Ep. 566 – The Art of Research with Susan Fader: What is Cognitive Demographics and how it Differs From Traditional Demographics

My guest today is Susan Fader, founder of FaderFocus.

Susan Fader is Business Strategist and Transformationalist Catalyst, as well as a sought after Speaker for her original thinking of reframing business challenges and baseline assumptions. She specializes in strategic consulting and qualitative research methods.

She helps clients achieve focus and get “un-stuck,” reframing their energies, their confirmational biases, and the traditional ways of segmenting their customers. 

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This Episode is Sponsored by:

The Michigan State University’s Master of Science in Marketing Research Program delivers the #1 ranked insights and analytics graduate degree in three formats: 

  • Full-time on campus 
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NEW FOR 2022: 

If you can’t commit to their full degree program, simply begin with one of their 3-course certificates: Insights Design or Insights Analysis. 

In addition to the certification, all the courses you complete will build toward your graduation.

If you are looking to achieve your full potential, check out MSMU’s programs at: broad.msu.edu/marketing.

HubUX is a research operation platform for private panel management, and 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.


[00:00:00]

Jamin Brazil: Welcome you’re listening to the happy market research Podcast. I’m Jamie Brazil your host. Today we have a special guest, Susan Fader. Founder of Fader Focus. For the last 34 years Susan has run Fader Focus as a business strategist and transformationalist catalyst specializing in qualitative methods and strategic consulting. She helps clients achieve focus and get in quotation marks unstuck. Reframing their energies, your energies. Also helping them with really addressing the conformational bias that all of us have when we’re approaching specific problems or market challenges. One of the things that I found really standoutish about Susan is she applies a no holds barred or no sacred cows view or approach to the problems that her clients are facing or even the market is facing more broadly. And so, with that kind of a framework it really allows someone to come in with a fresh perspective and reframe for us as researchers or as executives, the market what they want and what we can deliver to them. And so with that, Susan, I wanted to welcome you to the Happy Market Research podcast. 

[00:01:18]

Susan Fader: Thank you. Very excited to be here.

[00:01:22]

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.E-D-U/marketing. Again, B-R-O-A-D.M-S-U.E-D-U/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. In April, 2021 quarks published an article that you wrote. The title of the article is one of these things is not like the other. Using cognitive demographics to reframe how we think of and categorize people. Now in this particular article you compare the traditional approach to segmentation which as my- As the audience knows and of course all of us know is largely framed around demographics like gender, age, household income, attitudes, usage, that sort of stuff. And you had a new approach that you introduce as cognitive dissidence sort of framework that the article then moved from that to a self-defined or how we view consumers view and we view, I’m a consumer as well. How we view ourselves and how we view the world. And so really it’s this like, this juxtaposition of like who gets to define the world and the consumer? Is it the brand that defines them or is it the individual who defines it? And the core issue really centers around that. So the brands they create business units around their view of the world versus how the consumer frames themselves and frames their world. You call this cognitive demographics and this really helps brands understand how consumers self-affiliate and make decisions. So my first question for you is, did I get it right and how did you come up with cognitive demographics as an approach?

[00:03:59]

Susan Fader: So let me just tweak something that you said. It’s more about the reality is we have to categorize in order to process any information. And if you think of yourselves as a little child, you were grouping by colors and grouping by shapes because otherwise you have absolute chaos. Businesses are setup as business units. And they have to create some sanity. So they group but those groupings are based on the needs of the business units. And traditional demographics, now they think by just putting an attitudinal question in or here or there or a frequency question, they’re getting information about people. However, they’re not taking into account that people demographically can be the same yet make decisions differently. One of my classic examples is mom mottos. If you ask a mom what her motto is, and one says, I go with the flow and the other says, I’ll do anything for my kids. It doesn’t matter if they’re the same demographically they’re making purchases decisions totally differently and they’re seeing the world totally differently. And that’s what I think a lot of companies are missing out.

