Got a Premium Brand? Here’s How to Win Over Consumers in China.

National Geographic’s 2014 Greendex found that consumer attitudes about sustainability and the urgency of climate change are shifting, although rather slowly. The 2014 study finds half of consumers surveyed are anxious about climate change’s negative impact. Chinese consumers were among a group (along with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and India) that displayed greater willingness to modify habits that affect the environment – while those from more affluent countries didn’t appear to feel as threatened by the impact of a changing climate.

It might sound strange, but could this yearning to do better in terms of sustainability and the environment represent a marketing opportunity for brands in China? We think so.

Interestingly, in our recent, unrelated global study on Premium positioning, we discovered some unique associations that Chinese consumers had with the Premium theme. Using our creative verbalization and visualization techniques, Chinese consumers were the only ones who associated environmentally-friendly, natural and healthy with Premium.

DOWNLOAD NOW!   'Wooing The Premium Consumer' White Paper

What comes to mind when Chinese consumers think about Premium? Unlike obvious associations such as ‘special reward’ or ‘VIP treatment’ in the other markets, in China we saw strong visual associations around  natural, simple, health, good for them, and environmentally friendly. Using our engaging eCollageTM technique to express their Premium associations pictorially, Chinese consumers more frequently chose images that represented nature. And while gold and silk were among the top materials that signal premium across all markets, the Chinese were more likely to associate other materials found in nature like wood, cotton and diamonds.

Top words that are similar to Premium according to Chinese consumers include environmentally-friendly, natural, safe and dependable. Safe and dependable were notable word choices, considering recent food and product safety stories in the news.

To learn more about how Premium played out in China, and across the other markets in our study, or to learn about specific brands associated with Premium by category, download our Wooing The Premium Consumer white paper now.

Patient Perspective is Unimportant Here

That’s what some people will still tell you in the healthcare industry in America. “Patients can’t tell you anything important”. Too many times, we encounter people who think the patient perspective can be obtained through someone else. “Doctors tell the patient story well,” they’ll say. Or, “We already know what patients need”. My favorite is this one: “The patient perspective doesn’t really matter here because they don’t have any say in product choice or usage.” It’s always left me silent when I hear this from folks in marketing, or physicians or executives. Do you care what the patient feels? How they perceive their illness, their body, in this context? In these cases, it seems like everyone knows what the patient wants, except the patient. Countless people have brought patient perspectives to the forefront in the past fifteen years, so it’s surprising to encounter this underlying bias.

In the research work that I do, the patient voice and the patient’s imagination are the most important focus for me. I know a lot of people agree, but I find that sometimes even the best intentioned people only go halfway in their efforts to let the patient represent their own point of view. Recently I came across an article in the Huffington Post about people who suffer from migraines. Several of them provided a brief metaphoric description of how they experience their symptoms (e.g., “It leaves my brain feeling like a wrung out washrag.” Or, “It feels like I’m pushing my head against a pallet of bricks.”). My reaction was really positive – here’s a national media outlet giving voice to sufferers of a neurological disorder.

DOWNLOAD NOW!   'Mapping the Patient Journey' White Paper

Along with the narrative descriptions, pictures illustrate these same symptoms (e.g., a face in agony with a washcloth being twisted over it). Something was off with the pictures – they all looked similar and they were way too polished. In fact, a HuffPost artist had created the pictures, rather than the patients themselves. “What a shame,” I thought. “There would be so much rich insight offered by getting them to draw their own self-portraits.”

At BuzzBack, we often ask patients to create pictures or collages about some experience they’ve had, or in response to an idea we present (an ad, a package, a description of a drug, etc.). Then we ask them to tell a story about their picture. We’ll do this across as many people as seems reasonable. Sometimes it’s 1,000 patients, and sometimes a lot fewer. For sufferers of rare diseases, we’ll do it with the ones we can gather – maybe 25 or 30. We do it in the US, and in many other countries too.

