Tag Archives: consumer insight

A Peek Into Context: Millennials Blog About Their New American Reality

In my anthropological studies of American youth, I have unearthed a lot of insights about the emerging mindset and values shift towards a more balanced, holistic perspective.  I have even used a turn of phrase to describe how Millennials are no longer seeking the American Dream but living an “American Reality”.

I came across this young blogger (who actually came across another one of my blogs” and thought “here is a brilliant example”.  So, I thought I would share a peek into “James Room”:

Lies My Country Told Me: The Hollow American Dream.


Guest Blogger Feature: Coke’s Tom LaForge On “The New Logic For How To Succeed In Business”

Tom LaForge

Tom LaForge (Photo credit: sociate)

A client and friend of mine, Tom Laforge; Global Director of Human and Cultural Insights at Coca-Cola, sent me a note with the content below and asked if I would allow him a forum on my blog to express his thoughts.

My response was an effusive “but of course”.  I am always eager to hear and spread the thinking of thought leaders in brand strategy, marketing and research.  I have frequently gotten inspiration from Tom, who is a force for spreading the imperative of human understanding at Coca-Cola and a change agent who is helping direct the culture of global brands toward helping to make the world a better place.

I thank you for your insights, Tom.


The overall environment in which business is operating is changing in a very simple way. Civil society is becoming more and more empowered every day. This is caused by a lot of things, particularly the internet which provides a ton of information and social media which allows them to share how they feel about that information. Social media also empowers them to do something about it. Smart businesses realize this trend will only continue. If it is not already the dominant force in your industry, it will be by 2020.

This is not a problem for companies that civil society likes. Which ones do they like? The ones that demonstrate that they “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own.”

Business has always been about making money and it still is. What is now becoming increasingly clear is that the best strategy for making money is to be an ally with civil society. When everything a company does and says conveys that they “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own” they are simply employing the most effective strategy for doing what they want to do – make money.

Alexis de Tocqueville called it “self-interest properly understood” by which he meant that you pursue your own self-interest in a way that does not impede others from pursuing their self-interests. Nobody wants to deny companies the right to pursue their own self-interest – they just have to do in a way that does not harm others. Simple.

So do people believe that your firm does indeed “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own?” I hope so, because this is how your company will thrive! When consumers find a company that “cares and wants for the wellbeing of others as they do their own” they flock to it, they Tweet and Facebook about it, they become loyal to it. They recommend and love it.

This is the new logic for how to succeed in business.


Macroforces And Changes In Global Consumer Culture: Mass Urbanization

Normal, crowded street in Bombay.

Normal, crowded street in Bombay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a part of my day-to-day and that of the Chief Culture Officer at Northstar Research, we stay pretty keenly focused on the macroforces that are shaping the world and what that means for humans and consumer culture.
We always encourage our clients and our internal teams to ask three big questions:

“What’s going on out there?”

“Does it matter to us?”

“If so, what are we going to do about it?”

These are pretty basic questions but also pretty big questions.  And in order to really grasp the magnitude of the task it’s important to start with a solid foundation of understanding based on the big picture.

At Northstar, we have focused on 7 big-picture macroforces.   To start off, I would like to talk about one that has been a topic of interest among several of my clients lately:  Mass Urbanization

  • Today, half the world’s population (i.e. 3 billion) lives in urban areas.
  • Three million people move to cities in the developing world every week – mostly from subsistence farms (OECD 2010).
  • Global urban populations will grow by nearly 2 billion in the next 20 years, and by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will be in cities in the developing world (Nielsen 2011).

So, what does that mean for consumer-focused brands?  Well, for starters it means taking a look at how your organization defines “urban”.  Chances are that conception is skewed by a fairly ethnocentric, western context.  What we view as the realities and lifestyle impact of urban living in the developed world is likely very different from the reality of urbanization as it is evolving, especially in emerging markets.