[00:05:19]

Jamin Brazil: You raise a really important point which is demographics or segmentation it creates a framework by which we’re able to understand and internalize the world and make decisions about that. How much of the difference between traditional segmentation and your alternative approach is centered around the psychological framework as opposed to the more traditional demographic approach?

[00:05:45]

Susan Fader: So first of all, I’m not saying throw out traditional demographics. Traditional demographics have a role, they will always have a role. However, what I’m saying is you need to stand back and understand what I call people’s hierarchy of values. And there’s some just basic things that exist. Family, work, religion type of things but what the priority someone puts on it makes a difference. If you put family first and you’re living in Ohio and you’re making $47 an hour and the factory closes and they offer to move you to Texas for the same thing and you say you don’t want to move. An outsider would say how irrational is that person being? But if family is most important to you and all your family lives in Ohio then it’s a very rational decision for you. So I think what happens is with behavioral economics and behavioral science, we as the outsiders as researchers and marketers are making judgment calls on people’s behavior and saying it’s irrational because it’s by our metrics. But if we understand how they see the world, they are making a rational decision for themselves even if we as outsiders don’t think it’s rational. And that’s the part I think that a lot of marketers are missing.

[00:07:11]

Jamin Brazil: The issue for me as a practitioner is the delta or the difference between the approaches. Is it binary? Meaning it’s this versus that and it sounds to me like that’s not the case. It sounds like it’s additive, meaning we take the current segmentation approach and then we layer into this the self-affiliation and how we make decisions as part of the bundling of the segments.

[00:07:34]

Susan Fader: But there also has to be at the starting point the recognition that companies have set up segmentations to match their businesses. So if you really start with that it gives you the ability to stand back, OK, this fits our business need. Let’s just make sure that’s how whoever we’re talking to or at consumers it fits their world view too. That’s the way they’re seeing the category, that’s the way they’re making decisions.

[00:08:03]

Jamin Brazil: So let’s talk a little bit about the hierarchy of values. I liked your example of the two different types of moms. The mottos that you had articulated. How does that influence how people make choices?

[00:08:15]

Susan Fader: Well I just gave the example of if family is most important to you you’re not going to move. And if family- If job was most important you would move. So that is an example of that. But there’s also the analytical and holistic way you have people are making purchase decisions. And I don’t think that’s most companies incorporate it. They just look at what the final decision is and they don’t look at the pathway of how people have made a decision. And the example I have in that article is analytical is linear. It’s based on rules while holistic is you’re stepping back and seeing the big picture. So an example of that if you had a pig, dog and apple, what is the commonality? If you’re linear or analytical you’d group the pig and the dog together because they’re both animals. But holistic would group a pig and a dog together because the dog protects the pig. Which is, the end result is the answer is the same but the whole thinking and the world view is radically different. And that’s what I think is also missing in traditional demographics. They’re not understanding how people make decisions can be radically different and still arrive at the same decision. But then it impacts what your touch points are in terms of how you communicate with them and what products they want to see.

[00:09:44]

Jamin Brazil: One of the things that I’ve been finding very interesting as I’ve been getting to know Gen Z through research over the last couple of years is, and this actually just hit me a week ago. Just sad. We as researchers or marketers, we need to spend time getting to know the customer. And the reason why is because we can then internalize their points of view as opposed to just saying OK, a 50 year old male, they’re at this life stage and this is the thing that they want. Which in a lot of ways it’s going to stick, some of the time but not most of the time and maybe even offensive in today’s frameworks. So the point is that marketers, branding professionals, companies need to take into account the like get to know at a relational level what makes people tick? Why they’re buying the things that they’re buying? Are they a good fit for your brand, product, service, whatever is it you’re trying to sell them. The challenge if that’s true for a researcher is how do you structure an ongoing relationship? Because relationships are basically over time. They’re not just a one and done in a research brief. How do you structure that research so that it is an evolution as opposed to more of this P and L or specific Q1 perspective?

