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Podcast Episode 028: Vanessa Oshima explains what market research can teach us about listening to customers

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When you are told that “you have cancer,” your mind just goes blank. Vanessa Oshima had this experience when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Vanessa’s doctor started to systematically go through what she needed to communicate. She had moved on to fixing things, but Vanessa was still stuck on the word “cancer” and not believing it, so she stopped listening.

Vanessa, president and founder of Heart Data, describes what it was like to be diagnosed with cancer and what that meant for her as a patient. Having cancer is a physical, emotional, and social journey that affects not only the patient, but  their family, friends, colleagues – a whole community.

Also, from living in Japan, Vanessa explains how the Japanese listen differently than Westerners. She found that Westerners are too quick to rush and not listen to what is said and what is not said. The Japanese culture focuses on judgement and filters that impede great listening.

Market research lets companies listen to customers every day. But do they choose to listen?

Tune in to Learn

  • Vanessa describes the aspects of her physical, emotional, and social journey. Not being able to do what she used to do. She was holding on too tight to pre-cancer life and not understanding that life would be different now.
  • While Vanessa was stunned at the news of having cancer, luckily her husband was with her and was able to take notes on what her doctor was saying about it.
  • Vanessa learned that when delivering tough news, rather than being very dry, it should be done in a very thoughtful and empathetic way.
  • When you need to communicate something but don’t stop to make sure the listener (person or audience) is hearing you, then that becomes ineffective communication. You’re talking, but they are not listening.
  • To do things differently and prepare a listener for tough news is first asking them about their mindset. Find out what’s important to the listener. Give them time to grasp what is happening and how they want to proceed.
  • Gauge what is said but also what is not said to help someone deal with difficult news.
  • In market research, it’s important to acknowledge patterns and people’s comments to let the listener know that they have been heard. React to a reaction.
  • Communication is not just words. But how often are we actually watching and listening? Not enough.
  • The Japanese culture is very zen and considerate. With the Japanese, you need to listen to what is unsaid and pick up information through actions, such as when they take in a breath of air. They are aware of their surroundings and details, which allows them to listen.
  • Westerners who travel to Japan should not take everything at face value. In Japan, there is much more context and meaning. Take time to learn and listen to the cultural context.
  • Avoid judging others. Vanessa had her own definition of equality and thought Japanese women were not being treated equally and that was discrimination. However, after conducting research, she discovered that was not true. The Japanese define equality differently. You can fail to listen because you have biases.
  • Companies often invest a lot of money into listening consumers. But how well do they listen? Companies track what they want to know about, but not necessarily what the consumer wants to tell them. Also, too much data is tracked, so not all of it is used.
  • The market research industry is evolving to understand what companies need to listen for. Consumers are making information available to companies every day – if they choose to listen to it.
  • Listen to every complaint to figure out what you need to do – that is market research. Everybody should be a researcher and use data. There are techniques to listen for the right things and find the signal, not the noise.
  • Market research is listening to your consumers, creating data around your consumers, and understanding your consumers.
  • There is so much data available. We need to understand how to use and listen to it.
  • While at Coca-Cola, Vanessa taught people how to listen and ask questions to make sure they were good listeners. She used the stream of consciousness technique – just letting a person talk. They remember things that were important, and you ask them about what they said.
  • Don’t ask “Why” because it makes people have to defend their point of view. It is more inviting to say, “I want to understand” rather than “I don’t understand.” Make market research inviting and engaging.
  • Sometimes, consumers cannot communicate what they want to say.

Links and Resources:

Vanessa Oshima on LinkedIn


Episode 28: Deep Listening with Vanessa Oshima


Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of “Deep Listening-Impact Beyond Words,” I have the opportunity to speak to Vanessa from Japan, via New Zealand, via Rotary Scholarship as a runner. 

So, we had a lot in common, where we both spend a lot of time fundraising for cancer research, and she raised money for her friend and committed to running every day of her life for five kilometres, until her friend was cured from cancer. 