America and the developed world’s concept of “urban” is rooted in an ethnocentric perspective based on a very specific sociocultural trajectory

From our western point of view, we see Urban life as having a very distinct cultural context:
  • Melting Pot Cities:  a multi-ethnic collection of citizens from diverse backgrounds and geographies who are all both challenged and enriched by one another’s presence
  • Distinct racial divides between the haves and have-nots (in America specifically): in particular, urban “ghetto” culture is characterized by African American and Hispanic minorities
  • A more class-warfare driven concept of street culture and youth culture in particular:  e.g., Rap / Hip-Hop music, street art and graffiti, and celebration of athletic prowess  like Basketball as a “golden ticket” to upward mobility

Bit if you look at the more likely cultural realities of  the mass-migrants to urban areas from a more rural and disconnected upbringing in emerging markets, there is a distinct difference.  In particular, you see a stronger cultural tension between that geography’s deep culture and the culture that is more timely, topical and surface level

New urbanites in emerging markets are likely:

  • Carrying with them internalized “deep culture” from an upbringing steeped in centuries old traditions:  such as deeply held spiritual traditions and family centric values in Eastern cultures
  • Following an accelerated learning curve (compared to the historical trajectory experienced in the developed world)and urban acculturation path: due to the rapid spread of globalization / capitalism and augmented by the proliferation and adoption of communication technology.  People can see both the pros and cons of how capitalism and rapid growth has affected human culture for better or worse…and they are adjusting their consumer behavior according to that information and their assessment of their personal priorities
  •   Experiencing a far more homogeneous ethnic context than in the developed world:  like in India or Asia where most people in urban centers “look alike”  and come from regions with similar socio-political realities and far  more similar (although diverse)  spiritual and cultural traditions

So, that’s a peek at what is “going on out there” from a mass urbanization perspective.  And every company that markets a global brand…especially those with a perceived urban target, should answer in the affirmative to “does it matter to us?”

That being said, there are more macroforces to consider.  Stay tuned.  But if you are a stakeholder on a global brand to consider what the other macroforces mean and what you’re going to do about it…

Wellbeing Trends: The Values Bubble

Quality of Life

Quality of Life (Photo credit: angrywayne)

A couple of posts ago I had shared some of my “raw” thoughts on well being trends that I had given to a friend of a friend for a piece she was writing. It has turned out to be a series addressing a number of macro trends related to well-being, and she has done a good job of curating my “mess” of feedback along with some others.

The topic of her most recent piece is on how consumer values have shifted to increase our focus on well being. Namely, the monumental shift from mid century America to where we are now, driven by trends in communication technology that have allowed us to as a human populace to regularly interact wtih old and new points of veiw and see how the “other” lives in a way that is complimentary or detrimental to our own lifestyles…thus allowing us to practice more informed curation of values.

You can read Renee Morefield’s article in Marmapoints here:

A Brand Sherpa In The Midst of Hockey Fans in Canada

I have never been a hockey fan.

At least I never made a point to be. But I think that will change for me when it comes to next year’s Stanley Cup.

I have been directing a “lets do something interesting” project at Northstar over the past few weeks centered around the idea that professional sports properties and the brands / marketers that support them can build deeper and stronger brand connections by understanding the psycho-social and cultural context of sports spectatorship.

We developed a strategic research model designed to explore that context with qualitative and ethnographic work that would inform a quantitative tool for modeling the “meaning”. 🙂 In choosing where to start, from our office in Toronto, the “no-brainer” came to us….Lets study the context of NHL Hockey in Canada!

Without giving away all the Jewels that the PR people are responsible for, I felt compelled to share some of my nerdy anthropological “Ah- Has”.

For example: There are no Canadian teams left to vie for t the Stanley Cup(arguably the most iconic trophy in professional sports), but do you think that has deterred Canadians from their commitment to loyal viewership? Or a decline in social media chatter among Canadians. No way, Eh! Social media chatter about the NHL during the playoffs was still up by 3-fold compared to regular season.

Why?  this game is no mere recreational activity or time-filling side item for the Canadian populace.  It’s a part of their lifestyle and life blood…a Zietgiest, even.

From the time they are old enough to walk, most Canadians have at least played if not spent countless hours watching brothers, friends or other relatives play.  And this is a sport that represents their adaptation to what can be a pretty cold climate for a good portion of the year.  What do you do when the pond freezes over?  Strap some blades or your feet and show your agility, coordination and team spirit!

And lets also talk about how Canadians perceive the way they are seen as a people by the rest of the world.  It’s no coincidence that American backpacking youth strap Canadian flags on their backs when traveling outside the U.S.  Canada is seen as a fairly neutral, docile, harmless country and culture.  They have a reputation for civility and a mild-mannered disposition.  But lest the world think Canadians can’t be warriors if called to the challenge, take a look at the National Sport of Hockey:  arguably one of the more bloody, full body contact sports that involves both a sharp mind and intensely physical skill set.  It’s almost as though Hockey is Canada’s cultural foil and it provides a sense of unity to a nation that really doesn’t have a common enemy to speak of.

