Ep. 557 – Why Shoppers are Changing and how it Impacts Brands with Rebecca Brooks, Founder & CEO of Alter Agents

My guest today is Rebecca Brooks, Founder, and CEO of Alter Agents. 

Founded in 2010, Alter Agents is based in Los Angeles California and is a full-service, strategic market research consultancy reimagining research in an era of shifting decision-making.

Prior to founding Alter Agents, Rebecca has held senior roles at top market research agencies including Hall & Partners, Dialogue, and Diagnostic Research. 

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Jamin Brazil: Hey everybody. I’m Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents. Founded in 2010, Alter Agents is based in Los Angeles, California and is a full service strategic market research consultancy re-imagining research in an era of shifting decision making. Prior to founding Alter Agents, Rebecca has held senior roles at top market research agencies including Hall and Partners, Dialogue, and Diagnostic Research. Rebecca, welcome to the show.


Rebecca Brooks: Thanks, Jamin. Happy 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 course 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 MSU’s program at broad.msu.edu/marketing. Again, broad.msu.edu/marketing. HubUX is a research operations platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions, and surveys. For a limited time, user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit hubUX.com. I guess, I should say welcome back to the show. You were on pre-COVID.


Rebecca Brooks: Was it pre-COVID? No, it was early COVID because-


Jamin Brazil: Oh early COVID. That’s right.


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah. It was like towards the end of- or maybe, the fall of 2020. It was a dark time because we had- I think Trump haven’t conceded the election. There were just a lot of things going on. So I think we talked about-


Jamin Brazil: You’re right. I can’t wait- you know what? I’m gonna do after this is go back and re-listen to that conversation. That’s- that was an interesting point in our history.


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah. Well, I actually got scolded my colleague who works with me on this about, “Maybe, you should try to be in a better mood when you get on this podcast,” because I was feeling pretty bleak the last time we talked. So things are more optimistic today.


Jamin Brazil: Of course, that’s helped because your business has been doing so well through the pandemic.


Rebecca Brooks: Thank you. Yeah, we’ve been very lucky.


Jamin Brazil: All right. Well, really the core topic of today is you are releasing a book which I am very excited about. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to say. And if not, then I will strike this from our conversation. But you did allow me an early access sneak peak in to the-


Rebecca Brooks: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: Some of the chapters. And I did read it and found it very interesting. But your release data is April of 20022, is that right?


Rebecca Brooks: That’s right. Towards the end of the month, the 26th I believe.


Jamin Brazil: There are a lot of books that have been coming out. And in market research, I’m super curious or maybe I should say that- I can kinda answer the question myself, having read it. But why does the world need another book?


Rebecca Brooks: Excellent point and something that I asked myself at the beginning of this process. But you know, the topics that we are covering in this book are pretty meaty. We’re talking about how the way that people shop has changed fundamentally. At of molecular level, people are going to be different shoppers moving forward. And it’s not a trend, it’s not a blip, it’s not an adjustment, it’s a reality that I think brands are- we’re trying to wake our clients up too and brands are waking up too. So that’s issue number one and there is a history that we needed to go in there about why is it changing and what’s happening. We also talked a lot about the way we think the industry is missing the mark with this concept of brand narcissism that I can go into about how our questions are very inward facing and not really reflective of the shoppers’ experience. And so, I think we’re missing a lot of really great information. And both of those things were pretty heavy topics so we wanted to give them the space to really flash them out. Also, we did 6,000 interviews in the US, and all of that data’s in the book to support a lot of the findings that we have, and sort of illuminate what we’re trying to talk about. And that needed space as well so it’s a topic I’ve been talking about since 2015 but it really felt like I wanted to get it out there on a bigger platform, on a bigger stage. And then, it was very helpful that somebody actually asked my partner, Devora Rogers, and I to write the book. So that fell into our laps and we took advantage of it.