While listening to Vanessa at the beginning of the interview, she explained that she’d discovered that she also had breast cancer. 

So, listen now, in this interview, what it feels like for a patient to hear a diagnosis, when they’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, and what that means to them. More importantly, what they shut down, and what they can’t listen to, when they’re not available, when they’re not able to listen to anybody else because they’re completely listening to themselves.

A great example of the opposite of Level one, listening to yourself, what happens when you’re overwhelmed. Then, listen a little bit further as she speaks to her cancer surgeon, who is very skillful, who is very thoughtful, at asking her questions. And, the most important question she asked her was, “What’s important to you?” And they tailoring a treatment plan around that. It was extraordinarily powerful, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

So, we couldn’t go all the way to Japan and not ask the obvious question, “How do the Japanese listen differently from Westerners?” And, Vanessa did a magic job of exploring high-context Japanese culture and how Westerners are too quick to rush, and not listen to the complete context. To listen to what’s said, and more importantly, to listen to what’s not said. 

Learn from Vanessa’s own mistakes, as she did her master’s thesis, “Inequality in Japan for Females.” Listen carefully how she talks about the role of judgement, and filters, and how that impedes great listening. Then, finally, we have a quick look into the world of market research, a massive industry that helps organisations listen to their customers every day. 

And, Vanessa makes a really potent point. She says, “Customers are talking to you every day, if you choose to listen.”

So, let’s listen to Vanessa.

Vanessa Oshima:

I would say, the one thing I’ve learned about cancer, is that it’s not just a physical journey, it’s a physical and it’s an emotional, and it’s also a social journey. The patient isn’t the only person who gets cancer, the whole family does. The friends do. The neighbourhood. The work colleagues. And, I think, physically, you’re absolutely right, would never have been in a better place to be able to say physically you will survive this. The research is there, the more we know about cancer, the earlier we can get it, and things like that.

I think, emotionally, it’s a very different space. 10, 15 years ago, you would never talk about the fact that you had cancer, it was just something that was behind closed doors. It was the “C” word, and all the rest of it. But, I think there’s a lot more stresses on people, for me, personally, thinking about when I could and should go back to work. You know, those kinds of things. And, can you work full-time, part-time? And, just the stresses of emotion, body image, all these kinds of things that you’re dealing with emotionally.

For me, as a working mother, who’s a healthy marathon runner, it just started to crumble, the identity. And, you know, a few weeks ago, my doctor said to me, she said, “You’re holding on too tight to pre-cancer life.” She said, “It’s changed, and it’s going to be different, and it’s drawn a big, black line in the middle of your life, which was before cancer and after cancer, and you have to get used to being on this side of the equation now.”

It’s not any better or worse, it’s just a different way of thinking about things now. And she did a perfect analogy for me, which I think is … For me, I love talking in metaphors or analogies to help people understand when you’re communicating with them, and she said it’s like people talking about, “Before I had kids.”  It’s like, “Before I had kids, I used to be able to do this, and I used to be …” It’s a pointless conversation, because you don’t, can’t go back to the “Before you had kids.” You have kids now, and you’re on this side of that line now.

And, I think that, that’s the thing I have to be careful about what I’m eating, and drinking, and I haven’t drunk alcohol in I don’t know how long, and all the rest of it. And it’s like, “I used to enjoy a really good glass of wine with my husband,” but now it messes up all the medication that I’m with. I just have to get used to it. And, I think that’s the big learning for me. It’s not just a physical battle, it’s actually an emotional and a social battle as well, and the power of community is just unbelievable, and for me, the running community, cause I’ve been running for so long, and people coming together to run for cancer, to run with me on my first big race, and all the rest of it.

This is my community that’s helping me through, and people have lots of different ways in getting through it, but I think that’s my big learning. At least, from the last six months of my cancer journey, my first six months of my cancer journey.

Oscar Trimboli:

What do you think the doctor was listening to that you weren’t saying? Could I explore that with you?