At one point we started asking doctors and other healthcare professionals to engage in this free form, creative work based in imagery. Surprisingly, the professionals do it willingly and energetically, and we now do just as much work with them as with patients. Talk about a group that needs a creative outlet to vent their issues: doctors must be the most frustrated profession in America. In a 2014 survey of physicians, 81% said they were over-extended, and 29% would choose a different career if they could go back. Within this framework, they love to create pictures and tell us stories, too.

Sometimes, we’ll ask doctors to depict a patient with “disease X”. At the same time, we’ll ask patients with the condition to describe their doctor, or themselves, or some other aspect of the disease and its treatment. Then we tie the two perspectives – two sets of images and stories – together. What do they have in common? Where are there discrepancies?

As one might imagine, we get a rich visual collection tied in with a strong narrative assemblage. It’s the patient story and the doctor story together. For clients, it’s crucial for coming to a better understanding of the disease their drug treats. We find unmet needs, the extent of the struggle, the concerns and issues that doctors and patients both have. It all comes from personal experience, and personal perspective. It’s unfiltered and extremely rich. And we don’t draw the pictures for the patients, we let them do it themselves.

To find out more about how we do what we do, download our Patient Journey white paper now.


Population Health and Meaningful Use: Where is the patient?

The Meaningful Use criteria for implementation of electronic health record systems will be getting a new set of standards next year. MU offers $30 billion in subsidies to doctors who get their electronic systems up to speed… Previously, doctors have only had to prove installation and usage of EHR to get subsidies; now they need to implement Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) reporting. PQRS requirements are being pitched to doctors as helping them focus on patient outcomes. However, according to the new value model imposed by ACA, doctors will be reimbursed on outcomes demonstrated in PQRS reporting. Medicare reimbursement will be prorated at certain quality levels, rather than given simply for treating a patient, and many insurance companies have adopted value standards as well.

Population health metrics are important from a micro and macro perspective. Some doctors are already using population health. Most are either annoyed or confused by the transition, and don’t understand their patients any better after implementation. Doctors really don’t have time. Institutions are under-staffed. The imperative goes unfulfilled.

As information technology has evolved, it certainly became possible to analyze massive datasets, and “big data” is all the rage. In addition to the government, others are driving their understanding of patients through massive databases. Big pharma and health insurers are two examples. On the other hand, it is also becoming easier for computers to analyze “soft” data, like written texts,  images, or even facial expressions. IBM’s Watson famously relies on  unstructured data, and IBM is focusing a lot of energy on understanding the healthcare universe. Further out, sentic computing systems are being developed to understand, and respond to, the emotional state of the user.

The incredible growth in social media proves that it is already possible for people to develop and maintain emotionally satisfying relationships via computer interface. Most of the communities are heavily based in visual imagery as the primary vector for communication.

While it isn’t possible to replace physicians with computerized simulacra of them (but will this really always be true?), it could be possible to provide patients with a focused forum to engage in rich communication about health and illness. This forum doesn’t fulfill the role that physicians still occupy, but enhances it in a way that patients associate the online activities with the provider. This would be a real model of patient engagement.

BuzzBack has long focused efforts on integrating quantitative analysis with “softer” variables. How does the respondent (doctor or patient) feel and think when we let them play with pictures, or ask them to write a story? How do these creative and unconscious processes relate to a drug, disease or medical situation? Then, what happens when we quantify the results of these creative exercises across hundreds, or thousands of people? We have done work like this for pharmaceutical companies to understand how physicians and patients interact with, and feel about, each other. How well do they understand a product promise and what does it mean to them? There are many different contexts and situations where BuzzBack integrates image-based and story-based methods into quantitative studies. These help our clients get a deeper understanding of the customer.