Jamin Brazil: So we, as shoppers, have changed at a molecular level. That’s- or at least our buying journey has changed in a molecular level, molecule level crazy but it really is. How- what are you seeing? Obviously, we’re still gonna buy the book but what are you seeing as the big disruption there?


Rebecca Brooks: The big disruption is what we’ve termed shopper promiscuity. And just to clarify that terminology a little bit, we don’t mean promiscuity in at least morals kind of sense. We mean it in a sense of being very open to new experiences. And there are several different factors that have led to this but the end result is that whenever somebody goes into buy in a category, of course there are still gonna be things we buy automatically when you’re running in to the gas station for snacks or you need to just replace something you have in your home. There are still those purchases going on, of course. But if there is any consideration that we had, more often than not now, shoppers are starting from a clean slate and that’s because we have presented them with a lot of options. Everything is at their fingertips. They can search online for anything, they can buy anything from anywhere, they can filter and sort by what their needs and priorities are. We’ve also trained people to get used to the idea of innovation and disruption. So 30 years ago, if I wanted to buy a toaster, I would have gone to Sears, I would have looked at what was on the shelf, I would have bought a toaster from that selection. Maybe next time, I would have known, “Oh, I had a Black & Decker. I really like that. I’m just gonna back and buy that again.” But now, people are- the next time you buy a toaster, maybe spend five or six years, I bet there’s a lot of innovation in the toaster space, or in the toothbrush space, or in the household cleaning. We’re just accustomed to expecting thing have changed. And so, we start with a fresh, open mind, we research, and we look. And in many cases, if you think about the way you shop online, by the time you type in the product you want, filter in all of the things that you need, you’ve already narrowed down your scope before brand does even come into play. So the way that we’ve all been brought up as market researchers and marketers is this idea of a purchase funnel. And I just think that this collapsing and that shoppers are now in a state of kind of constant information gathering and they are willing to change their opinions, they are willing to switch brands. And it’s happening at a faster and faster rate. For those of us that were pre-internet, that grew up pre-internet, we’re learning new behaviors. But for gen Z and the generations that come after them, this is native to them. This is just the way it has always been. So this idea of a purchase funnel which is something that we use as a foundation for a lot of research methodology isn’t going to hold true for much longer, if it even is true today. So that’s how we think people are fundamentally changing. And when we ask questions like, “What brands did you consider when you started making this decision?” A lot of people have a hard time answering that or the hypothetical of, “What brands do you think you would look at?” “I don’t know, it depends,” right? So there’s a lot of the ways that we talked to are consumers are just not in sync with how they’re actually experiencing things in the real world.


Jamin Brazil: The whole space has evolved. SCO, of course, playing a pivotal role in what product is chosen.


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: And I mean SCO in a broad sense, not just Google but also Amazon if you’re- you could Walmart, etc. It’s wherever people are going to discover or actually make the purchase. How is this impacting- this change in shopper behavior, how is it impacting how brand trackers are constructed?


