For our fourth episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Grant Gooding, Founder & CEO at PROOF Positioning. Grant shares his take on market research and why there’s no such thing as a rational decision. He also breaks down how the PROOF method leverages emotional resonance for better insights.
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Ethan Whitehill: I’m Ethan Whitehill, President, and Chief Creative Officer at Crux, and this is To the Point, a brand-new podcast by Crux, the un-agency that fuels business growth by elevating brands and amplifying missions.
My guest today is Grant Gooding, Founder, and CEO of PROOF Positioning. PROOF stands alone as one of the most innovative and accurate ways to gain marketing insights that drive brand preference, the secret is neuroscience and a concept called emotional resonance. We’ll dive into what all that means in this episode.
Grant, welcome to the show.
Grant Gooding: Thank you very much, Ethan. Good to see you! Great seeing you.
Ethan Whitehill: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I know it’s going to be a fun one.And, maybe, for a little fun to start, I know you didn’t start your career thinking you were going to be in market research, correct? So, take us through how you ended up with a company that focuses on market research.
Grant Gooding: I have no idea how the hell I ended up here. Like many things in life, some people look at the top of the mountain and say, this is my trek, and they follow it. Then, there’s me, who kind of went around the mountain and wasn’t sure and, you know, I wanted to go in law. I fell in love with business and litigation specifically around mergers and acquisitions. I was good at it. In that job, you have to do all kinds of different analyses and one of them is market research. We had to play around with market research every day, and we always kind of joked that it was a big pile of papers that we didn’t need to look at because it was going to tell us anything we needed to know anyway.
So, somebody much smarter than me, said,“why don’t you just figure out what you need to know and then build it backward,” and that’s kind of what we did. So, we built a tool that we used for mergers and acquisitions, and due diligence, and turned out it was more valuable to the world than in just that area, and it kind of grew from there.
Ethan Whitehill: So, what problem does PROOF solve that traditional market research can’t?
Grant Gooding:Well,“can’t” might be a strong word, right? I certainly think that what we’ve been able to put together is novel to some extent, but [it]certainly makes the process and the insights derived from research substantially easier to understand, work with, and make actionable.
But all we did was kind of cut to the chase. What we found when we did a lot of research on research, we discovered people like research, especially decision-makers. These are your CEO or your head of comms, marketing, or head of sales for an organization. You must make complex, difficult decisions all the time. You don’t always have all the data you need. You just have what you have, and then use your intuition. What they need to know, a lot of times the type of data they’re utilizing is behavioral data. This person did this, or this audience did this, and then they did that. And then we have to derive based on those behaviors. Well, why did they do that, exactly? Leaders are after“I need to know why,” because if you know why you can affect behavior, you can change someone’s behavior, but if all you know is that they did it, you kind of has to just guess.
So, we tried to just jump right to the why, why is someone doing this? That led us down a long road of research around neuroscience and behavioral economics, and we figured out, just a little bit an interesting way to quantify why people do things. We call it emotional resonance or emotional data, and it’s fun to work with.
We get a different look at a customer base. If we’re working with an organization that has a lot of research. Typically, they’re looking at behaviors, whether they’re looking at their sales funnel or looking at why customers are buying certain products and no other ones. They understand the behaviors, but they don’t have a great look at why they are not buying them. They should, right? All the science pointed out, they should be buying this, but why aren’t they? And a lot of times it’s a very simple reason or combination of reason and reasons, and we can just get a, give them an interesting look into that will help speed up that decision-making process for them or take some of the risks out of their decision.
Ethan Whitehill: So, in traditional research, a lot of times what I’ve found is what people say they do isn’t what they do. What they think they do isn’t what they do, and there’s a way to get at the reality of it. When you talk about neuroscience and getting into how the brain works, let’s talk about that. So how do you know, the responses you’re getting in your research yield the truth?
Grant Gooding: Well, you’re right in the first part. What we say is not always true, there are lots of fun things you can look up around why that is. One of the more famous ones recently is called the Shy Tory Effect, and that’s a fancy explanation of why we say one thing and do [another]. If you want to get to the core of why we do things, you [have] got to dive into how the brain works, and the brainis complicated. We discover new things all the time, but there are some interesting elements or functions to how the brain works that we just kind of latched onto, and then created some systems around how to measure when someone is feeling a certain way or what their true desire is. One of the things we had to do to do measure people uniquely. So, we called it emotional data, which is just metadata that measures a bunch of stuff that isn’t being measured in a traditional survey mechanism or an interview mechanism, and that is like how fast the brain will decide. There’s lots of great science around this. The genesis for us was a study that was done in 2017 at Johns Hopkins around millisecond timing mechanisms that they used to determine how fast people change their minds. Harvard and Yale did a joint study on bias around this as well. I think it was 380 milliseconds was their estimate on how fast approximately people decide, and then Johns Hopkins says it’s a hundred milliseconds that you have essentially to change.
