Understanding people is at the heart of market research. Sure, companies want to know what ideas to advance through the innovation process, which marketing message will get the most attention, and how many people will buy a product or service. But the critical component we provide as an industry is a deep understanding of the human experience. To me, it’s an important and serious responsibility.
We launched the Gutsiest Brands podcast four pillars we really believed in as a company – leading with empathy, standing behind bold ideas, pioneering new paths, and realizing the power of “AND”. We thought if we could talk to founders, innovators, marketers, and insights professionals who led compelling brands across industries, that we could generate some thought-provoking dialogue. As a first-time podcast interviewer, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited to give it a shot.
Fast–forward 22 episodes later, and I am so grateful I was a part of this program. I met and learned from dozens of dynamic, thoughtful, inspirational leaders – and experienced the joy of connecting with people with diverse perspectives, purely with the goal of learning. We didn’t launch this podcast as a commercial for GutCheck, it was a conversation – and I think of Season 1 as a dynamic combination of guests at our inaugural dinner party.
As I leave GutCheck/Toluna for my next professional chapter, I reflected on what I learned from my own interviews in Season 1 of Gutsiest Brands. Here goes…
Every Successful Brand Starts with a Human Story
A core characteristic of “gutsy brands” is leading with empathy – having a genuine, intentional desire to understand the human you are seeking to serve with your brand. What progress are they trying to make in their life? How can you make them feel “seen” by your brand experience? When this trait is embodied, it leads to affinity, loyalty, even love from your consumers. I was inspired by the human stories these brand leaders in particular shared:
Sudha Ranganathan (LinkedIn) – Sudha reflected not only on her experience at LinkedIn, but her time with P&G in India. She described their ethnographic research – spending time with teenage girls grappling with early menstruation. When they deeply understood the functional, social, and emotional context surrounding this category, they were able to develop empathetic, resonant campaigns that reduced the stigma. It’s this ability to improve people’s lives that, in my mind, makes CPG one of the most influential industries. But you must understand the human experience to gain that insight.
Brandon Larson (Microsoft) – I never thought B2B marketing could strike such an emotional cord with me. If you consider the impact of improving employees’ work experiences, and the scale that Microsoft can achieve, it’s incredible to think of the breadth of human experiences they can improve. Reflecting on his work with brands including Etsy, Viagra, as well as Microsoft, his perspective of “when you understand the emotion, you have the courage to act” was one of the most memorable takeaways from this season of Gutsiest Brands.
Rob Volpe (Ignite360) – As an empathy activist and master storyteller, Rob’s depictions of human experience are always poignant. His discussion around embracing people’s “otherness” – and how important yet difficult that can be for marketers – really illuminated why the insights industry is so critical.
Irena Todd (Fresh Monster) – Brand leaders who are their own target market articulate the insight with incredible authenticity. When it came to choosing personal care products for her own children, Irena simply demanded better. She didn’t let product development barriers get in the way of the market problem she felt passionate about solving. When these leaders tell their stories, it’s easy to get enthralled.
Consumers as a Community
Something that struck me when interviewing these leaders, is how their consumers are more than just a number on a page, or a demographic profile, or a media audience. They see their consumers as a community – an important nuance because it enables engagement over advertising, connection over targeting. It’s how “gutsy brands” form deep bonds – they enable experiences that complement people’s lives:
Todd Kaplan (Pepsi) – Todd’s description of the “unapologetic enjoyment” mindset of Pepsi consumers, and the myriad ways Pepsi connects with this mindset in its innovation, marketing, and brand building, is like a blueprint of modern marketing. Pepsi is a vibe – it fully represents its community. (And full transparency, I stressed on knowing enough about the metaverse and NFTs to keep up with Todd. He went easy on me.)
Angie Tebbe (Rae Wellness) – “Whether you are conquering the world or simply making it through the week – we’re here to help you shine” really speaks to how Rae seeks to be a part of their consumers’ lives. Angie shared perspective on marketing with the right authentic voice, so consumers know you are there for them and not just capitalizing on them. From the product packaging to the Shine Culture blog, Rae is creating a community more-so than a customer base.
Nick Graham (Mondelez) – among the many brands Nick has led insights for, his depiction of Oreo’s campaigns that represent the LGBTQ+ community demonstrates that a brand needs to do more than just send a one-off message to connect. It’s about an ongoing commitment and showing up for a community time and time again. Especially with younger generations being more critical of brands that aren’t fully authentic, brands need to really commit to working with a community in order to be trusted.
Todd Smith (Traeger Grills) – this is one of the most memorable consumer communities we learned about in Season 1. The “Traegerhood” is real – a passionate group of brand lovers, who go so far as to get tattoos and name their offspring after the brand. Listening to the conversation, not dictating it as a brand, is core to the power of this community.