Rebecca Brooks: So this is probably the more controversial part of the book. But having been in this industry for 25 years and having worked on a tremendous number of brand trackers across the budget industries, I just really started to feel like what we were doing was broken. Every brand tracker I’ve worked on, at some point the client loses interest because the data’s not changing, or we’re just not getting the insights that we need, or the teams are burnt out from writing the same headlines every month on the reports. It just- it felt- first of all, that it wasn’t doing what it was intended to do which was to give brands really robust information to help them understand how their brand is being perceived in the marketplace. And I as I started doing a lot of the shopper work- and the shopper work that we were doing started in 2010 to support the Google Zero Moment of Truth research that came out at the time. But if you can remember that, for a time when Google needed to encourage people to advertise on Google. That search was important, that was what they were trying to prove. So back then, we started actually talking to people who have just made the decision rather than talking to people that were intending to buy in the category. We wanted to know what they did so we talked to these recent purchasers and that’s where the label started to go off for me of- actually, what these recent purchasers are saying in these categories is not matching what my tracking data is saying in those same categories. There’s a disconnect here between the reality of what they did and asking an intender a hypothetical. So that got me thinking about the way that we ask our brand trackers and I would say that the first thing that’s broken is the audience that we talk to. Intenders are interesting but for the data that we need, “Why did people buy my brand or not buy my brand?” I don’t think it’s the right group of people to talk to, so that’s issue number one. Issue number two is what we call this concept of brand narcissism which is- the fastest way for me to explain it is like you’re out on a date with a needy guy. And he’s like, “How do I compare to your other dates? And do you like me? And what do you think my best assets are? My best features are?” That’s how we talk to people in these brand trackers, right? “Do you know about me? Do you know about my competitors? What do you think about me as a brand? What do you think about my competitors?” They’re questions that just don’t reflect at all the way that the shopper’s actually going to be thinking in the moment. So for example, you could have a very well-known brand that has a pretty solid brand profile. It’s been around for a while and people compare it that back to you. And because you’re a well-known brand, you might have high consideration because, “Yeah. I guess, I would consider a top brand in the category.” But when that shopper goes in to actually do that, where do they start? They start at research. And in that research process, there are so many opportunities for completely new brands to them, disruptors in the category. All these other opportunities where people would come in and cannibalize that. So if we’re just looking at the hypothetical and we’re asking all of these narcissistic questions, my hypothesis is that we are not getting to the insights the brands need to actually survive in this new promiscuous shopping environment.


Jamin Brazil: It’s interesting. It used to be the case that brands were who they said they were. And now- and then, it transitioned to brands are who your customers say you are. It’s almost elevated now to another layer which is around discoverability, right?


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: So it doesn’t really matter how many people are saying positive things about you if you’re not on that first- in the early part of the discover- if you’re not discoverable. Then, you’re just irrelevant.


RESPONDNET: Yeah. We can’t lean on nostalgia, or history, or a strong brand awareness to hold on to that market share for much longer. I mean, we’re seeing boomers phase out of the dominant wallet share of spenders. And millennials and Gen Z coming up and I think that the change, we sort of feel like a canary in a coal mine. The change is coming, and it’s gonna be dramatic when it really hits, and we’re trying to get people to recognize that they should start making some fundamental changes to the way they think about tracking if they’re gonna be able to keep up with things in the new- in this new kind of reality where you’ve got digitally native people who don’t have the kind of loyalty to brands that older generations do. And who are trained- we’ve trained them to need to do research before they buy in a category. Let me give you one data point from our study that we did. When we looked at- asked a simple question, “Did you start with a brand in mind when you started this journey?” So again, we’re talking to people that actually purchased. So, “Did you start with a brand in mind? And did you buy that brand?” If they started with a brand in mind and they bought that brand, we term them loyalist. “I want a Diet Coke, I bought a Diet Coke.” When we break that out generationally, 56% of boomers started with a brand in mind and bought that brand. That, still to me is a very low number given how much emphasis we’ve placed on loyalty in our research, and then marketing, and branding. When you go- when you cut that down at sort of stair step, gen X is lower than that. Millennials are lower than that. But gen Z takes a precipitous drop and they go down to- I don’t have the number in front of me but I think they go down to 32% started with the brands in mind and bought that brand. And it’s not one of those things where gen Z is going to give up their wild ways and go back to behaving like Boomers. This is an inflection point in history, they’re not gonna go back to that level of Boomer loyalty again. So how are we thinking about how we’re running our brands but then also how we’re capturing insights to make sure we position our clients the best way possible.


Jamin Brazil: We have seen through social media a material change in how brands are discovered and relate to their customers. The analogy continue to use that TV. So pre-TV, there was radio and that was a source of entertainment and there was advertisements, etc. But later on through television, there became a whole new medium by which consumers are able to connect with and hear about brands. We’re seeing that in a digital context and I think the big learning there is we have the opportunity of getting in front of it as opposed to being in its way like we were at the television. Market research really didn’t start in full force until the 60s which is obviously well behind the television of evolution. And now, we’re stepping in to yet another new era of the metaverse.


