Keynote Takeaways from a “Chief Provocateur” at TMRE

major TMRE keynote takeaways from Stan Sthanunathan

By Barbara Clark

I referenced in a prior article encapsulating my broad takeaways from the The Market Research Event 2022 (TMRE) how impressed I was with the event’s keynote address by Stan Sthanunathan, who served as Executive Vice President of Consumer & Market Insights with Unilever. I felt the content was worthy of a separate post, especially given how much this particular presentation resonated with me both as a research professional early in my career and as a student pursuing my Master of Science in Marketing Research at Michigan State University.

While I found many of Sthanunathan’s observations and assertions insightful and inspiring, I was equally encouraged to hear a keynote address that espoused so many of the philosophical pillars practiced at The Martec Group. Here are my top takeaways from Sthanunathan’s presentation.

Notes from a Research Industry Titan

Sthanunathan joined Unilever in July 2013 as Executive Vice President of Consumer and Market Insights. As “chief provocateur,” he headed up the insights function globally based in London. Prior to joining Unilever, he was Vice President of Marketing Strategy and Insights for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, heading up the function on a global basis. He also has co-authored a book titled, “AI for Marketing and Product Innovation,” and had a well-regarded article published in the Harvard Business Review on Building an Insights Engine.

In his account of things, the following bear emphasis and exploration in the world of market research:

Too often, insights teams are brought in as risk mitigators, rather than early enough to be solving problems before they’re obvious and apparent. Instead of spending the majority of the time putting out fires, leadership should empower the insights team to be more proactive than reactive.

Sthanunathan advocated that insights team be granted more time and resources to invest in analytical and consultative activities, and perhaps less on data gathering and administrative tasks, which called to mind a visualization I had seen previously (from the GRIT Report):

Brands should be continuously taking the pulse of the customers they serve, so customers never leave without leadership understanding what drives and motivates them.

“Insights” is not a corporate function that should be folded only into marketing efforts. Instead, there is tremendous return on investment to be gained by embedding insights initiatives into areas like innovation, product development, engineering, and elsewhere.

As someone who once held the title of “Chief Provocateur,” it should come as no surprise that Sthanunathan asserted that insights professionals should serve as provocateurs of thought, conversation, and action. “Are insights just data?” he posed. “Are they mere facts? Or are they provoking true thought, discussion, and outcomes?” Insights should be regarded as growth stimulators, not merely fact-finding expeditions.

Sthanunathan also encouraged researchers to develop their own personal “brand key.” I found this especially interesting as a young professional and one still finishing my advanced education in the discipline. Sthanunathan challenged us to think about our own personal identity within the vast research arena and to find an authentic and inspiring niche. What is your personality? What is your purpose? Who do you want to serve, and to what end? Once discovered and identified, this should be documented and adhered to as we develop our careers and complete projects for clients.

The Importance of Flipping the Pyramid

“Flipping the pyramid” was a concept from the conference I touched on previously. It was a significant focus of Sthanunathan’s presentation.

Also discussed at length in this piece for the Yale Center for Customer Insights, Sthanunathan notes that flipping the pyramid entails this approach and mindset: 

“With the proliferation of big data, there is no lack of statistics to share, but this data can also be a distraction, resulting in what Stan describes as a pyramid where data abounds but impact to the organization is small. Stan believes that the imperative, ‘mission-critical’ role of the insights function is to flip the script on the pyramid – to drive action and impact at every interval and to create moments for leadership that provoke transformational change. The insights function should strive to invert the pyramid, ensuring a seat at the table.”

To accomplish this, Sthanunathan offered this guidance:

  • Start by defining the impact the organization is seeking to make, then work backward from there, allowing the action to be guided by the intended impact.
  • Democratize insights. Share insights throughout the company and ecosystem, including with customers. Don’t keep insights siloed within the research and marketing functions of the organization.
  • Learn how to be fact-based but not fact-filled. In other words, Sthanunathan stressed that researchers must go far beyond merely providing data, and not even just to the knowledge part of the pyramid. Researchers must try to get all the way to actionable insights, which has always been an emphasis at Martec. Insight is about more than simply what one should know, but guidance for what one should do, as well.
  • “Perfection is the enemy of greatness,” he added. In his view, there is no “perfect” answer when uncovering truths. Something I learned early in my career was to be open to unforeseen discoveries, as you may learn from what might otherwise be defined as a “mistake.”
  • Companies should outsource the data gathering process so they can “insource” the “thinking part.”

Sthanunathan had this advice for researchers in attendance at TMRE: Presentations are not the final output of insights initiatives—outcomes are. A researcher’s explicit work may be done once the final report is handed over, but the real output is positive change. Be mindful of what happens long after you deliver the formal work product, he urged.

The Major Takeaway

Taking into consideration where the industry has been heading lately, one point earnestly resonated with the audience. Sthanunathan addressed both the advancements and limitations of artificial intelligence (AI) in the research industry. He said that often the optimal approach is one that combines the sophistication, speed, and scale of AI with the understanding, emotion analysis, and intuition that only the human brain can achieve when analyzing qualitative data inputs.

At Martec, we’ve been calling this “augmented intelligence”—the powerful combination of AI and human intelligence. AI can empower human diligence, but it can never replace human intellect and our understanding of the emotions that truly drive consumer action and inaction.

Barbara Clark serves as Market Research Analyst for Martec, with specific emphasis on customer experience research and initiatives.

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