Once we have this stimulus that comes into our brain, we see things, we make instant judgments.And this all happens in less than a second. If you ask someone to give you their thoughts, it travels through the social brain, and you take into consideration who[m] you’re talking to and if you want to tell somebody the truth, and then maybe what comes out isn’t necessarily what is the initial reaction.
So, all we did was we, we considered all that and, just took, and made some unique measuring tools that allowed to the best of our ability get to what that initial implication. Before it could travel, out into, what you might get in a survey response or what you might get when someone, answers a question you might ask them in an interview.
Ethan Whitehill:So, it’s that, that gut reaction, it’s kind of not that logical, rational thought that you think drives decisions. It’s, it’s that stuff that’s kind of at that instinct level, right?
Grant Gooding:Yeah, there’s this great neuroscientist, his name is San Antonio Damasio. He had this sort of famous study that he did where he was working with these, with this group of people that had some sort of maybe potentially brain damage or something, but they were unable to use a lot of the basic emotive systems, right?
Oceans were just like the combination of hormones and, you know, neurotoxins that are released from our brains. What he found was these insanely logical people weren’t able to make basic decisions like what to eat. So, he stumbled onto this hypothesis that the smart brain, which is like the prefrontal cortex and the frontal over the brain, doesn’t participate that much in the decision-making process.
And, when it does a little bit, you know, like some neuroscientist will say, 10% of the decisions we make are logical and whatever. But the reality is if you think about your own, few ignore logic and reason in every decision you make, right? It’s why we spend more money than we have and, you know, don’t eat healthy food.
You know, it’s all the things we do to satisfy our emotional desires. We do ignore logic and reason. So, we just thought, well, if that’s the case, we shouldn’t measure that.
Ethan Whitehill: I always think of it’s that primitive amygdala response. You know, it’s the fight, flight, freeze kind of thing that happens, and whether we realize it or not, even after a drawn-out consideration phase, you’re making an emotional decision.
Grant Gooding: Yeah. You just [have] got to be careful, because we justify it with logic, which is super dangerous because that’s what people typically measure. Well, that’s logical. Well, you don’t, and you also, you don’t want to look like an idiot, right? Someone said, “oh, why’d you buy this car?” Well, the truth might be that you just got a raise, and you want people to know, right?
Well, you can’t say that; that’s not socially acceptable to say that. So, you have to say something logical like, well, you know, my old car was getting kind of beat up and had some miles on it, and I wanted you to know. I got a new office now, so I needed something a little more reliable. That’s the truth that you make, and it’s just not real.
Ethan Whitehill: As we talk about this, when you think about consumer brands, famously for a long time have tried to appeal to emotions in their marketing. But we don’t often see B2B brands thinking this way and you work with a lot of business-to-business clients, correct?
Grant Gooding: Yeah. Most of the work that we do is in business to business.
Ethan Whitehill: And so how is it different for them?
Grant Gooding: Yeah, that’s a goodquestion. Most people just assume on its face that measuring emotion or quantifying emotion is only applicable to the B2C space or the non-profit space. But we see many times, much higher motive scores in B2B.
The reason, I think, is simple. Imagine you’re a manufacturer, right? And you’re trying to understand maybe your end customers or significant vendors. These vendors might make parts that are necessary for you to be able to do your job. So, is that emotively important to you? Heck yeah, right? Like the success of the supply chain or certain vendors that have parts that you rely on for assembly or getting something out the door, that could be the difference between you being able to make a sale and not making a sale. It’s pretty darn important to you, therefore substantially emotive.
So, it’s a little bit of, a surprise to us when we started doing more B2B, we got enough SIC codes that we worked in to identify that we do see substantially stronger scores in B2B than B2C. Make no mistake, just because you’re a business buying from another business, doesn’t mean that your customers have less feeling around what they’re purchasing. It’s not true.
