driver is another portion et cetera?
Hunter Thurman: It’s not zero sum. No you’re exactly right. They’re all present in all of our decisions. It’s almost like in our brain we have these four people sitting in a like a little boardroom. And it’s which of those little personas comes to the chair and leads the thinking. And so in our data we’ll see that there’s like a primary driver and a secondary driver. And they may be fairly close together and that tells us a lot about the profile. So it’s not zero sum. But in describing it and explaining the model, yes we tend to say well which is that that’s driving them? Because at the end of the day that’s what you activate against. And that’s what tells us, yes this is all good sport and interesting to psychologically profile people. But ultimately that’s what dictates to us how to action on it? How to communicate with people? Who, when, where and how to reach people on the marketplace in ways that will actually drive their behavior?
Jamin Brazil: So I wanted to shift gears a little bit and talk about why you started the business in the context of the pain in the market that you saw but before I do, you have an interesting background. You served as a consultant to WPP as Global Insights in Strategy and Innovation. And you did that for over a decade and again over a decade innovation strategy mentor at the Brandery. And for those who don’t know, the Brandery is an early stage consumer marketing venture accelerator. So a lot of exposure to new ideas, great ideas, really smart people. Probably some really bad ideas too. And then Author for quite a while, and well actually I should rephrase that Author. After you started, I believe after you started the Alpha-Diver. But what lead you from the innovation framework of the Brandery into starting this business?
Hunter Thurman: In our early days we did a lot of innovation, a lot of innovation work. A lot of what does the world need that we’re uniquely, we being our partners are uniquely suited to create? And what we found, what we’ve evolved to is that the real pain for most organizations is relative to insights is, how can we make this actionable? How can we essentially sell what we already make more effectively? So our outputs do guide innovation strategy. Meaning they’ll reveal like, look you’re really winning with people that have this profile. You could with things like this. Innovation or acquisitions or whatever, things like this. You could very likely attract this other profile. So we’re certainly able to guide that. But the pain point that we really honed in on is more about sort of the oldest pain point in the book. Actionable insights. Things that understanding that don’t just explain at the kind of the high level, you need to better execute the planogram to enable shoppers or you need to create an engaging e-comm experience for your brand. Going three clicks deeper than that, saying the way to do that. The top three priorities in order to do that are one, two and three. And so really our ability to do that is what’s guided us more to working with going brands and drive more consumer and shopper insight and activation or strategy versus pure innovation. Which was a lot of my background. And we still of course those two are not- Those two worlds are not mutually exclusive. But in the early days it was kind of a lot of innovation with a little bit of insight and strategy and we’ve really reversed that over the last decade plus.
Jamin Brazil: When you started the business was there a specific customer or moment where you were like, god it’d be great if?
Hunter Thurman: I don’t know that there was an it would be great if. When I first started it was I just had my second daughter my third child, she was like two weeks old and I left this well paying job to start this- to pursue this adventure, and a client that I’ve worked with over the years, Zee Talaga, who is just awesome, she was, like, all go. She’s one of those insights leaders that plays to win versus playing not to lose. And there was this really challenging opportunity or challenge that she had on her plate. And it really all just kind of fell into place. Obviously that first project was huge. It kept the lights on. I remember the project name was called One Shot. Because it had, we had one shot on this new technology to find. It was like, it was so weird looking, thinking back to it that we called the project that. Super high profile, super high pressure, which I’ve never backed down from but as we started into it, and I said alright well we’re going to be doing this differently. We’re going to be using academic modelling and neuroscience and psychology modelling to assess and plan this. It was like it’s what I had been looking for. Immediately upon starting to work with Ziggy and others, it’s like, oh this makes sense. There’s a framework that we can work within. And so all the uncertainty of a project like that really melted away because we knew what we were looking for. And it was the difference between wandering in the woods and hiking with a map. And that was very, of course that’s consistently what we experienced but that was really gratifying to kind of experience that in a real life sort of pressure cooker project for the first time.
Jamin Brazil: It’s funny how, like there’s so many things that can kill you when you start a business. And you really need that champion customer to get it off the ground. It’s such a consistent theme that I’ve heard. So let’s pull back into like more recent days. Do you have a favorite project or moment in a project? Maybe outcome?
Hunter Thurman: That probably was my favorite. Number of reasons as I said. It was just sort of proof of concept, validation, all at the same time. But again, experiencing that like this works. Like my instinct on this that there’s a better way forward. And in that case it’s like we were talking, we were working with teenagers and young adults was the audience. They’re notoriously difficult to pry insights out of. There’s a lot of shrugging and I don’t knows and things like that.
Jamin Brazil: Totally.
Hunter Thurman: It’s the fact that we were- that it worked and that we were having these revelations and finding these insights very quickly. That was huge. That was transformative. My favorite types of projects are, and certainly true to form with Lindsay, working with teams that have that let’s play to win versus playing not to lose. I don’t care if you’ve been here for 25 years. That’s still a huge difference maker. In psychology, it’s called approach versus avoidance. You’ve got to be in approach. You’ve got to be moving forward versus avoiding going backwards. And I know it sounds- It sounds sort of I don’t know simplistic but those are the favorite projects. When we’re able to work with teams that are really ambitious and very approach minded about what’s possible. The other thing I like in projects, there was one not long ago where we were looking at these like summer parties. These big events over the summer and the reasons that consumers thought they did things were pretty apparent. When they told you how they made brand decisions and they explain things in traditional research, which they had done prior to us coming along. It all made, it made a lot of sense. And it was very consistent. You hear that a lot in the hallways of insights teams. We’ve heard that before and everybody’s like really excited by that. They’re like, this is good it’s consistent. They had heard very consistent things but the business was very flat. And we’re able to come in and using this this framework and this measure, diagnosed it. Yes what they said and the way that it looked wasn’t wrong but the reason between the ears was different. It was not what they had previously believed or what people thought they thought. What consumers have told them. And by making just some subtle changes. Inactivation, like in digital activation and even all the way to in store. It took, and this was like billion dollar brands. It took a flat category to like 10% quarter over quarter growth. So just had these dramatic impacts. And so those are the projects that are my favorite. When the team is really ambitious, whether because they have to be in that case because they’re like in a flat or declining category or they really- They really want to put a dent in the universe. And then applying these truths to then drive these big business results. Obviously, that’s what we’re all here for at the end of the day but the process is almost just as enjoyable as the outcomes. And that project is another one that’s near and dear to my heart.
Jamin Brazil: My last question. Always makes me a little sad when I’m enjoying the conversation so much but, what is your personal motto?
Hunter Thurman: So my Dad said this to me not long ago and I’ve sort of adapted it as my personal motto. It’s this little phrase I tell myself, it’s all perspective. And it’s, one thing that the neuroscientists taught me early on, Ziggy, was context is key. Everything we do, everything that human beings do, all the decision making we do happens within a context. And that motto, that mantra of it’s all perspective in everyday life, it’s certainly true of the work we’re doing. But it’s true when you have your tough days and your down moments, stepping back and go, what’s another perspective that I really should be looking at this from? And it’s been really empowering. And that’s probably been my motto over the past year but it’s really been helpful to me.
Jamin Brazil: Our guest today has been Hunter Thurman. President at Alpha-Diver. Hunter, thank you for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Hunter Thurman: Thank you Jamin, I enjoyed it.
Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did and I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day. As always, if you post on this episode and tag me, I will send you a free T-shirt. And with that, have a great rest of your day.