Rebecca Brooks: Right. Well, and I would- let me pause there because I would actually push that much further. When TV came on board, it absolutely did change the way we interacted with brands, the way we learned about brands. It was a whole, new direct pipeline to the customer but what didn’t change were the distribution channels. So if I wanted to buy something, I still had to go to the same stores, I still have the same brands on the shelf. What’s happened with online and why it’s not analogous, unfortunately, is that at the same time, all of our distribution channels changed. And our access to brands changed in addition to this new incredibly powerful fire hose of information that you can pass on to your customers. So it’s yes, it’s a media change but it’s actually quite a big structural change in terms of how we interact with brands both in person and online. And like you’re saying, the metaverse coming up, right? Who knows what that’s gonna be? So yeah, I think the reason for promiscuity happening now and not happening in the 40s and 50s when TV came on board is because the opportunity of where we buy and what we buy has completely blown up.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, that’s a great point that you’re making. And it’s not lost on me, right? The whole customer journey quite literally- it was the same from radio to TV, right?


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: The brand building media changed but now that I think about Dollar Shave Club, for example. They completely bypassed whatever- that was 10 years ago, right?


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: And it completely bypassed all traditional consumer journey.


Rebecca Brooks: And you know what? And that’s the other thing. When we talk about innovation, it’s not just innovation of products but it’s innovation in experiences. You could have never convinced me a year before Uber made it big that I would have ever gotten in a stranger’s car. And now, I Lyft all the time. Same with Airbnb. But we have created these sort of experiences that people are becoming really comfortable with really fast.


Jamin Brazil: Right.


Rebecca Brooks: And I think that that translates into all other experiences. A great example is the way that many restaurants have moved to digital pay during COVID. They didn’t want their staff exchanging money or cards with the customers. So now, they put up QR code on the receipt or there’s some other sort of way that you pay digitally. And for almost everybody I know, that is a positive. They see that as a real positive, they don’t have to wait on the waitress, you can actually split the check in very interesting ways when you do it that way. It’s faster, it’s less hassle. And we adapted to that very, very quickly. So I think that this idea of training people to research, we’ve also trained them to get used to some pretty big changes quite quickly.


Jamin Brazil: All right. Let’s pause time for a minute. And then, fast forward to five years so that would be 2027. What brand is winning in five years?


Rebecca Brooks: You want a brand name or what kind of brand?


Jamin Brazil: I do, actually.


Rebecca Brooks: For me, Patagonia is such a gold standard because they have a real good handle on exactly who their audience is and exactly the kind of experience the audience wants. And I think that it’s the combination of- brands just can’t be lazy. You have to have a very clear identity. That identity has to be evident throughout the process so people now understand that you can have a great company and treat your employees like crap but they’re not gonna buy you or you could have a great company but your supply chain supports misuse of people in another part of the world and they’re not gonna buy you. So across all levels, a company like Patagonia in every single thing that they do from the products that they use, the materials they source, the way that they treat their staff, it all fits with their brand identity. It is all very cohesive. And that also means that the customers experience whether it’s online or in a retail store also fits into that identity. And I think that that’s the kind of holistic- like a brand needs to be looking at everything, really know who they are, know who they’re talking to, be comfortable not appealing to everybody. I think those are the brands that are gonna be agile enough, and interesting enough, and give consumers enough back to stay relevant in the future.


Jamin Brazil: That’s interesting. Nike’s a brand I look at.


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: It was super interested. Roblox, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, the metaverse gaming company.


Rebecca Brooks: I got little kids, yeah.


Jamin Brazil: Exactly. They went public, I think it was Q1 of 2021 with a market value of $48 billion so a big, big evaluation. And then in November of last year, Nike teamed up with them and created Nike land. Right?


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah.


Jamin Brazil: And so- and the interesting thing about Nike land is it’s like this NFT rich framework where you can buy your NFT and wear your digital shoes or your- on your Avatar in Nike land. But then also, it transcends – or can transcend if you want to – to a physical item as well. Do you think the metaverse is gonna- in the next five years, is gonna be- not disrupt the in person experience per se, but is it an augment or maybe it is a disruption?