[00:11:06]

Susan Fader: Well I think part of it is, we’re living in a world of so much data that there seems to be a race to see how much data you can collect. And then use all these AI and technological tools to analyze the frequency and all that. And what gets lost is the individual. Is the- One of the things, we were at a conference. I think you were up on the stage and one of the comments was people are not sample. People are people. And each person is different and we have to listen better and not assume what was valid a year ago is valid now. And I think that gets lost especially when you’re fielding a lot of research, you just keep building on what the past without stepping back and saying, are our assumptions still correct of who the people are we want to talk to? Who the competitors are? Are they thinking the same way? Just because you’re PNG and have a warehouse of data on how people do laundry doesn’t mean you should stop investigating because things can change.

[00:12:17]

Jamin Brazil: And then the challenge of course is you got to rethink your whole market research plan on an annual basis. Because you’re talking about a conversation as opposed that is again, over time, it’s a relationship. As opposed to OK, I’ve got this new product, what does the market think about it? t

[00:12:37]

Susan Fader: There needs to be a balance of, quantitative is very very important. But you need to incorporate qualitative. And qualitative you have to make sure you’re not just doing question answer, question answer. True qualitative is really about wide open listening. And in the beginning letting the people you’re talking to define who they are and the pathway the conversation is going to be. I think of qualitative as a long hallway with many doors and each door is numbered and behind each door is a different area of questioning. And the way we operate is you work out a guy and you’re supposed to ask it very linear. But that’s might be how people think and if you’re asking very linear people put horse blinders on and they say, oh they only want me to talk about this, so I’m only going to talk about this. But if you let the person start the conversation they might start at door five and then go to door seven and then go to a door you didn’t even know. And you’re going to uncover a lot more than if you say let’s go to door, hold their hand. Door one, door two, door three, door four. So at the beginning of any qualitative work I do, what I’m doing is not data gathering I’m not doing an icebreaker. I’m giving people a framework which to share their perceptions. If I’m doing the flu vaccine it can be what are five randomly different things that are going through your head when you think of the flu vaccine? Just let them tell you, share and then you kind of get a baseline of where they’re thinking. Another thing you have to do is to check in and make sure terms, the way you use the term or it taxonomy is the same as they see it. And one of the classic examples I do a lot of work in financial services is that financial services if you ask people what it is, nine out of 10 people will forget to include insurance. So if you’re having conversation and you happen to find it, the people you’re talking to might not even be thinking about insurance which means your feedback is totally messed up.

[00:14:47]

Jamin Brazil: That’s a really good point. Like the words that we use is really important because they offer an insight into how a human frames and understands the world.

[00:15:01]

Susan Fader: And that’s another thing is very important. If you have terminology. I don’t define it for them. I ask them first how they would define it? And then if it’s different I say well for this they haven’t included insurance, I’ll say for this conversation we are going to include insurance. And it’s important to have them first answer and then for you to then redefine and then becomes sticky. But if I started out and said, oh financial services included insurance, you’re going to go, oh yes I knew that. But they didn’t know that. They kind of need the little shock of oh I forgot it, I won’t forget it now. So there’s a process of just don’t ask questions you have to have more of a storytelling structure where they- And a framework where they can determine the pathway of how the conversation is going to be and clarity on the terms.

[00:15:58]

Jamin Brazil: I chaired this year the MRMW’s North America Conference at Gallup headquarters in Washington DC. In that they had the head of insights from Mondelez presented. He talked about the important- Growing importance and utilization of qualitative research in Mondelez at a global level. The interesting thing for me was that they’re winning by subtraction, meaning they are reducing the number of actual questions inside of their discussion guides and leaving white space for the person, the participants to be able to just articulate their points of view and really explore whatever direction the participant wants to see things. Is that kind of what you mean by a long hallway with many doors?

