• John Ennis

Darla Hall - Healthy Disruption


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Darla Hall, Founding Partner of Research Vibe, guides cross-functional teams to deliver strategic solutions that transform consumer insights into innovative products and brands. Darla has lived and played in the world of product and market research for three decades, providing services to CPG, non-profits, entertainment and healthcare industries. As a Sensory Scientist and Certified Food Scientist, she brings a unique research perspective to CPG client teams. With a deep understanding of food systems and processes, she balances technical challenges with delivering a desired product and sensory experience. She is passionate about taking cross-functional teams on a journey inside the hearts and minds of consumers, discovering the emotional connection to products and illuminating solutions that improve consumer quality of life.


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Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)


John: Darla, welcome and thanks for being on the show.


Darla: Great to be here, John.


John: Okay, wonderful. So, Darla before the show, we were talking about what some people are calling, "the pause" with the whole coronavirus crisis, and I may have been operating in a bit of a tech bubble. Because for me, there has been of anything of a ramping up of activity. And I'm curious to get your thoughts on this whole phenomenon and what you're seeing in sensory, you know, something I think is kind of a complementary set of skills or activities to mine. I'd really like to get your perspective on what you're seeing out there in the sensory world.


Darla: Yeah, you know, I think that both of us actually have maybe a little bit different experience than someone who is in a larger corporate situation where they don't necessarily have control over what the larger corporations guidelines are going to be in circumstances such as these. So we tend to be able to work in a more fleet kind of approach. And, you know, whereas what I'm finding is there's so many levels of people trying to figure it out in these organizations that by the time it gets to the folks that are actually doing the research, you know, various things are happening. I'm mentioning to you. I mean, I think that field sites are doing a great job of transitioning as many products projects as they can over to online kinds of approaches. And they're doing that very quickly and very seamlessly. I've really been impressed with that. So they've been able to keep their projects moving forward for, you know, for corporate client teams. But I think that bottleneck is coming in some of these corporations that are just shutting down at the moment, which I think is a huge mistake. And I really been challenging my client teams to sort of rethink what can they do, even if it's just something research on an individual level. Prepare themselves for what comes next because we know we're back on track at some point. And that was, you know, as we were talking about what we wanted to discuss today. Those were the things that were coming to my mind as well, if we can't do that, what can we do and what is a value during this time.


John: It reminds me of the parable of the talents. I don't know, for the people aren't familiar with this Christian parable. There is this story that Jesus apparently told that there was this was it like some sort of a wealthy man has three servants and he gives them all some money and then he leaves and comes back and sees what they did. And he ended up one of the servants buried the money in the ground because he was trying to play it safe. And the master was very unhappy. And actually, if you read the story, whole story, I think the master is not nice to servant.


Darla: Certainly he was not a nice master for sure.


John: But the point is that you don't want to bury your talents, which is like what we're talking about that right now, things the world is still changing. Actually, I think there's more of a need for research now than ever, right? Things are uncertain. But unless you're planning on just closing up shop, which I don't think these companies are actually planning on doing, you should be trying to figure out what's going on and that the sorts of research capabilities that these different field agencies can provide or that you can provide. I think, more needed now than ever. So maybe you could talk a little about that conversation, how does that look to you? Because like you said, a lot of times it's tricky because there are so many levels within an organization. What do you think needs to happen for this message to start finding its way out?


Darla: Well, you know, I talked with someone yesterday and these were some of the things that I was thinking about and she was actually doing. It is kind of leveraging this time to dig deeper. And it's not necessarily, you know, I've even challenged and actually, this came out in the conversation yesterday. I've even challenged project teams to say you may not need to be creating new data sets. Why not go back and mind the data you already have? Because think about it. You know, when we're in our normal typical situation. When we're in typical, right? Where we're moving fast, we're turning projects around. We don't often have time to mine all of what we're learning from the research projects, right? I mean, I often will say many of my projects, three people could get PhD's, you know?


John: Yes, exactly.


Darla: You know what I mean? This could be like a lifelong, you know, lifetime's worth of research, a body of research and people out of, you know, out of one study. So why not go back? And, you know, just a couple of things that I was examples that I was thinking about was doing a deep dive into projects that I often think about, how much data are we leaving on the table? It makes me absolutely crazy when clients have very long screeners. First of all, which I for best practices, I try to limit the quantity to only screen to get the folks that we want for the studies. But oftentimes there are other questions or exit interviews. So you know question out of screener and product use or exit interview kinds of questions, you know, surveys, that sort of thing. It could be quantitative data. Go back and take a look at that. And there are some new questions that you can ask about that. And, you know, in a different context and also looking across longitudinal, you know, longitudinally looking across research projects either within a product category or brand or even better yet, across your silos or your brands, you know, in your company to come to think about, like, what are those overarching learning? You know building that brain trust. You know, what are those that we know about our products and our consumer that maybe our client doesn't? So you don't have to create new data to be moving forward.