I also learned a good deal about the role of engagement with the NHL brand and the sport among varying life-stages of Canadian fans.  For the younger groups, as an example (and specifically younger males), engagement with the sport is incredibly social at its root:  always watched in small to large groups.  Most of the time out at a bar (maybe there will be girls there?).  Deep engagement in social media, following stats and fantasy sports.  Why?  Cultural currency?  Analytical peacocking to compliment the testosterone fuel.  From trash-texting to out-doing peers on hockey expertise, it’s an age old ritual of finding your place in the social group and positioning yourself for mating rights.  🙂

As mean get more settled into family life-stages they tend to have already narrowed down their social groups and watch most often in private or subdued-settings. They start creating traditions and memories with their kids.  They get more involved in the reality-TV side of non-game-watching engagement:  attempting to empathize with players and teams and find deeper, more meaningful emotional connections to the sport.

And then there are the women.  Sure, Canada over-indexes on hard-core female hockey fans when you compare to female engagement with other professional sports, but there is a distinct difference in the way women engage overall.  For example, if you look at Canadian Moms, the root of their interaction with  NHL hockey is as a social bonding facilitator:  with their families, husbands,, etc.  Having baseline surface knowledge about the sport is often enough to get by, but the engagement  is mostly about curating traditions and memory-making moments for their families…and about showing a commitment to relating to the family and friends that are important to them by actively engaging in their passions.

So what does all this mean for brands who are looking to the NHL as a marketing resource?

First:  if you are going to attempt to meaningfully reach Canadians during hockey season, make sure you have a legitimate right to a point of view on the sport, or the culture of the sport.  Showing a little empathy for the distinct context of Hockey in Canadian life will go a long way in driving respect for your brand

Second:  Dig into the engagement nuances by age and life stage.  There are many distinctions based on demographics and psychographics that, if considered in media planning, can dramatically increase efficiency of a brands marketing spend

Third:  don’t forget the WOMEN!  Even professional men’s hockey / The NHL isn’t just about testosterone and dudes drinking beer.  The Moms are shopping for the groceries and ordering the pizza that will feed their house guests at game time.  They are also the ones taking their kids to hockey practice and strapping on their skates.  There are lots of opportunities to reach women and moms on both a grassroots level and with traditional media.  Empowering Mom to be a her0 and find deeper connections with her families through hockey will potentially facilitate a deeper consumer connection to brands and even deeper fan engagement with the NHL.

In the coming week, we will be closing out the quantitative validation and measurement phase of this study focused on NHL hockey.  We will be preparing a full report that includes highly directive and actionable insights and implications for marketers and brands.

Anyone interested in purchasing this study can contact me directly:  jgordon@nsresearch-usa.com.

Otherwise, I am eager to hear your reactions.  And eager to bulk up on my sports knowledge for our next study…NFL here I come?

Progressive Sample Selection (PSS): A Methodology for Optimizing Qualitative Insights

Identifying challenges for ethnographic and qualitative approaches

At Northstar research partners, we are committed to the relentless pursuit of progress in the way we approach unearthing Insights that Inspire. With regard to human and cultural insights generation, approaches and methodologies are typically ethnographic in nature. These projects are typically rooted in an anthropological ethos that seeks to explore the rich, cultural context that shapes and influences consumer behavior. They also look at sociological and psychological factors that have an impact on consumerism.

With such a robust and potentially infinite set of variables, sometimes a major challenge is in discerning how to approach data collection so you can both define what constitutes data as well as how to generate it. Another key issue is also related to identifying patterns in the data.

In the majority of ethnographic projects, although a good amount of time might be spent observing context and interacting with participants, often pattern identification is a more intuitive exercise, as participant samples are typically smaller and it’s difficult to quantify context unless significant rigor exits around data classification and data entry / analysis.

And if we look at purely qualitative projects, which typically utilize a more question-response based approach to collecting and contextualizing data, in absence of spending more time with research participants, much richness can be left unearthed under the surface.