[00:16:43]

Susan Fader: Yes, and one of the things, I know there’s the big joke about people getting 13 page guides in how you’re supposed to do it. I get 13 page guides all the time but I have permission from my clients to do it whichever way I want, as long as I cover everything. And I have found by doing the upfront, we’re letting them initially lead. Usually get 80% of what you’re looking for on a day to day basis. And I think that’s what Mondelez is talking about. It’s enabling people getting out of the question answer and having a conversation with people. But again, you have to provide a framework to start the conversation because people are not storytellers. And you’ll just get yes, no and you just have to let them step back and kind of think for a moment.

[00:17:39]

Jamin Brazil: It’s very challenging because oftentimes the 13 page discussion guide, which of course I’ve done a lot of, embarrassingly so by the way. Is being driven by a client who is entering into the research with a bias naturally. In other words they think they already know all the right questions to ask, they just need the answers to it. And inherently in a qualitative framework that just oftentimes isn’t accurate.

[00:18:04]

Susan Fader: I spend a lot of time redefining what the research objectives are. Because they come in and they have research objectives and a list of questions many times that they think that are going to get them the answer. So it’s not getting the whitespace in the guide, it’s what is the research objective? Why are you asking it? What are you going to do with the information? How is it going to impact and once you get clarity around that, and then you kind of, there’s an insurance. I’m going to cover all the areas you want, I’m just not going to ask the questions where you ha them. And it’s part of it is building a relationship with the client which I’ve done over the years. But I have permission to if there are one section has 10 questions and I framed it a different way and haven’t asked them exactly that but I’ve covered all those areas. That’s a much better way than asking 10 questions. Who wants to be asked, what do you think? How do you feel? Why? It’s boring. It’s not a conversation, you’re being interrogated. No one wants to be interrogated, you start getting very defensive and hold back what you’re going to share. But if you’re having a conversation you’re giving people the opportunity to lead and it creates really something engaging and you hear things.

[00:19:26]

Jamin Brazil: I recently was talking at a virtual conference or actually sorry it was webinar done with wire and in that one of the things that surfaced is that, in a b2b framework, meaning that companies that are selling big things like an Oracle to an Apple or what have you. So these big transactions. They are oftentimes reduced to an emotional decision. Meaning that the buyer is framing out, is this what I need? Does it meet the basic criteria and then from there they’re making an emotional decision that is driving oftentimes something beyond what’s on the terms of trade. So it might be something like, is this going to be good for my career? Is this going to make my life better? Am I going to be able to sleep better at night? Like these intrinsic sort of drivers that never really surface or even are articulated in the sales process. So whether we’re thinking about the cereals that consumers buy or the next million dollar annual contract that they’re going to sign. A lot of times the actual purchase decision is being made at an emotional level as opposed to an intellectual level? Are there tools or tips or tricks that you use in order to help surface those things while you’re doing your qualitative?

[00:20:44]

Susan Fader: Yes, it really goes back to the beginning where you set the tone and based on how the person is answering then you frame what you’re doing in a way in qualitative research I believe you have to be a chameleon. And you have to adjust to the tempo of the person. Some people need more time to think, some people more fast paced. Some people want to give long answers, some people want to give short answers. Some people need a little more hand holding in terms of giving them a framework to answer or more set up. And there has to be a recognition that you do that and you’re respecting the person you’re having a conversation with. And I think that’s incredibly important. And you touched on really functional and emotional benefits. A lot of companies are about functional. We’ve made it better, stronger, it’s faster and they leave out people really making decisions on emotional. People buy products that aren’t necessarily best but emotionally they connect with it. Might be a better design or if it’s a color they like type of thing or it’s from a store they liked the salesperson. So that is not factored in enough to have companies position and develop products nor in the conversations they have with consumers.

[00:22:14]

Jamin Brazil: Let’s talk about podcasts. One of the things that I like are podcasts. I feel like they’re underutilized in a business context. Remarkably I actually think they’re a very effective way to communicate insights, which I don’t think anybody’s doing by the way. I’m probably wrong but I haven’t heard of it. What I mean by that is, imagine if you’re doing a research presentation and you were to take that presentation, convert it into a podcast and then let your stakeholders distribute that to their internal stakeholders for passive consumption. It could be an interesting way of a medium by which people consume insights. But that’s not really the core of my question, sorry. What do you see as the role of podcasts in helping businesses get a better handle on who people are?