John: Right. That's really interesting. Now, some data, I think is kind of evergreen if you're talking about relationships between ingredients, formula, the sensory experience, that kind of thing. But other stuff is in flux. And, you know, I've talked a little bit about this, too, in terms of, one thing you were telling me about in our previous conversation was the current interest in nostalgia, the ray in comfort, right? That there are some things that are, in fact, different now. So how do you see? No one has answered this question, but how do you see things evolving over the course of the crisis? And do you think that the historical data, the consumer data preference or, you know, liking that kind of thing? Will that still be valid after the pandemic? Do you think or do you think that they'll have to be some re-evaluation of the consumer insights that were gained before the pandemic? How do you see the pandemic impacting the use of historical data?


Darla: That's really interesting. Couple thoughts on that. I think that I've had several conversations with folks and I think actually that group conversation we were on was, you know, people were concerned about how consumer responses would change in this time. Before and after. And I said, so what? Let's still get the responses, because you can have that comparison, right? So I think that would be a really great benchmarking insight. What happens in times of disruption? So take a quick detour with me. And I think I do this to you earlier is that this is disruption. We've seen this disruption before. We've seen acts of terrorism, right? We've seen economic downturns. Within other, you know, times where things have been somewhat disrupted by other viruses, pandemics that may not have hit quite as close to home for us. But disruptions happen. They happen. They're gonna happen again. So that's one of those and it may be a little bit more drawn out. But one of the things that we learn is that, yes, things do change in terms of people's context in times. But guess what? They do any time. So any time you walk through the door for a research project, it all depends on what their experience was that day. Right? So how are they going to respond? Right now, it's just a little there's a spotlight on it. It's more extreme because it's a collective maybe in response and mood motivating and behavior, if you will, as a community, as society, whatever. But we're always seeing changes in people's responses. It's their opinion, right? It's whatever happens on that day for them. So we've got to have points of comparison to your point. We had data before. We have data now and we'll have it after. You've got to do it, you know, and you've got some tools to help people do that.


John: Well, that is true.


Darla: I mean, it's just a matter of being, I think, intentional about that. And one of the other things I think that came up in our conversation last week with the group that we were with was what were your benchmarks before? So how were people using the scales that you know, that you're typically presenting for quantitative data? How are using those scales before? How are they using now? What kinds of words were you anticipating that you get from your gold skin standard products, for instance, before? What kind of tools you're getting now and you do that comparison, and so then you can kind of think about it. But I think bigger than that, John, is the thing that I've been grappling with is I think the questions have to change a little bit now.


John: How so?


Darla: Well, like, for instance, if you're doing let's just say you're doing a study on, I don't know, potato chips or croutons or whatever. And people's response to that brand and that product may change now. So you kind of have to rethink. And maybe it's as simple as asking the question of how did you use this product or how did you view this product before this time?


John: Interesting.


Darla: Now, how are you using or how do you view this product, this brand, you know, I mean, does that make sense?


John: That's a lot of sense. That's really interesting. Yeah. Well, I have to think about that because that is a really really good idea. I mean, you know, the reason I do this show is to get good ideas, and that's one of them. So thank you, Darla. That is a good, good idea. Yeah. And I would say kind of building on that. You know, I would like to get your reaction to how people's tastes might change, like one of the things I think is interesting is I'm being forced to try products that I wouldn't tried. Like when it comes to almond milk. My wife Ruth, she and I, we like the whole foods generic brand of almond milk. That's the one that we like. That's what we usually get. But we can't really get it because it's like so hard to get a delivery time slot from all foods, right? So we have to get, not going to get into naming brands, but we have had to get we've got other brands of almond milk. One of which actually I can name cause I like it which is like there's tree's brand is really good. I really like it. And I wouldn't try it before. There's another brand I won't name, which I have to say is awful.


Darla: Not all almond milk is created equal.


John: Now, I have learned about almond milk through this crisis because I've been forced to try lots of them. It's almost been like I've been forced to be part of this category appraisal in a kind of non-randomized way. But what's interesting is that I now actually understand the category better. I've tried more things and coming out of the crisis, I actually have more informed opinion about almond milk, and it's probably going to be true with other product categories that I like. So I do think that the fact that the things people are trying will perhaps be wider than they would've been otherwise simply because of availability means that you might have more segmentation after the crisis than you did before because people will discover. Another example is of snickerdoodle ice cream. You know we couldn't get our favorite salted caramel ice cream.


Darla: That's why I would say, I'm so sorry for your first world problems.


John: I know. Well, I didn't even mention it's cashew ice cream. We couldn't get it, so we had to settle for a snickerdoodle cashew milk ice cream. I know it's been a tough time, but anyway, I liked it. That's another example. I wouldn't have tried it, but I liked it, right? And so I don't know if this is representative or not, but I think it's a possibility that people are forced to make do with things and then they find out, hey, actually, you know, I like this thing. So what are your thoughts on that?