Vanessa Oshima:

I’m really fortunate that with my doctor, in particular. She’s on the board of directors for Run for the Cure in Japan, and so, I’ve raised a lot of money for Run for the Cure, before I got diagnosed. And, she knew that I was running every day to raise money, and raise awareness, and for my friend.

And I remember, when I was first told, I walked into the office, ready to get my test results, and I did have my husband with me, and I was expecting it to be good news. “Oh, it’s just this kind of benign lump, the biopsy’s come back and it’s all kind of.” I’d convinced myself that it was going to be fine. So, I hadn’t actually prepared myself for anything other than, “Oh, you know, it’s a benign lump.” And, [inaudible 00:19:31] my doctor, not the actual surgeon, who eventually, who ended up operating me, but the doctor that needed to tell me my results. She just said, “So, you’ve got cancer.”

That was the first words out of her mouth. And I just went blank. I just, I couldn’t … It was like the air conditioning became really loud, and it was all just buzzing, and I couldn’t understand. And she’d gone into communication mode of, “So, the position where it is, this is what we need to do. You need to get your MRI, you need to do this, so we can determine the size, the spread, the blah, the blah.” And she was systematically going through what she needed to communicate to me, ticking off the boxes and sort of saying, “Well the earliest we can get you into surgery, given the process we have to go through, is six weeks from now. That would be this date, are you free this date?”

And I was still battered. “What do you mean, I have cancer?” She had just moved on into fixing stuff, and I was still at the, “No, I don’t have cancer.” And my husband just grabbed my hand, and he was taking all the notes, and he was texting my sons, and communicating. And I just stopped listening. And, I think that’s something that I’ve learned a lot, which is when you’re giving tough news, whether it’s a performance review, whether it’s when you’re presenting market research, and my background is, I’m in market research. But, if you’re presenting market research findings to a brand team that have worked for the last eight months on a creative, or a patent design, or something which they have been working until 2:00 AM in the morning, it’s their baby, and you’re basically going to deliver to them, “This isn’t working. This is not what you need to be doing.”

That level of conversation has to be very thoughtful, and I think often the market research teams are very dry in the way that we communicate. We bring out our Excel spreadsheets, and our numbers, and our statistics, or whatever. Or, even if we’re dealing with qual, we bring out the verbatim response, and we just chalk it up there as data, cause, you know, comments and verbatim are data.

And, we’re not actually being empathetic to the audience, to what their coming in it from. I think that’s something I learned also, too, through the cancer journey, was that the doctor was charging through with her process of, “I need to communicate this, this, and this to you,” just the way our market research report would be, “I need to communicate this, this, and this to you,” or a presentation. And you’re not even stopping to see if your machine gunfire of insights, your machine gunfire of steps for your cancer treatment is actually landing at all. 

And that becomes really ineffective communication. So, and that’s, in that sense, means that we’re talking, but we’re not listening. And I think that, that’s something that, yeah, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been very reflective on.

Oscar Trimboli:

In hindsight, going back into the doctor’s room, what could they have done to help prepare you for what you needed to hear?

Vanessa Oshima:

That’s a good question. I think that, unfortunately, we’re in this world of information overload. So, when you’re first given the communication that you have cancer, the first thing you turn to is Google. And cancer’s a lot of tests, and waiting, and Google. I think that what they could have done, is help to direct you to the places that you needed to go, which are trusted sources, which are … And for you personally, you know, it’s interesting. I think everybody has a different approach to the way that they tackle this.

Some people want to talk it through with counsellors, and things like that. Other people just want to be alone and do their own investigation. I’m not sure … So, if you asked me, “What could they have done differently, or better?” The first thing the doctor could have asked me when I walked in for my results, could have been, “How’ve you been? It’s been 10 days since the biopsy, how are you feeling?” Just, sort of, checking where I’m at, my mind is at. Because, what she would have found, if she had asked me that question, was that I had convinced myself that I didn’t have cancer.