Rebecca Brooks: You know, I am so fascinated by this. I got to have a really great, long conversation with Lindsey McInerney who was at Anheuser-Busch and is now CEO of an entertainment company that’s focusing on the metaverse called Sixth Wall. And she is really bullish on this and believes that the things that we own in the metaverse- once it becomes something that is transferrable across platforms, so my identity, my digital identity on Facebook is the same as my digital identity in Instagram, it’s the same as my digital identity in Roblox. You bring this thing with you to all of these other places. Then, that starts to create much more of a demand for uniqueness, and identity, and authenticity, and curating the best things. So from that perspective, I think the technology- the concept of the metaverse is fascinating to me. I think the technology is a few years away from what the actual concept could be. And so, I don’t know the brands where we have a clear path yet in terms of how impactful that’s going to be. But I do know from my kids because of the experiences with Roblox and other YouTube, and TikTok, and all of these other things that they’re involved in. It is such a natural progression for them to go into a metaverse. It just feels like a natural extension of what they’re doing. Where for old folks just like me, I’m just like, “What’s a metaverse?” It just doesn’t fit with my view of the world. But for them, it’s really just a natural extension of what they’re already doing. So I think it’s inevitable and I think that brands should be thinking about- again, but it still comes back to that authenticity. And I think Nike actually building a Nike world is authentic with their brand. Do something that really connects people to your brand and enhances that brand experience for them. If they can do that, then I think there will be a fairly easy transition into that space. But I don’t think that you can stay absent from it.


Jamin Brazil: One of the interesting statistics I’ve been paying attention to, Harvard Business Review has a couple of posts on the speed of innovation, adoption in US households and they actually start with the telephone. And they look at electricity, and refrigeration, and clothes washers, and dryers, and air conditioners, and microwaves- the whole thing. The internet, cellphones. As you probably already deduced, there’s a truncation that happens in each step, right?


Rebecca Brooks: Mm-hmm.


Jamin Brazil: So electricity was faster than- adoption was faster than the telephone. And refrigeration, electricity, and so on and so forth. It will be interesting to see how fast the technology on the- in the metaverse is going to be adopted and what ultimately that means. I think in some ways if you’re thinking about augmented reality, that becomes- we’re already doing that with Google Maps, right?


Rebecca Brooks: Yeah. No, I know. It’s a whole thing. And then, often you’ve got young kids too and I often think about kind of what world would they live in and what it’s gonna be like. And I just think that at this point, I’ve given up trying to speculate. It’s gonna be very different, that’s all I know. And I probably won’t understand half of it but yeah, change is coming for sure.


Jamin Brazil: All right. My last question, what is your personal motto?


Rebecca Brooks: So I struggle with this, you asked me this before and I think I’m gonna go back to what I said then, which is that I don’t really have a personal motto but I have kind of adopted or tried to adopt this philosophy that Maya Angelou shared. I got to see her speak in North Carolina many years ago and somebody asked her, “How did you get to be so amazing?” Which is a pretty great question. And she said, “I don’t know that I’m amazing but I do know that I go to bed every night and I think I’m gonna do better tomorrow. And I get up in the morning and I make a hundred mistakes and I go to bed that night and I think I’m gonna do better tomorrow.” And that’s really what I’m trying to do is just I’m trying to be able to a little bit better- better mom, better boss, better business owner, and better everything. Make a hundred mistakes, go to bed, say I’m gonna do it better tomorrow.


Jamin Brazil: Our guest today has been Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents. Rebecca, thanks for being on the podcast.


Rebecca Brooks: Thanks, Jamin.


Jamin Brazil: Everybody else, as always, I hope you found value in the episode. I certainly did. Like, re-share, Tweet it, tag me, and I will send you a t-shirt. I still have a few left. Have a great rest of your day.