Ethan Whitehill: Because there’s risk involvedin any purchase. You must trust that you’re making the right decision. You have to trust the company that you’re picking. And to me, trust is very about, you know, there’s credibility that’s part of the trust, but then there’s that emotional relationship that you have that creates trust.
What are some of the truisms that you’ve found through all your research? So, you know, I know there, there must be some sort of common thread that you notice time and time again appearing in these studies that you do. What are some of those specific emotions that tend to drive more decisions?
Grant Gooding: Truisms? I’ll tell you one very simple truism. It’s probably not the answer you’re looking for, and that is, I’m wrong all the time. And by all accounts, many of the folks involved, when we run through a study, are wrong as well. And, at first, we thought it was sort of an anomaly, but we see pretty consistently that if we give a business owner or the head of marketing or communications or sales if we give them a list of things that could be important to their customers, say, okay, here’s a short list, pick which one is most important, they get it wrong and they get it wrong–so often that we published the number because we measured it over a hundred studies.And we stopped, and the reason we stopped was that the number was so low that it deterred our credibility. Because a CEO would look at that and say, are you telling me that there’s x percentage that I don’t know, the most important thing to my customers? They didn’t believe it, and so I stopped using it in my talks, even though I had all the data to support it. It was like as soon as I said it, I could just see their eyes roll. The reality is you’re talking about an incredibly complex and multi-variate situation. I do lots of things. I make a widget, or I provide a service. I do lots of things. There are many customer touchpoints along the way. There are many motivations as to why they’re talking to me. Guessing the right one, even if it’s from a list, it’s not as easy as you think.
So that isa truism, I would say. We don’t understand the true drivers behind why our customers buy from us the way we might think. I heard this cool study,where they gave peoplea song, something simple like “Happy Birthday,” and then they made him clap that song to other people.
And then, they had to predict how many of those people would guess the song correctly and the average estimate was 50%. 1 out of every 2 isgoing to know what song I’m clappingto, right? Simple stuff like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” you know what the actual number was of people that guessed it correctly.
Ethan Whitehill: I’m going to guess higher.
Grant Gooding: 1 out of 40.
Ethan Whitehill: Oh, much worse significantly worse. Okay. Yeah.
Grant Gooding: It’s because we have this bias of information. We know it’s “Happy Birthday,” and so we’re like, how did you not get that? It’s the simplest song, but that’s the way we look at our businesses and organizations. We know, we know everything. We know everything from how the widget is made and everything from which bathroom stalled soap dispenser doesn’t work. So, we know everything, and we assume that our customers know at least a little bit or share some of those perceptions and values, and the reality is they don’t.
Ethan Whitehill: That’s interesting. I’m curious too, because you were in business pre-pandemic, and you’re doing business post-pandemic. As we think about emotional resonance, and we always talk about how the world has changed, have you seen anything change in your research? The way people are buying, the way they’re answering, the way they’re responding to the surveys themselves.
Grant Gooding: Getting people to respond is always a challenge. Because unfortunately, if you’re doing a random study, for instance. And the reason is that people are inundated with surveys now from people that typically have no idea what they’re doing. They’re gathering data to gather data. Even though they don’t know what they’re gathering, they don’thave a plan on what to do with it. They just know I’m supposed to send a survey out, or I’m supposed to, I’m supposed to measure my NPS because someone cares.
They never stop to analyze their situation and go, all right, so let’s say I have an NPS number. What I should be doing if I’m a good leader is, I should be going, “How do I increase this by two points? Let’s increase this by two points.” And, the reality is, if you run NPS, what are you going to do to increase it by two points? What in that data set tells you what to do? What if you change something that is the driver because it’s as high as it is, to begin with? You don’t know any of this stuff. So, we inundate the population with all these surveys, but very rarely do people know what the heck they’re doing.
So that’s a difficult thing. And that will continue to be more difficult. As far as the pandemic is concerned, surprisingly, we didn’t see a big difference in how people felt toward products. We saw little blips, but it probably wasn’t nearly as significant as one might expect when it comes to how they perceive the world.
The blips were in things like media healthcare and things like that, which are all very expected and not very interesting because you would assume those, but human beings are static once they hit 13, right? Like everything up to the age of 13, like really kind of set your beliefs.
So, after that, we’re the same kind of person. Sort of a high-level answer; human beings don’t change as much as you might think.
Ethan Whitehill: You know, going back to something that you, you started with in that answer, thinking about what happens after the research. So, once you’ve completed a panel and you’ve identified, you know, these are the offerings that are most emotionally resonant or the, you know, the messages or the points that your consumers are valuing the most, what next? What do you do with that?