So, from that point of view, I was coming from a very “I’m going to be okay” mentality to dropping to, you know. So, I’m coming from a plus to an absolute minus. Whereas, if I’d gone, if I’d walked into that office with more of a neutral stance, “I’m not sure if have it or not,” it would have been less of a drop. If I’d, sort of said, “You know what? I think I probably have cancer.” If she had gauged where I was at on that spectrum before she launched into her communication, it may have been better.

On the flip side, when I actually had to go into the next steps with my surgeon, and talk about the options … I’m fairly fortunate in that we found it relatively early, which meant that I had options. When you get it at later stages, your options start to run out. But, I couldn’t decide, I couldn’t choose putting the options, in there’s this and this and this, and there’s the pros and the cons, and I said to my surgeon, “What would you do, if you were me?” And she said, “I can’t answer that, because I don’t know enough about your situation, so you’re gonna have to tell me about the things that are important to you, and once I know what’s important to you, or the values you have, then I’ll be able to give you more information that will help you decide which is the right decision.” 

So, for example, I don’t take headache medication at all. I just, I don’t take medication. If I’ve got a headache, I figure out I need to calm down, rest, go home early, whatever. I don’t use pills to fix things which are wrong with me. That helped her understand that the decisions we were going to make, were going to be ones which, “How can we avoid chemotherapy? How can we avoid putting pills and poison into your body by making any kind of radical decisions?” and things like that. She started to understand my mindset.

And, I couldn’t make a decision. I was sitting in her office, and I cried, and she said to me, “You know what? You and your husband need to go away, and just have a really good sushi lunch, and take some time. And if you need more time, or have got some more questions, come back and just let me know when you’re ready to have another conversation, cause I see this is really hard for you.” So, my surgeon was really understanding all of the signals that I was giving to her, and responding very differently to the first test-response lady.

So, I think gauging what’s not said is really an important part, and I think that’s what the doctors could have … You know, I didn’t walk into the office and go into the doctor office and go, “You know, I believe I don’t have cancer. I’m not giving that up as my state of mind straightaway.” I don’t know if that makes sense or not.

Oscar Trimboli:

Yeah, sounds like your surgeon was listening really well, at level five, and listening for meaning when trying to explore with you what was important to you, and it also sounded like you felt like you were heard as they took you through that process.

Vanessa Oshima:

Yeah, you know, she’s Japanese, and she’s just one of the better listeners I’ve ever come across. Just a few weeks ago, when I went for my six-month check-up, she just basically said the story I said to you before. She said, “You’re holding on too closely to what it was before,” and I hadn’t really said any of those things to her, but she was picking up little signals sort of things. You know, “I wish I could run as fast as I could before I had cancer.” And I wish …” because I’m going to New York marathon and I want to be able to run like I did New York marathon three years ago.”

It’s these little things, where she starts to identify the passions and then she sort of plays back to me. She’s … You know, it’s interesting when you’re trying to market research as well, and you’re trying to show people that there’s a passion to something that’s being said, it’s good to replay the comment back, to sort of say, “You’d said this,” or “You mentioned that, and you mentioned I’m feeling that there’s a pattern that’s happening here, of this.”

And it helps the listener actually see that, first of all, that they’re being heard, because you’re replaying some of their words back, but you’re also connecting that meaning, but also finding context at times for the things that are being said. That’s quite empowering for the person who’s talking on, yeah.

Oscar Trimboli:

I think that’s a great example of level three listening there, as you said, listening for context is listening for patterns. It’s helping people draw connections they’re not even aware of themselves. And, as you were holding too tight, it sounds like you’re okay now, when you’ve stepped over the black line and moved across, and got an open palm.

Vanessa Oshima:

Well, temporarily, at least, I think, I don’t think it’s all so black and white. I think you sort of go, “Okay, breathe. I’m okay today.” And then, there’ll be something that will happen, and you’ll go back on the other side of the line for a little while, I believe. Like I said, I think it’s an emotional roller coaster.