EHR and PQRS certainly perform extremely important tasks. However, they don’t really help understand patient motivations and needs better unless system designers find ways to step outside the box of straightforward rational thinking. At BuzzBack we’ve been stepping outside the box for a while, understanding patient behavior in ways that matter. For example, we’ve looked at the emotions that drive dialog between patients and physicians in multiple therapeutic areas. Using pictures as a vector to communication of underlying feelings, we’ve looked at how doctors feel about medication treatments in a variety of disease categories. What works for them, what doesn’t, and why do they choose different drug brands? We’ve worked with both patients and doctors, asking them to tell stories about each other, or to imagine conversations about difficult situations. The results of these studies are usually pretty surprising. We access the kinds of things missing from how the industry at large looks at patients and physicians: as a collection of myriad data points. They “forgot” to build in the vital human qualities, but we’re trying to patch the gaps, piece by piece.

My Team Over Yours. Any. Day.

This weekend marked the 25th annual Komen Race for the Cure in NYC, a fundraising road race to support breast cancer research; and it also marked our second year participating with a BuzzBack team.
However, our participation this year was notably different from last year’s. Our team was larger, and our motivation was personal. A member of our team is treating breast cancer. While some of us ran, others walked, literally side by side with our brave colleague. Either way, we were all there to support her at the race, but also to demonstrate that we will walk this life journey with her. We proudly wore our L’Equipe de BuzzBack shirts and pink Fitbits courtesy of our client.

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It’s days like this that remind me that BuzzBack isn’t just any old company – it’s a magnet for special, thoughtful, conscientious people. People who sign up when times are tough, even former BuzzBack-ers showed up for her. The Komen race was only the latest demonstration of support for this ‘work family’ member. There have been many meal deliveries on her treatment days as she has young children. Some have even attended treatment sessions with her. The offers to help are overflowing, there’s no shortage of volunteers to help with personal tasks.

As the leader of this tribe it’s been amazing to experience and I have been bowled over by where our culture has evolved. Teamwork has transcended the workplace. It’s just who we are now. And there is no way I can take credit for it. I’m just proud that I’m part of it.

More Delight. Less Disappointment.

Zappos. Warby Parker. Lumoid. Casper Mattresses. What do these companies have in common? A celebrated try-before-you-buy policy. These brands are pretty confident their products and services will be winners with consumers. After all, Casper claims to be “one perfect mattress.” That’s quite a high bar. Or a costly brag if they have to send a truck out to reclaim a mattress from an unsatisfied buyer.

This strategy is timely given increasingly sophisticated consumers who demand brands deliver on expectations. But it’s one that could be riddled with risk for companies that don’t test product positioning and even packaging.  Because consumers are more empowered, informed, and connected than ever, it’s critical for companies to clearly communicate the brand promise and have a firm grasp of the actual user experience with their product. Whether a $1 candy bar or an $800 mattress, customers don’t want unhappy surprises with their purchase – just delight.

How can brands ensure that the experience that they’re promising is fulfilling expectations? Usage testing is a wonderfully effective way to make sure what a company thinks they’re selling is in fact what the consumer is experiencing.

One shelf-stable food brand asked us to learn whether the positioning and messaging that they had developed matched what consumers were experiencing at home. We set out to determine which messaging elements worked and why – how well the product delivered on the promise being made. What communication facets needed to change? Our visual and verbal techniques – online projectives – are ideal for helping consumers articulate the experience and benefits of the product (including sensorial and tactile). Through in home product usage, we revealed the phrases and words that could be adopted or incorporated into copy. This helped craft an authentic message that was faithful to the experience.

This approach can be included further upstream when developing product concepts, and even later when testing packaging – all in effort to ensure each part of the consumer journey meets and exceeds expectations. This was the case with a beverage company who needed consumers to evaluate packaging. While consumers had previously raved about the product, they hated the proposed packaging – a delightful product could have been torpedoed by a disastrous container. We were able to identify specific packaging requirements that would be equally appealing as the product inside.

So, is your brand promising perfection? Fun? Luxury? Whatever the essence you believe it telegraphs – make sure it’s one grounded in the reality of the consumer usage experience.