The idea of standing behind a bold idea isn’t just about taking a risk. It’s about building conviction for an idea before it is popular, or well understood. Successful entrepreneurs exude this trait, and I loved hearing stories of their gutsiness:
Orion Brown (BlackTravelBox) – Demonstrating the market opportunity to potential investors is a big job for founders. But articulating what should be an obvious market opportunity, and having to build the dataset yourself, is next-level leadership. Orion’s passion for diversity and cultural acuity, addressing beauty double-standards, and enabling more travel as a form of self-care for the Black community, is palpable. It’s this fearless conviction that makes gutsy leaders stand out from the rest.
Karen Howland (CircleUp Growth Partners) – A fellow proponent of the value of data, Karen described her company’s use of technology to uncover high-potential brands that might be overlooked by traditional investors. Analyzing the distribution, social engagement, and price positioning of millions of brands can uncover incredible market opportunities, particularly from under-represented populations. I loved the use of technology to build conviction, complemented by human expertise.
Brigette Wolf (Mondelez) – Having collaborated with many entrepreneurs during her time at Mondelez SnackFutures, Brigette talked about her awe of these gutsy founders. Often, they were doing “something so scary that they have to explain it to the world.” Gutsy founders retain their core true north and fight for it every single day. It’s not surprising that since the podcast episode, Brigette took the helm as CMO at MyMochi. She’s a gutsy powerhouse for the snacking industry!
Lauren Wang (The Flex Co) – Leading a challenger brand in a mature market, The Flex Company is on a mission to help people with periods thrive. But when pitching her idea, she realized that her investor audience really didn’t “get it.” She made it personal, by focusing on one of the many benefits of her product (mess-free period sex), connecting to what the audience would find relevant. Of all the investor meetings we hear about, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that room!
Denise Woodard (Partake Foods) – Tapping into her own daughter’s experience with dietary sensitivities, Denise saw a market opportunity to limit food FOMO for more people. In approaching this opportunity, Denise had to go “all in” – forging a path that was less traveled by women of color. Denise’s conviction in her market opportunity has meant great things for the brand, and also enabled Denise to give back by helping fight food insecurity, and opening doors for HBCU students. I’m in awe of how these gutsy leaders find ways to make the world a better place.
The World Needs More Leaders Like This
I was struck by the genuine leadership embodied by so many of our guests. Just as they care deeply for the consumers they serve, they care equally for the people they serve in their organization. I was inspired by their emotional intellect:
Tracey Halama (Vital Proteins) – To put it simply, Tracey is a badass. Not only is she leading a unicorn brand with an incredible market position, but her authenticity is palpable. She talked about how people are craving leaders that are accessible, not afraid to fail, and real. She reminds us that no one else has the playbook either, and I found that vulnerability so inspiring from a high-performing CEO.
Miguel Garcia Castillo (c/olabworks) – As a brand studio focused on emerging cultural trends and categories, Miguel spoke about connecting on a very personal and human level with founders and their teams. Collaborating towards a singular purpose allows permission to evolve, change, and improve. It made me reflect that “who” you invest in is just as important as “what.”
Kristin Luck (ScaleHouse; Growgetter) – Kristin is such an important presence in our industry. Not only did she share countless lessons from her own experience in building and scaling companies, but also paid homage to fearless brands being pioneered by her peers. She also calls out the fact that we need more women in leadership positions, particularly on the money side of the business. Kristin walks the walk, and I’m grateful to fall in step behind her.
Sudha Ranganathan (LinkedIn) – I have to shout-out Sudha a second time in this reflection, as she shared lessons across industries and concepts with such elegance. When she talked about the skill sets of empathetic leadership – listening for feedback, psychological safety, and closing the loop with action – she inspired me to evaluate how I approach what I hope to be my own form of authentic leadership. I’ve had multiple colleagues tell me how much Sudha’s words meant to them personally, which is testament to the power of her perspective.
Why This Conversation Matters for the Insights Industry
As market research suppliers, we have the important responsibility to help bring these brands closer to an authentic human connection. We provide the data, partnership, and stories required to understand that initial human experience element, engage with consumers as a community, enable bold conviction, and enable inspiring leadership. I’m proud to have been in this industry for nearly 20 years (yikes!). It’s incredibly rewarding to help brands create products and services that allow people to realize their dreams. I know I’ll be listening in to Season 2, where we’ll learn from more leaders doing gutsy things.
And Finally, Spilling My Guts…
Since I’ve never been interviewed on the podcast, I figured I’d conclude with my own responses to the “Spill Your Guts” lightning round questions.
What brand do I first remember as a child?
Walkman. (Note to Gen Z: this is an antique music player.) Pop in a Madonna cassette and I was in heaven.
How would I describe my job to a child?
I help companies understand people, so they can create products and services that make their lives better. (Bonus points if you add a brand the kid loves, they really “get it” then.)
What’s the most used emoji on my phone?
Emojipedia tells me it’s called “Face with Tears of Joy”. Life’s too short not to be laughing.
And what song would I put on the Gutsiest Brands playlist?
Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” – you can’t listen to that song without feeling like you can take on the world.
Thanks for having me –