Ep. 569 – The Art of Research with Susan Fader: When and how to Apply Cognitive Demographics

My guest today is Susan Fader, founder of FaderFocus.

Susan has run FaderFocus as a Business Strategist and Transformationalist Catalyst specializing in qualitative methods and strategic consulting. 

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

Find Susan Online:

Find Jamin Online:

Find Us Online: 


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 
  • Full-time online 
  • Part-time online

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


Jamin Brazil: Hey, everybody. You are listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. This is a segment that we’ve been starting, gosh, this is our second installment called Fader’s Corner. I just made that up. Susan Fader, founder of FaderFocus. What do you think about the name, Susan?


Susan Fader: We’ll come up with a better one.


Jamin Brazil: Anyway, many of you already know Susan. Susan has run Fader Focus as a business strategist and transformalist catalyst specializing in qualitative methods and strategic consulting, and she’s done that for a little while. She helps clients achieve focus and get unstuck reframing their energies, their conformational biases, and the traditional ways of segmenting customers. Susan, thank you for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Susan Fader: It’s wonderful to be here.


Jamin Brazil: The Michigan State University’s Master of Science in Marketing Research program delivers the number one ranked in science 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 MSMU’s program at broad. msu. edu/marketing. Again, broad. msu. edu/marketing. HubUX is a research operation’s 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. So part of every researcher toolbox is customer segmentation. Everybody that listens to this podcast has had some level of exposure and probably is a practitioner of customer segmentation but just to level set, this is the process by which you derive your customer segments. You move the broad audience into individual groupings and those groupings are based on common characteristics, most commonly things like income, gender, ethnicity, purchase behavior, etc. These customer segments they help inform a brand’s messaging and positioning to ultimately drive, as you know, revenue or income or sales for the business. Now the problem with traditional customer segments, and this is something that we’ve all known for at least my entire career, is that customer segments are really sterile and they’re abstract. My favorite go-to quote there is you may have a segment called, “Dads,” which will have a variable called number of children, which obviously is greater than one but nobody has 2.3 kids, right? And yet a customer segment that is strictly based on the numbers is going to have some sort of a report like that. And so in an effort to build the segment that brands can more easily understand and relate with, market research professionals like us, we build upon these customer segments, and we create personas, and personas include additional information like behaviors, attributes, what their purchase journey is like. Oftentimes it may include things like video excerpts or even quote. So anyway, that framing it out just for the audience here, if you have customer segmentation and then part of that process, or the endpoint of that process, is oftentimes personas. And the personas are really leveraged to help create empathy between the brand and who they’re ultimately trying to sell their products or services to. Now, Susan, you came up with a, and in my opinion, revolutionary framework for profiling customers called, “cognitive demographics.” I’d like to start out with understanding what is the catalyst? Or what was the catalyst for you coming up with this approach?


Susan Fader: When you think about it, demographic profiles are really one-sided. It’s the company trying to figure out groupings of potential customers so that they can target and sell more stuff to them, and they usually align with the way the businesses are structured. So I felt what was missing the person’s perception of who they are and at the same time, part of the recruiting process when they have behavioral questions they tend to tie to purchase or things, information that the company needs. And I started asking an open-end on my screener’s called, “Motto,” from the streaming group with moms, I would say, “What was your mom motto.” And I started getting back wide-ranging things, even though demographically they were supposedly all in the same demographics like one mom might say, “I’ll do anything for my kids,” and the other said, “I go with the flow.” Obviously those moms are going to make very different purchase decisions and see the world differently but, yet, they were in the same demographics so that was really a profile that these companies have put together. So that really was the catalyst for me starting to develop cognitive demographics.


Jamin Brazil: The word, “cognitive,” is defined as conscious intellectual activity and demographics it means relating to the structure of a population. So you put these two words together and, of course, I did a Google search in preparation for this to see if there’s any other works that had defined cognitive demographics, and you’d be surprised I didn’t find any. What is cognitive demographics in the context of consumer insights?


Susan Fader: For me, it’s making sure we incorporate how people self perceive and how they create their value hierarchy. There’s a basket of stuff that is part of everyone’s decision making but something rises to the top. It could be family; it could be the most important and need to make every decision through that person. It could be career as the most important or a set of beliefs or religion. And you have to kind of understand the perspective of where people are coming from and how they see the world, and I think my example of the motto just before was it was a very simple way of showing if you don’t do that, you won’t be able to understand how people are reacting to any ideas that you’re sharing with them.


Jamin Brazil: When you added that question, was the question in a survey or was that a question that was done in focus groups or IDIs?


Susan Fader: Initially in a recruiting screen or where you’re trying to figure out whether someone qualifies for a discussion. There has historically tended to be an open-ended question at the end to see if the people could articulate thoughts and put two words together, and they were things like, “give me five things you can do with a paper clip,” which really had nothing to do with anything, and I just started using my open-ends tying to the project, not to gather more data, but to help me get some insight into who the person was, at the same time, for having the person having to do some self-diagnostic ethnography on themselves of how they self-perceive their role. It might not have been anything they had thought of before.


Jamin Brazil: It is interesting how a lot of the pre-work that we do in research that leads up to the actual groups or surveys, whatever, that can be useful data to help inform our insights.