Wooing The Premium Consumer White Paper

Request a copy of our global study on what Premium means to consumers. Stake out your Premium brand territory by telegraphing the most evocative visual, verbal and emotional consumer signals:

  • Functional and emotional consumer associations with Premium
  • Attributes that differentiate premium products
  • The lexicon, imagery, color palette, and sensory stimuli that convey Premium to consumers
  • Specific brands associated with Premium across various product categories

Get in touch with us below to request a copy of BuzzBack’s Premium white paper now.

“Are Branch Locations Still Relevant?” And Other Questions to Ask in the Digital Age

I don’t know about your town, but it seems like any time there’s an available lot in mine, another bank branch sprouts there. Given the rise of digital banking, who is visiting these locations? And at what stage of the customer journey are physical branches still important to the banking experience? Banks are trying to crack the bank customer code in this era of mobile banking – some by testing new branch concepts, while others by eliminating branches all together. In our work with financial services companies, we’ve explored a variety of strategic challenges like optimal messaging and even location design because our approach is ideal for mining beyond surface consumer attitudes and expectations at each age and stage.

There’s a variety of questions we can explore. What’s the right blend of online and physical presence? And for actual locations, what’s the right footprint and service mix? Does it have to be a flashy, tech-driven self-serve pop-up, or is white-glove, high-touch attention required when a customer does finally venture into the branch? What services can be completely digitized? Which ones will always require an in-person interaction? How do banks capture digital-native millennials just starting out, with low expectations for their bank and low need for services, and shepherd them along the journey to homeownership, parenthood, and retirement savings? Will Boomers fully embrace mobile banking? How are customers segmented – and how does the brand speak to DIY bank user versus the “Do it all for me” group?

For one of our clients exploring the customer/brand connection, we used our tool SceneBuilder to get a sense of what customers wanted from a physical location. This forward thinking financial services firm understood that the branch was a dimension of the brand, and the experience from a look and feel perspective needed to align with consumer expectations. Projective tools like Thought Bubble and Blobs can also be helpful in extracting deepest attitudes and emotions around services offered, message receptivity, or attitudes about banking in general – all pointing  the way toward brand value optimization as well as white space opportunity.

Even in what might be considered a non-sexy category, asking the right questions can help companies discover the emotions, attitudes and behaviors that drive consumer decision making. The truth is money – the lack of it, the earning of it, the saving of it, the growing of it – spurs a lot of strong feelings. Our goal is always to provide the richest insights for financial services clients – both the visual and verbal language that will positively influence consumer interaction with their brand.

Building Brand Love With Feeling

This month in New York, SheKnows Media presented the first annual Femvertising Awards at the BlogHer social media conference. According to SheKnows, the awards are intended to acknowledge brands that are “challenging gender norms by building stereotype-busting, pro-female messages and images into ads that target women.” A CNN article covering the event said that the ads are “selling good ideas… good values….”  I would add selling good feelings to that list.

The inaugural award winners were brands/campaigns Hello Flo (First Moon Party), Dove (Speak Beautiful), Ram Trucks (Courage Inside) and Always (Like a Girl). What these campaigns have done is connect with deep emotions, memories, and experiences – whether positive, hurtful, embarrassing, maybe ones that need reconciling, righting, acknowledging and celebrating. Each is an ideal example of how mining emotions can spark, ignite and foster brand love into a warm, ongoing fire. These brands got brand love right:



As important as the Femvertising movement is, giving someone “the feels” isn’t just in the realm of women. Brands are tapping emotions to get through the hunky crusts of men to inspire brand love. Often, fatherhood is the easiest and more obvious door to emotional connection. Over Father’s Day, there was the highly-effective First Fatherhood Moments campaign by Dove. And before that Toyota scored big during the Super Bowl with the My Bold Dad campaign. I know, I know – just listening to the music on that one gets me going.