And this is not to say that Insights aren’t meaningful if they don’t have large sample sizes and statistical significance. Nor is it to say that there isn’t significant value in understanding patterns from the lowest hanging fruit on the surface.

But, in the space of consumer research, one can observe a fair amount of anxiety on the client side in determining the best type of research for guiding and backing up strategic decisions. Often budgets are stretched and the myth of economies of scale leads to use of a qualitative or quantitative methodologies in a “silo”. Also, while human and cultural insights are absolutely critical for driving business growth that will be sustainable over time, much of the time, the C Suite decision makers need to feel that the research results are driven not just by gut instinct and keen interpretation of surface patterns, but by analytical rigor as well. It is an easy but often-erroneous presumption to make that qualitative analysis is not “rigorous”

Introducing PSS: Progressive Sample Selection
Progressive Sample Selection is a Northstar process that enables us to efficiently select the “best” respondents through a multi-stage qualitative exploration

This qualitative approach begins with tasks assigned to a large sample of candidates.

These tasks completed by this larger pool of candidates produce a broad range of data outputs from which we identify patterns and themes. Next, we query those candidates we deem the best equipped to provide further depth and insight into these identifies phenomena.

While qualitative research typically seeks to uncover in-depth commentary from a specified sample and that is where it ends, Progressive Sample Selection achieves depth and fine-tunes focus throughout the process by both deepening the conversation, but also by progressively selecting those candidates best able to shed light on emerging findings and issues as they arise in the overall investigation.

How does PSS optimize qualitative and ethnographic research?

Progressive Sample selection serves a couple several “masters”.

First, It elevates qualitative research to a broader, ethnographic purview by allowing-in data that is ethnographic in nature, generated by participants.

Second, in the space of qualitative and ethnographic research, it also elevates the quality of the research participant sample in the more in-depth sample…by seeding thoughtfulness / preparation in participants, alleviating peer-generated bias that may happen in a focus group setting by more outspoken participants. It also allows for more in depth screening on creativity and articulateness so the right respondents can be selected for either qualitative or further in-context ethnographic deep dives.

Third, it supports efficient rigor in collection and analysis of qualitative and ethnographic data: providing a structure for data collection and analysis through coding of pre-task responses and outlining of specific data collection-points against each strategic research objective. The rationale: in order to properly scope out a PSS project, you must first identify which data source each specific objective will be covered by and how (pre-task, focus group discussion capture, ethnographic photo capture, etc.)…Allowing for checkpoints for coding data throughout the qualitative process. Also, by letting your research participants be informants from the outset, they are doing the bulk of the initial data generation in the pre-task assignment, which is (by design) the most robust data set. It also, again, allows the research team leader extra exposure to qualifying characteristics of the respondents in order to select the best participants for subsequent stages.

Finally, if the initial sample is large enough, some identified patterns can even be quantified. I like to call this “quantilative” research. With an initial sample of 100 to 200 respondents, one can identify legitimately quantifiable patterns from the pre-tasks, depending on the sample distribution.

A fictional example of PSS in practice

Lets say ACME widgets wants to identify the value and purchase drivers of their long-standing line of wonder-widgets among a couple of consumer segments (from an existing segmentation): one that is a sizeable and loyal customer base and one that is a psychographic fit but somehow not adopting the franchise in the volume ACME hypothesizes they ought to be. The objective of the project is to prioritize product line enhancements, changes and price-tiers that will exceed the expectations of their loyal consumers and get them to buy higher-priced wonder-widgets, as well as to seed relevance and encourage purchase consideration among the prospect group.

The PSS sample might start with 30 participants in each target segment group, in each of 3 priority ACME markets. Each of those 180 participants will be given a week to complete an ethnographic homework assignment that might involve a photo journal of their widget use, a widget-brand collage with accompanying narrative to explain the collage content, etc. From there, the research team would enter data and do an initial analysis to identify patterns, then find a selection of participants who represent those patterns most accurately and / or are the most articulate, thoughtful or diligent in completing their assignment…giving them an elevated right to a point of view on the topic.

The participants identified as “optimal” would then be invited to participate in a focus group discussion…perhaps two groups of 8 participants for each target in each market: just over half of the initial sample. An additional 4 participants (mutually exclusive from the focus group sample) who seem like they would thrive in a more personal deep-dive setting might also be selected to conduct ethnographic immersions in the days following the groups to dig in on identified patterns and bring some more context to the initial findings…perhaps adding a deeper level of findings and insights in the process.