Susan Fader: But I want to make sure, clearer to people who are listening. I don’t see those types of questions as data collecting. It will provide us with information in context. I see it more as helping the person bring to a conscious level and articulate how they’re perceiving something and for us, the researchers and marketers, better understanding the context of how people are going to make a judgment call.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, it is exactly right, and I’ll give you an example personally. I used to have the standard question I would ask in my screeners, “What’s your favorite vacation destination and why do you like it?” So clearly it’s getting to articulation, and then I’ve started changing that over the last couple of years to be something that is maybe adjacent or relevant to the topic, obviously not in line with the actual subject that we’re going to do, or discuss, or interview them on. But it does blur the line for me in terms of useful data versus strictly screeners, but I totally take the point.


Susan Fader: I think you could always use it but not – I think for people fall down is where they say we don’t have time to ask this during the interview or the focus group or the online board, so let’s put it in the pre-work and we can gather it there, so I’m pushing back on that. I’ll give you another example of how I used it. This was for I was doing a whole study on appliances in the kitchen and so the question I asked my open-end, was what’s your favorite meal to prepare and why? And it was fascinating. You had the spectrum of this is very quick and then I can sit down and really enjoy time with my family, or this is the meal that I learned from my grandmother and shows my love to my family. It didn’t really matter what dish they were making; it was how they perceived that aspect of cooking. And if you’re talking about an appliance, that’s kind of helpful because it kind of identifies what a touchpoint could be.


Jamin Brazil: Oh my gosh, so it reminds me of the Betty Crocker study, I think it was Betty Crocker Instant Cake Mix and probably half the audience knows this anecdote or story, but when they launched instant cake mix, they were very excited because it was like checking all the boxes, and it was equally as tasty as homemade against the taste tests that they were doing. And yet, they couldn’t really sell it for almost 20 years, and it wasn’t until they realized that it was less about the cake and more about the effort that went into making the cake because that was an expression of the love. And that’s why until this day, you still have to add an egg to the cake because it makes you feel like you’re putting effort into the process which gets enjoyed by the people you care about.


Susan Fader: It is that aspect of creativity that – because they have originally done it so that you didn’t really – all you had to add was water and now you have to add oil and eggs because then they felt that they were actually baking and creating.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, that’s right. It’s fascinating. When should researchers apply cognitive demographics to their methodology?


Susan Fader: Always. All the time.


Jamin Brazil: When you say all the time, do you do it categorically on every project you launch, or is it done at the early of the research project or –


Susan Fader: I feel you have to understand the person’s perspective. It could be during recruiting or it could be at the very beginning of the conversation you’re having with the person. For example, I do a lot of work with doctors and they tend to be very clinical and doctors are really prepared for you asking or immediately jumping in clinical questions, and I started saying, “Hi,” they do the introduction, this is my specialty, this how long I’ve been practicing, I’m solo and I prescribe this medication 14 times. And then normally you go and question and answer very clinical. I turned it around to make this personal connection. I said, “In two or three sentences, can you quickly tell me why you became a doctor and why your specialty.” And it’s amazing, you kind of see them let out a sigh and sit back and smile because you’ve made that personal connection, and they’re sharing with you what is basically their life but get insight. Was it biology? They like biology and chemistry. Was it the mystery of trying to solve a problem? Is it important to them to have that human interaction with their patients? You can do it any stage, but you have to do it I feel at the beginning, so you get that contextualization of understanding how they’re interpreting things in making decisions.


Jamin Brazil: And then you use that, the answers to that question, which are probably abstract if your customers in the back room watching the interview, they’re probably thinking I want to know how to get this guy to sell more drugs, not whatever, why you fell in love with the thing.


Susan Fader: But what it does it it helps us understand because when you think about healthcare and doctors, they’re generally segmented by specialty, how long they’ve been in practice, what type of practice they have, and how frequently they’re doing the procedure or prescribing and seeing the number of patients. And that’s basically the end of the segment. And once we started adding that question, we saw that there were splits within the specialty, that it wasn’t so cut and dry, and it made a real difference in terms of identifying touchpoints and developing the communications to doctors.


Jamin Brazil: I know you’ve really touched on a couple already, but do you have a specific example of a project that you maybe have recently done where you used cognitive demographics and then what the actual impact was from the customer’s point of view?


Susan Fader: It was on natural supplements and we were talking to people who self-defined as leading healthy lives and that fitness played a role. And then what the client had initially segmented them by people who will exercise this many times of – by frequency of how often they exercise and their length of their exercise and the type of exercise. So we had this one group that was running like 25 miles a day pulling a sled with a 25 pound pack behind them, those extreme, and then the ones who were going to the gym but weren’t taking any classes. And what was amazing was how they self-perceived because you would think the people who were doing – the mothers and running the marathons and training six days a week would see themselves as fitness freaks. And what we found was for many of them it was about getting themselves in the right head space. For them it was about their mind and about joy they got from it. While the people on the other end, it was all about losing weight and being fit. It didn’t bifurcate the way the client originally thought. It turned out to be very, very different.


Jamin Brazil: That’s super interesting. Susan, thank you for joining me on our news segment soon to be properly named, but for now is The Fader Corner.


Susan Fader: Thanks so much.


Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I hope you found this very enlightening and useful. I always learn something when I have the opportunity to chat with Susan. As always, if you screen capture and share this episode on episode on social media, tag me and I will send you a t-shirt. Have a great rest of your day.