Grant Gooding: Well, so taking data and distilling it into a basic insight is harder than most people think. You have to understand business, you must understand strategy, and you have to understand data, and then you have to understand how to take that data and tell a story. What we try to do is keep it as simple as humanly possible. There’s a saying, if you give someone three things to do, they’ll do all three.
If you give them four, they will do zero. Here’s all this stuff that we learned, but we’re only going to tell you a few things that you need to do to course correct based on the reason that you brought us into the room.
Ethan Whitehill: So, that’s great, and I’m thinking about how we have partnered in the past what is the ideal sort of relationship that you would have with a client or with an agency that would be a partner of yours? How often are you engaging, and how often are you revisiting this research? And then beyond that, what does that look like?
Grant Gooding: So, we have to follow the scientific method, which means we need good questions, and we need good hypotheses. That’s our sort of fuel, and if we have those things, we can do our job well. Agencies are good, typically, at identifying problems because most agencies are good problem solvers and give hypotheses around, well, we see that this is happening—either the client told us that this behavior and this behavior is happening, but they don’t seem congruent to us. We hypothesize that this is happening, could you go confirm or deny that hypothesisand if not, can you identify maybe what else is happening? That’s kind of what we go and figure out and then come back.
A lot of times those types of things are just roadblocks from keeping you from aligning with your client or keeping you from being successful with a messaging strategy. Again, very low percentage of probability that the client knows the type of messages that are going to resonate with their customer. If you have a hypothesis, a lot of times you see agencies have much better intuition around why customers are buying than a client does. We can test all those environments, so it can kind of be a very harmonious type of thing we’re doing where we’re bringing the agency and the client closer together and getting them aligned so that they can all move forward together. Putting sometimes debates to bed. It’s not this, it’s this, can we all agree now we can, you know, move forward?
Ethan Whitehill: I think about a lot of practical uses for this and how clients implement it on a regular, hopefully, regular basis, as they think about it. What are some practices that they can even include in their thinking post-research? Just to kind of check themselves on, are we overthinking this? What would the emotional response be? Is there a way to help a marketer get the mindset of that amygdala so to speak?
Grant Gooding: A lot of times we get in our way. It’s because we’re intuitive people and we overthink things. We make a lot of assumptions. So, one of the things that I’ve learned is that you [have] got to keep smart people around you. And, if you’re a marketer, you need to make sure that you are communicating with your agency. Often, don’t make any assumptions about why people are doing things. Get their feedback and consider that feedback. You write things off as if they’re opinions, but there is always some truth in anything you hear. So even though you may not agree with the opinion, the good bet is there’s some reality based on that opinion that you need to understand. Keep in good contact with your agency. Make sure that you are listening to them, because, yes, there arein many ways strategic. But they’re probably right more often than you think.
Ethan Whitehill: I’m going to write that in stone and put it at the front door. I love that. Okay, so now it’s time to get off the point with a random question. You’re not the first victim of this, by the way. I have in my hand a 20-sided die, and I’m going to roll it, and the number that comes up will correspond with one of the 20 questions.
What is the number there?
Grant Gooding: 17.
Ethan Whitehill: 17. Oh, this is a great one. I wish we could run this through your process because I think you’re going to have a gut-level response to this. Are avocados overrated?
Grant Gooding: No, they are not. I don’t know the disposition of avocados, but I have a very high regard for avocados. They’re superfoods. They’re delicious in almost everything. We eat the heck out of avocados.
Ethan Whitehill: So, I’m going to go, it was only a millisecond before you said no, and then you rationalized it afterward. So, I’m not going to listen to any of that, I just think they’re not overrated. I’ll go with that, and that’ll be the information we base our campaign for avocados on now. So, this is awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today. If our listeners want to learn more about PROOF Positioning, where do they find you?
Grant Gooding: Yeah, PROOF Positioning. I just say Google my name, I have a weird name. Anyway. Very lucky. So, Grant Gooding and PROOF will get you there. It’s going to be me or like an accountant in the UK or like a swimmer.
So, I’m neither of those two people. I’m the other one!
Ethan Whitehill: This was fantastic, I always enjoy talking to you. I always feel smarter at the end, and I laugh always. So, thank you so much.
Grant Gooding: Thanks for having me.
Hosted by Ethan Whitehill
Ethan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.