Confessions of a Former Brand Market Research Leader – Part I

Aug 16, 2021

Trained anthropologist turned career brand market researcher for one of the most well-known CPG companies in the US, Campbell Soup Company, Ciara O’Connell recently joined GutCheck as Director of Product.  With her, she brings a treasure trove of client-side knowledge to energize our product innovation strategy. 

Recently, we sat down with Ciara to pick her brain about the state of the research industry, the mindset of brand marketing research leadership, and to get her thoughts on our upcoming product launch Innovation Illuminator.  


Q. Hi Ciara! We’re so excited that you chose to join GutCheck as our Director of Product Management.  Can you give us a little insight into your background and why you chose to come to the vendor side of research and insights with GutCheck? 


I’m actually an anthropologist turned market researcher, so through my entire consumer insights career I have consistently brought a passion for deeper human insight work.  I was always trying to get brand teams and senior leadership out of their offices for meaningful 1:1 discussions with their consumers, championing the deeper strategic foundational insights work that would benefit full portfolios of brands, and starting innovation with a consumer-first focus on unmet needs and pain points.  Also, I made sure that no matter how far I progressed in the company, I was regularly taking time to personally get out and talk with consumers in their homes and local stores.  This type of work leads to richer, emotional insights that are much more differentiated and ownable, but it also nourishes my soul and reminds me that service to the consumer is why I got into market research in the first place. 

Even while I was on the client side, I recognized a clear gap in the marketplace where deep human insights meet agile research and technologies.  It’s stunning to me how many companies still rely on in-person focus groups for research – even when consumers don’t have to touch or taste something.  That facility setting is about the most unnatural one we could imagine for consumers, and I firmly believe in talking with people in their native, natural environment if we truly want to get into their hearts and minds.  When I was doing some industry exploratory work in the agile deep insight space, I caught up with Rob Wengel at GutCheck, and what he shared about the company’s vision literally gave me goosebumps.  

GutCheck’s ambitions around Heart+Tech and “the power of AND” are completely in line with my own dreams for the market research industry, and address the tradeoffs between lean and deep insights head on.  I knew I had to be a part of it, which is why I joined the Product team at GutCheck in May. 

Q. As an innovation leader at Campbell’s, and with many connections in similar roles at other companies, what were the key pain points, frustrations and challenges you faced in bringing new products to market? 


I think most insights professionals would point to ever-aggressive timelines as a key challenge in innovation work, but I love how these timelines have forced us to re-evaluate the type of insights work we do, to get to the deeper, unmet needs and pain points much quicker and for much less money than traditional strategic (in-person) exploratory research.  For many insights teams, a key pain point in the innovation process is that while insights professionals might be able to address the “do they want it?” question and write a brilliant innovation brief or job specification, we still need to address the “can we make it?” and “can we make money on it?” questions.  Disruptive innovation inevitably falls outside a company’s core competencies, which is why we see so many start-ups and challenger brands leading in innovation.  They don’t have the same historical margin requirements or capital infrastructures to get in the way of their efforts to delight consumers that larger, well-established brands and companies do.  Another pain point is that marketing teams tend to turn over faster than their insights counterparts, and it often falls on the insights professionals to be the collective memory on a particular innovation, to champion the original consumer-driven innovation specs after launch, and to keep reminding others of the much-proven need for Year 2 support on any innovation. 

Q.  There has been a surge in recent times of companies adopting more DIY methods of research vs. the traditional out-sourcing methods.  What, in your mind, are the benefits and drawbacks to individuals in companies being asked to adopt this approach? 


Because I’m a classically trained ethnographer, I could always tackle DIY deep insight work myself, but it was never scalable.  Most of the companies attacking consumer qual with technology deliver only surface-level “no duh” insights.  It takes skill and training to help consumers uncover deeply held emotions and needs, and most of the DIY firms out there are only selling on-demand access to consumers and the technology to easily talk with them – not any help with the art of conversation itself. 

Even if we look at quantitative market research in the DIY space, the major tradeoff is the increased time and effort required for insights teams.  I remember a former direct report of mine who was already feeling overwhelmed by her workload… she said, “If you tell me to DIY, I’m going to tell you ‘I quit.’”  Just because we can get consumer feedback faster than ever doesn’t mean the insights professionals don’t have to translate data into insights and implications.  That takes focused thinking and time.  I think it’s why we’ve seen so many insights teams trying out DIY platforms only to come back to suppliers like GutCheck with research expertise and service.  It becomes quickly apparent that many DIY firms are selling a technology versus actual research capabilities, and that most insights teams’ audiences aren’t ready to look at research results on a dashboard after so many years of PowerPoint reports. 

Q. So that said, how would you express the benefits to companies of partnering with a full-service provider like GutCheck? 


GutCheck certainly provides full-service thinking and strategic recommendations, but I don’t know that calling GutCheck a “full-service provider” really does it justice.  To me, “full-service” connotes research projects that are pricey and last several months.  GutCheck has an ‘agile’ approach, wherein advanced technology is applied to smart human thinking for cost and time efficiency, but the quality of the work and unique insights are still center stage.  The key is deploying human talent at all the touchpoints that really matter, while leveraging technology for more predictable or routine parts of any market research project. 

Look for Part II of GutCheck’s interview with Ciara O’Connell, where she divulges her take on empathy in consumer research, and how innovations in assessing consumer emotions were transformative in her career. Use this link to sign up for GutCheck’s blog to see more of this interview and to keep up on the latest innovations in consumer research.

Written By

Ciara O'Connell

Ciara O'Connell

Director of Product

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