But before embarking on memorable campaign creation, there’s serious work to be done first to get at authentic emotions, then to get at other cues that telegraph your brand. Brands that leverage insights techniques that capture visceral, irrational, nonverbal, visual along with contextual language are in a better position to create the optimal positioning and messaging foundation that will inspire enduring –and viral – brand love. At BuzzBack, we are grounded in the belief that because emotions are the common bond of humanity, the brands that weave emotional insights into their narrative will stand the test of time.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to better connect consumers to your brand on a profound level, we’ve got a webinar on the subject of brand love. Click here to learn more.

Millennials & Women Are Redefining Leadership

When it comes to the workplace, turns out female and millennial employees want the same thing. According to a study covered in Fortune magazine, both of these employee types seek a healthy work/life blend, a sense of meaning from their work, and transparency. Who knew when I started BuzzBack that these would emerge as defining principles of our own company culture. And, it then comes as no surprise, that our company is 60% women and 40% millennial. This has turned out to be a differentiating strength for us as we study brands – women and millennials are often the target consumers our clients are most interested in.

Another aspect of the study however surprised me. When asked, only a third of both women and millennial responders aspired to the C-suite. The study sponsors, Saba (a talent management firm) and, think that this may be due to lack of role models at the top rungs of the corporate ladder. But they also point to a shift in the definition of leadership to one where making an impact at one’s company and developing into a recognized expert and influencer is more important. I’m hoping at BuzzBack we can offer both definitions of leadership – the traditional title-based one, and one where personal and professional goals converge.

As a female business founder, CEO, mentor and mother (of twin college-bound Gen Zers, boy and girl),  I am constantly thinking about what work will look like in the future, and how BuzzBack needs to adapt to continue attracting the brightest talent. I’ll be speaking on female leadership and entrepreneurship at a professional networking event in Philadelphia next week. I’m looking forward to hearing how other business owners and managers are creating workplaces that nurture the next generation of leaders. After all, our futures depend on them.


All Aboard the Healthy Train

Ah, the pursuit of healthier eating… What interesting bedfellows this trend continues to make! The latest marriage is between Hormel Foods, the makers of SPAM (hold the Monty Python jokes), and Applegate Farms, the natural and organic prepared meat company. The dowry? $775 million.

Many see this as shrewd move by Hormel, capitalizing on the consumer’s quest for the ‘better for you’ alternatives offered by smaller, independent brands. Like the General Mills + Annie’s union before it, this latest mash up is a signal that the natural, healthy and organic food trend is not a fad. Larger food companies understand the imperative to adapt through evolution and acquisition or be left behind.

Our most recent study of Healthy confirmed the growing importance of better nutrition to consumers. Respondents see that eating right is a key component to the prescription for health. For consumers in the US & UK, healthy is connected with nature – things that are natural, clean, organic, and specific products associated with fresh and organic. Interestingly, in a previous study on the concept of Natural, consumers most often associated the word Organic with it. Layer in what respondents told us in a third study on Sustainability, and brands that stand for organic generate positive associations.

And that’s what Applegate Farms has going for it. Healthy. Natural. Sustainable. The brand with its simple tagline of ‘Natural & Organic Meats’ probably represents the best of these words to its fans. So it’s no surprise that many took to social media and other outlets to express their disappointment over the acquisition. As always for both companies in these pairings, the challenge will be authenticity. Will the big food company be able to convince consumers that they’re committed to the noble goals of their acquisition, and will the takeover target be able to stay believably true to their brand essence? Only time will tell.

But a word – or three – of encouragement to Applegate’s fan base and to Hormel: Ben & Jerry’s. Despite being acquired by global giant Unilever, the beloved ice cream maker has survived and thrived with unwavering commitment to its socially – and environmentally – responsible brand reputation. Sometimes unlikely marriages are the biggest success stories.

For more information on our Healthy, Natural or Sustainability studies, click here.