But, definitely having somebody alongside you as you’re going through this is very, very helpful, and someone who you know is listening to you and not kind of brushing it off. I remember somebody saying to me, “Oh you know, you’re so lucky, you’ve got cancer at the early stage, which means you don’t have to, you’re probably going to avoid chemotherapy. You’re so lucky.” And, I remember coming home to my husband, and say, “There is one word I would not use to describe my situation right now, and it’s ‘lucky’.” 

Lucky is winning the lottery, that’s what lucky is. But, it’s people. Sometimes they’re not, when they’re communicating, they’re not thinking and having empathy towards your situation. They don’t mean anything by it, they’re not, you know, they’re trying to be helpful, but when somebody, when you say something, and somebody visibly cringes, or their eyes close, or there’s that non-verbal “thing” that happens when a source tense. These are the signals that you need to pick up on, to be able to say, “Okay, you know what? I just said something that might not have been quite aligned with that person’s point of view, quite aligned with that person’s state of mind.”

I don’t think you necessarily need to apologise for it, but you need to be aware that you may have said something that’s caused that reaction. So, don’t keep on going down that path. It’s time to pivot, I think, is the thing.

So, if we go back to the doctor, where she’s like, “You’ve got cancer.” And I’m sitting there kind of, you know, like a deer in the headlights, going, “What do you mean I have cancer?” She’s not even reacting to my reaction, and I think that’s the … It’s like when you’re playing tennis, and you’re just hitting the balls across the court, and nobody’s hitting them back to you to be able to have a proper volley, they’re just whizzing, and you keep firing. 

So, I think, that’s the other thing is, everybody says communication is not just words, and they’re so right. But, how often are we actually really watching and listening to all the unsaid pieces and the context and the non-verbal pieces? I don’t think we do it enough.

Oscar Trimboli:

Vanessa, what do you think the Japanese can teach Westerners about listening?

Vanessa Oshima:

You know, the Japanese is interesting in that it’s an incredibly, I’ve lost the word. There’s a lot of things in Japanese which are just unsaid, and so, it’s not directly said, and you pick it up through the context or you pick it up through the actions. The famous one, that everybody seems to know about is like when Japanese people suck in air when you say something, and they go “hhhhhhhhh.” This means that you’ve really stepped over the mark. But, I think with Japan, the Japanese are, I’m wanting to say listening and communication that’s just step one, step back. It’s incredibly considerate culture.

People stand in line orderly. In the trains, they don’t shout and yell at their voice, or on their iPhones, and things like that. So, it’s an incredibly aware culture of your surroundings. And, I think that, that’s something that the Japanese culture, the Zen culture, the Buddhist background, Shen Ho background, can actually teach us about an awareness. Awareness of your surroundings. Awareness of the details. That, I think, is something that Japan can teach definitely about how to listen, taking in all of the aspects and all of the details.

Oscar Trimboli:

What do you think the big mistakes Westerners make when they go into Japan when they’re not listening?

Vanessa Oshima:

Taking everything at face value. There’s a thing, as I just said, in Japanese there’s so much more context and understanding. I’ll give you a slightly funny story.

The word for … Well, in Japanese you have words that don’t always perfectly translate into English. But, my husband is Japanese, so I came to Japan from New Zealand when I was 17-years old. I was a Rotary International Exchange Student. I had clearly written on my form that I wanted to go to Canada, but they sent me to Japan. So, as any good 16, 17-year old does, I stomp off crying to my bedroom saying, “I’m not going to that country.” And my mother basically said, “Yes you will. You will go and if you don’t like it, you can come back.” 

Fate would have it that I met my husband in high school. So, he was captain of the track and field team, and I was the exchange student. So, “we’re the fairy tale,” I keep reminding him. But, when we decided to get married, and he announced it to his family, his family were quite against it.

There was this element of him being the oldest son, and the oldest son in Japanese, is a word, just as what it means, “the oldest son.” But behind it, there’s so much context, and there’s so much meaning to being the oldest son. So, I phoned my mum, to tell her that I’d just accepted the proposal and we were going to get married, but there was a bit of a tension going on because my husband was the oldest son.