[00:22:57]

Susan Fader: I think podcasts are the diamond in the rough. They are most unbelievable source of information. There’s a podcast on anything for any demographic. There could be a podcast of people who are bird watchers who have red hair, type of thing. You can go to such specific things. So if you’re going into a category, you want to know about something. You can really go there for like if you are one of the things in the last couple of years has been people drinking pickle juice for electrolytes and energy. And that came out of really listening to weightlifters and seeing what they were doing. And it was a byproduct that they were using as a source of energy. But it came out of listening to that specific group of people. How would pickle makers know how to do that? They learned from the weight weightlifters.

[00:24:02]

Jamin Brazil: That is so interesting, I’ve never heard that before.

[00:24:05]

Susan Fader: If you’re interested in any demographic, listen to the podcast. Listen to the conversations people are having and you will learn so much.

[00:24:15]

Jamin Brazil: It’s fascinating. It’s like I’ve never- I can’t believe this. I’ve never even as a podcaster for years, I’ve never considered using a podcast as my- A source for secondary research.

[00:24:27]

Susan Fader: They’re incredible. And just listening to these- These free flowing conversations and the subjects they talk about and who they have on. And you can really learn a lot because it’s a true conversation about people who are passionate about something.

[00:24:46]

Jamin Brazil: How do you frame out your methodology to your customers? Is it fairly detailed? Where it’s like OK we’re going to do secondary research with podcasts, Google Analytics, whatever and then that’s going to feed into around of qual and then that’s going to go into something or is it loose, more? Is it different?

[00:25:05]

Susan Fader: First of all I always give options. If you get an RFP, generally a lot of times they’re very specific of what they want. So I always answer that. And then I generally give at least two other options based on what I’m seeing, my experience. And also, one of the things I always build in is time to get clarity and buy in from everyone on what the research objective is. And there can only be one primary research objective and there can be two or three secondary. And that really determines the hierarchy of the methodology. And sometimes I’ve spent as long as two weeks with a client getting clarity on that but once you have clarity on that everything else falls into place and determines what can be done. And it determines whether you’re doing individual interviews, whether you’re doing groups, whether you’re doing an online board. Whether you want to do something in person, whether you don’t, whether it can go straight to quantitative but there’s not enough time spent on getting clarity on the research objectives and what is going to be done with the results? And why they’re even doing the research?

[00:26:24]

Jamin Brazil: I have a consulting customer. They just use me for hours to give them feedback on a monthly basis. And so it’s varying the types of things they ask me for. This morning they had a survey and they wanted to get my feedback on the survey. And so, they started the conversation looking at Q1, Q2 and I immediately at that point I’d stopped and they said, let’s write at the top of the survey what the objective of the research is? It completely change all the questions that were asked.

[00:26:52]

Susan Fader: And that’s, what happens is people generally take whatever is stated as a given. You can’t take it as given. You have to kind of, that’s where all my strategic and business consulting comes in. It’s like guys let’s think this through, let’s understand, let’s get clarity. Who are all the people involved? Let’s make sure we get buy in from everyone. So that no one says at the end, oh I thought we were going to get this, or why didn’t we get this or why didn’t we do this? You have to get, make sure everyone buys in and agrees.

[00:27:29]

Jamin Brazil: That’s well said and sage advice. Our guest today has been Susan Fader. Founder of Fader Focus. Susan, thank you for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.

[00:27:38]

Susan Fader: Thank you so much. It’s really been fun.

[00:27:40]

Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I’m hoping to secure Susan on a quarterly or maybe even more frequent basis. I’m not sure what we’re going to call it, Susan’s corner, something like that. Maybe something a little more catchy but anyway to provide us some qualitative ideas, tips, tricks, trends etcetera etcetera. If you would find that interesting, please do me a favor, DM me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear what you would like us to talk about relative to qualitative research. With that have a great rest of your day.