The insights that results from the exploration for ACME widgets would identify both a breadth and depth of insights that can identify meaningful similarities and differences in wonder-widget value drivers and purchase consideration factors. It will not only identify the patterns, but also unearth the meaning behind those patterns that in turn lead to actionable product implications…with brand implications likely to surface as well.

The process can minimally add the project timeline (perhaps a few weeks to a month) but also serves to add significant incremental value to the results and implications.

Want to know more?  Would you like .pdf copy of the “official” whitepaper? Send me an email: jgordon@nsesearch-usa.com

Empowerment is the New Influence: Seeding Brand Relevance By Facilitating Social Change

In the world of influencing consumers to try / buy / adopt / advocate for brands, the task in the earliest of days, when “traditional” media was king, was simply to find ways to engage the PASSIVE COLLECTIVE who had both new-found prosperity and idle time as the emerging American middle class.  Brands, in particular, were signifiers of trusted quality , and sheer breadth of reach was enough to influence the masses to consume more masses.  Brands invited consumers to PARTICIPATE in the upward mobility of the middle class by consumption of products.

Then, in the 70s and 80s and 90’s,  in a marketing strategy world most of today’s seasoned marketers grew up in, the epicenter of influence began to lie in celebrity: athletes, actors and public figures whose charisma, market appeal media reach afforded marketers and consumer product companies access to legions of adoring fans who would follow them into the brand-o-sphere.  It was a culture where INFLUENCE was the result of INDIVIDUALS inspiring a PASSIVE audience through media.  Consumers became SPECTATORS of aspirational lifestyles and looked to brands as status symbols in order to emulate the celebrity cultures they admired.

Then the nature of “influence” changed in the last decade or so as the world became increasingly wired and celebrity could be created with a left-click, a blog and a social network. These charismatic and connect individuals and consumers were/are creators of culture, trendsetters  and early-adopters; ahead-of-the-curve,  vociferous and able to wield the power of persuasion over their social networks.  INFLUENCE, therefore became about INDIVIDUALS  AGITATING the status quo, recruiting followers in a more PROACTIVE manner.

Brands became badges that helped consumers curate their own personal brand identities. In a sea of options Consumers had to actively wade through the water and find the hidden treasures that helped them connect to products and make personal choices.

And then something started happening.  Now, we find ourselves transitioning into a new era:  a renaissance where consumers have realized that they (we) have the power.  Networking and the power of the blog have not gone away, but Brand creation, adoption and innovation is no longer limited to a monologue to the masses or even a dialogue amongst a select few trend-transmitters.

Rather, there is an ongoing, cyclical conversation between those who create trends, products and brands and those who consume and them and ultimately contribute to new what’s next.

Put simply, we have evolved FROM A PARADIGM OF INFLUENCE TO AN ETHOS OF EMPOWERMENT.  Real influence comes from the ability to be PROACTIVE and ACTIVATE COLLECTIVE consumers.  Using technology, collaboration and co-creation to empower others to engage, create and innovate.

The implication for brands in this new era of Empowerment is incredibly profound.  Whilst being signifiers of quality and aspiration and personal branding are still foundations of  brand hierarchy of relevance, there is an added pivotal layer.  Brands must also take on the responsibility of empowering consumers:  activating social change by using the power of their collective consumer-bases.

This type of activity will be required for relevance as corporations and brands start to share responsibility with governments and civil society (a nod to my friend Tom LaForge, Global Director of Human and Cultural Insights at the Coca-Cola Company, who has been socializing this type of framework at their organization) for creating meaningful social change that will sustain our way of life (as human on the planet earth, that is).

This perspective on empowerment is central to the way we operate at Northstar Research Partners:  why we approach strategic research using the 3 C’s framework for examining context.  It’s also  why we have a Chief Culture Officer,(taking note from the book of the same title by Grant McCracken; another Consumer Anthropologist) whose job it is to make sure our global organization operates from a consistent examination of context and our clients understand the strategic value of that context.

Musings aside, there is a discipline to empowerment that is rooted first in a strategic  understanding of  your brand context, consumer and cultural context .  If you would like a copy of our white paper on the Empowerment Framework for Brand Strategy Innovation or just have more questions, feel free to reach out!