And, my mother kind of snapped back, she was like, “What do you mean? You’re my eldest daughter.” She got all indignant about it, because she was just interpreting it in a way that, “You’re my oldest daughter, you’re important to me as well, and we’re all happy for you. He’s the eldest son, they should all be happy for him as well.” 

But, what she’s not understanding is all the context that goes in behind that, and that’s a cultural context. So, often, I would say, that many Westerners come in to Japan and are just assessing it on what they see, without actually taking the time to learn, and maybe listen to the cultural context.

So, the idea that the eldest son has certain responsibilities to the family, and there’s a concern about whether a foreign wife might be able to do that. Remember, this was 20-something years ago, so this is less prevalent now in Japan, as international marriage becomes more usual. But, 20-something years ago, it was very unusual. Especially this way around, with the Japanese husband and a foreign wife. The flip with the foreign husband and the Japanese wife was a bit more common.

So, I think that’s the mistake Westerners often make, is that they don’t take the time to learn the context, the cultural, and to listen to the culture. And, to not judge it. I’ve wrote my master’s thesis about the discrimination of women in Japan, and I came with my Western point of view, that women were discriminated against in Japan. After I’d done all the research, and regression analysis, and all the rest of it, I came to realise that I was defining equality in my own Western way, which was, “If he can be a doctor, she can be a doctor. Or, if he can be the president, she can be the president. If they’re not, then we’re not equal, and this is discrimination.”

Whereas Japan and many Asian companies define it slightly different. Which is that every person in society has an equally important role to play, and the role of “men” would be to put bread on the table, or the economic side, and the role of women is to educate and raise the children. And, these roles are equally important in society. Without them equally doing these things, society will not exist. And that is equality. 

Whereas, I’d gone in with my own version of equality, and trying to plaster it onto Japan. Now, whether it’s right or wrong, I just don’t put judgement on that, at this point. But, that’s what I learned, is that sometimes we just walk in with our judgments and our background, and we fail to see, and we fail to listen, because we have our biases. Being able to do it without biases, to actually say, “I’m going to listen to you,” or “I’m going to see you with no pre-determined judgments.”

It’s a very, very hard thing to do, because we always bring our own baggage to a conversation. But, that makes the best person, or the best learning experience. The best conversations, I think.

Oscar Trimboli:

Vanessa, as we change gears and start exploring your leadership role globally, as a market research professional, there’s a vast amount of money invested by corporations into listening. How well do you think they listen?


Vanessa Oshima:

That’s where you’re right. There’s a lot of money that’s spent on listening, on whether it’s creating surveys and questionnaires, or holding focus groups, or many things, and I think the market research industry is growing more and more, because I think the idea of listening to the consumer, I think that recently we’ve seen the idea of … Or, a lot of companies talking about being consumer-centric. And consumer-centric being consumer-lib, which means that they need to learn to listen to the consumer.

I think that, in my experience, there’s certain, well here’s examples of brand trackers and things like that, that we do. We’re actually, in many occasions, asking the things that we want to track, the things that we want to know about, not necessarily because the consumer wants to tell us. We’re also too often tracking so much data or too much data, and we’re not actually using all of it. I often would joke, not joke, but just comment on the hundred-thousand-dollar doorstop, which is the idea that you’ve spent a hundred thousand dollars on a huge piece of research, for a 90 to 200-page document that people flip through once, and then basically it sits on the floor. And it becomes the hundred-thousand-dollar doorstop.

I think that we need to get away from that, and the way that the market research industry is evolving, is becoming better at understanding what the real question is, and what the real need is. And, what we need to listen for. And also, the idea that the consumers are actually putting that information for you out there every day. Whether it’s on social media, or through your customer call centre, or … They’re actually talking to you every day, if you choose to listen. I think that, that’s something that the market research industry is evolving to. To saying, “You’re not just gonna speak to me when I want to hear you. You’re not just gonna speak to me when I do a focus group, or you’re not gonna just speak to me when I decide to run a survey. I’m actually gonna listen to all the information that’s out there.”

Oscar Trimboli:

Thinking about the role of leadership and brands and how leaders set up systemic listening outposts. One of the more extra-ordinary leaders I worked with basically said, “We just need to listen to every complaint, and we will find out what we need to do. Let’s not spend money on market research. Let’s just listen, and act on our complaints.”

I’m keen to hear your perspective on that, Vanessa.

Vanessa Oshima:

My perspective on that is, that by listening to every complaint that comes into the call centre, is market research. I find it really interesting that people bucket market research to say it’s the focus groups or the whatever. Market research, to break it down, is the market, and you’re researching it. Taking the time to listen to the data that the consumer is providing to you.

So, my perspective is, you know, a lot of people always basically say, “Well, Apple doesn’t do any research, or these companies don’t do research,” but they do. 


They do ethnographic research, where they just sit and they watch consumers. They watch consumers in conversations. They watch … I had a meeting today, and I arrived 20 minutes early, so I just sat, and the cafeteria area that I was waiting, was a hotel café, and this woman who was really taking pictures of everything. And she was in her 50s, and she was taking Instagram or some kind of photographs of positioning her food perfectly, and taking photographs of it. This is research. 

So, my perspective is that you do need research, and it’s no longer the traditional idea. I think that’s the message that I would send out to everybody, is, “Be a researcher. Everybody be a researcher. Have your notebook, and go and talk to your consumers. Or go and watch the supermarket aisles, and just take some notes, or listen to a conversation that’s going on, and listen to what people are saying through your call centres, or through your Facebook page, you know, your Coca-Cola Facebook page, or your whatever Facebook page, and the things that people are saying. Use that data. That is data, and that is market research.” 

So, my point of view is, you don’t have to spend money on creating data as much as you did before, because there’s a lot of data that’s coming straight at you. But, do you still need to do analytics of that data? Yes. Do you still need to make sure you’re putting into context? Yes. Do you need to take all of that complaints information and decide which is the golden nuggets, and which is the stuff which is just, you know, the guy that phones every Friday to complain about something? Yes. You need to clean it up. 

So, there’s still techniques you have to go through to make sure that you’re listening to the right things, you’re finding the signal, not the noise. But, yeah, I think that market research is being re-defined, and it shouldn’t just be, “Oh, we’re not gonna do market research.” No, we’re not gonna do market research the way we did it before, this is how we’re going to research … And if people are uncomfortable with the word “market research” then they should throw it away, and call it “consumer listening” or “consumer interaction” or whatever you want to call it. 

But, the crux of it is that it’s what market research is, which is listening to your consumer, creating data around your consumers, and understanding your consumers. How you create that data, and how you understand it, is radically changing nowadays. But, I still think it’s as relevant as it ever was and I think the whole idea of “big data” is exactly that. There’s so much data out there now, now we need to understand how to use it, and listen to it.

I think that the one thing that I spent a lot of time doing at Coca-Cola, was teaching people how to listen, and how to ask questions to make sure that you’re a good listener. So, for example, a technique that I particularly like, I don’t know if that’s the right word or not, but, that I believe in, is called “stream of consciousness.” 

A stream of consciousness is just letting the person talk. So, you basically draw two points on a piece of paper, and say, “This is where you were, point A. This is where you are now. Talk me through how you got from A, to now. So, for example, this is where you were considering you needed to buy a new car, and this is where you actually bought the new car. Talk me through the process of how you got to the car that you decided to buy.” And, you just let them talk. 

As they’re talking, they will say things, and some say, “Well, you know, the carburettor was always causing me issues, that’s what made me decide on I needed to buy a new car, finally.” And I’ll talk you through it. And as they’re talking you through it, they’re remembering things. Remembering things that were important to them in this decision process. “Oh, my mate said such and such a car was a really good thing,” or “the deal down, whatever.” And you write these down, and you write them down on a piece of paper. And then, you’ve got this kind of brain dump, if you like, from them. But then you go back to each one of these things, and you say, “You said your mate down the road said whatever. Tell me more about that.” Or, “You said you didn’t want to buy a Honda. Tell me more about that.”

And, it’s interesting because we tend to, when we’re interviewing, and researchers tend to ask why. “You said you didn’t want to buy a Honda. Why?” “You said that your mate said this, and recommended that. Why?” And “why” is a really, really, I wouldn’t even say bad, it’s a bad question to ask of a consumer. It’s a bad question to as of your children. It’s a bad question to ask, cause it makes people defend their point of view. If you basically sort of say, “Why on Earth did you dye your hair blue?” Versus, “Help me understand the new hairstyle.” It’s much more of an inviting, open conversation to say, “I want to understand,” as opposed to, “I don’t understand, you’re gonna have to explain yourself to me.” 

These are the kind of research techniques and questions that I think that we need to incorporate more. A lot of questionnaires are actually very forceful to say, “I want you to pick one of these five things.” As opposed to being more open and say, “Help me understand your point of view.” So, the stream of consciousness approach, which is a qualitative approach, when you end that interview, it only takes 15 minutes for people to go through it, but it’s incredibly powerful, and I think it’s under-utilized. But, as you go through, you’ll start to find that the consumer, themselves, will start to recognise the patterns of thought, or what’s going on with them, and they become much more elaborative.

We’d also do things in research where we would manipulate the context. I know that sounds a bit, “blah”, but for example, trying to ask somebody, the example I give is, we were trying to understand what the meaning of fruit juice for people was. Just how important was fruit juice? And, they’re like, “Oh, you know, it’s breakfast, and it’s full of vitamin C and it’s this, and it’s that and da, da, da.” And that’s about the level of insight that people would give us.

So, what we did is, we took a group of people who were absolute fruit-juice obsessed. They would always have their glass of OJ every morning, it’s part of their ritual, blah blah. And we got them to keep a diary for ten days, on how they drink, and all their different things through their day, and what they were feeling, and stuff like that. And then we banned them from drinking orange juice for the next two weeks, I think it was. And we took it away from them, and we got them to keep the diary as well. So that we could basically then see what they were replacing it with, what they were … How they were feeling, cause they were having to write a diary, and moods, and things like that. And, it became much more insightful.

I’ve done this technique, as well, for a pizza company, where we took pizza away from university students for like a month, and said, “You guys can’t order pizza.” It was a group of them. And, what became clear is that pizza is not just a good fast food, that’s relatively cheap. It’s because it’s round, and it’s communal. It’s actually a really great thing that brings people together. The substitute would be like, the fish and chips out of the newspaper, where everybody’s reaching into the same place. Ordering separate hamburgers, or separate boxes of KFC and things, just doesn’t work. And we never … Nobody ever said, “Oh, yeah, pizza’s a really communal thing, we’re all around the table and we’re all … ” They never really give you that insight. So, sometimes consumers can’t communicate to you what they want to say.

Oscar Trimboli:

There were many things I took out of Vanessa’s interview about the role of market research. The way she talked about the stream of consciousness interview, and allowing people just to tell them a bit more about that. When she talked about a couple of the examples that she trained her staff to simply ask the question, “Tell me more about that?” And what emerged that was so powerful and impactful in the research. 

Like Allen, in our second interview, Vanessa made a very strong point that “why” questions are loaded with judgement, and they make people defend their point of view. So, be very careful, be very, very selective when you use “why” questions when you’re trying to listen to others. Invite and explore and understand other’s perspectives. 

Because, when you do that, you can use powerful techniques. Remember the story about the pizza? And the power of the pizza being round, so that you can have a conversation, and the pizza represented community, not just food and carbohydrates. 

When you’re listening as an organisation, at that level, how your consumers are interacting with your product, but with each other, while they’re using your product. That’s listening, on a much deeper level, and that can transform the way you move your brand forward. 

Thanks for listening.

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