Darla: Well, I think people's category perspective might change. I think that in addition to maybe greater segmentation of acceptance, if you will, there may be a realization from people that they can do more with less. Well, you know, and that could be, you know, a challenge for marketers to handle because, you know,we're only going to the grocery stores once a week or we're having to wait for products, right? And so we're finding substitutions, right? You don't really need that product that I have in my pantry all the time because I found out the other, you know, other substitutions, other options, other recipes, other whatever. So I think we are going to see some shifts in consumer perception. I also think they'll be an opportunity for us to, if we're doing our research now and this is some things that I've been learning recently, is in times of disruption, the disruption clears the way for trends that were already happening before the disruption to take hold, right? And then they become the new way. So what we need to begin to understand is what were those trends before? But how are people behaving right now? You know, in a time of scarcity, a time of uncertainty, a time of fear, a time of all of these things. What are they clinging to? From a product standpoint.


John: Cheetos from what I understand.


Darla: There you go. Well, and you mentioned the nostalgia issue earlier and I think that's huge right now. Well, that may be something that we start to see reboots, right? We're seeing reboots of TV shows. Well, that was a trend that was starting before this thing. Maybe there will be reboots of brands as well. In terms of nostalgic marketing, you know, and maybe even just, you know, going back to snickerdoodle ice cream, for instance. You know, it was a flavor from my childhood. And, you know, it brings me, you know, back to those great memories or whatever, because things are never gonna be the same again. I don't, you know, whatever that ends up being so that we've got to really pay, you know, your idea of before, during and after. I think, it's the narrative that we've got to look at everything from that.


John: Yeah. I really like your idea of questions involving the before. That's very, very interesting.


Darla: Yeah. And then collecting the data afterwards, too, right? So as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and if you want this that, you know, before was the beginning. This is the middle and there would be a climax at some point. But we need to know what the end is gonna be, too. So there is important that coming out of this, we do some exit research as well to understand how things are changed.


John: And what are the changes in methodologically, I mean, like you're saying, there were trends already happening. I think you're starting to see companies using Zoom for in-person interviews. You know, there was a presentation at SSP last year. Two years go by Amamar, where they were doing a follow up Zoom calls or Skype calls to basically do exit interviews, but with a real person that I think was a little bit ahead of the curve, but that kind of stuff is now becoming the norm. You know, it's the same if I mean more and more like talking about big trends. I think decentralization is one of the defining trends of the fourth industrial revolution. And it just so happens that coronavirus is forcing decentralization, right? Because not safe to have groups of people. So what do you see happening now? What methodologically in sensory that you expect to stick around after the crisis? What are the trends that we're kind of beginning, it's accelerating now and then they're going here to stay. What do you see when you look around?


Darla: Well, I think there's so many things that we manage as factors. So there are best practices in execution, right? I've had a conversation actually, with a group of folks out of the brewing industry to say, what do we tell our industry about what's best practices for executing research? That was one thing, you know, and there's no personal protection, sanitation, you know, how might this impact the way our testing environment looks? You know, in terms of you're not going to be sitting around, you're standing around a bench sharing cups anymore for sure. You know what I mean? Here, smell this. Taste this. You know, there's going to be some changes there, which, you know, adds a little bit of complexity to the way that we do things. One of the things that I've been hearing and talking with people about is that we've just got to, I think, reset expectations of our project teams. First of all, the things may take a little bit longer because they're going to be more complex because of the practices that we need to put in place. Some things may take a little bit less, you know. But once we get set up, so that's like one track that we're talking about is just execution, all kinds of things and how is that going to look different going forward? And then the successful researchers this could be at all levels of research is, as we said before, those that have been able to move things to an online platform. And there are a couple ways to do that. And I've actually, you know, there's larger organizations that maybe have larger budgets and there are some great platforms out there for online research that and it's not that you can't do it in an organic way through Zoom calls and, you know, the survey monkey and you know some of those things where you can put it together yourself. But they're turn key solutions, right? You know, once you get your people recruited, oftentimes they don't recruit. But, you know, it allows you templates, right? Efficient for putting your data together, but then also for analyzing, interpreting report, writing, that sort of thing and getting the data out. That's the part that if you're not using those platforms that have those applications for specifically for online research that you then have to mind and do it yourself. And it just becomes a little more cumbersome, but it doesn't mean you can't do it. So I think you are going to be seeing a lot more online. And I'm actually looking to a lot of client teams about what what could we do that is going to be sustainable, lower budgets. But then what does that mean to you in terms of the resources that you're going to have to input to be able to get the information and the value out of that? And you talked before about automating report writing, right? That's a big bottleneck. Well, with things like online research, that just becomes even more exemplified, you know, exacerbated, if you will, trying to get that data back out. So if you've got algorithms and, you know, a platform that does that for you, it just makes it easier. But you have to pay for it. So, you know, we're kind of thinking through like, well, how might we do that? Qualitative data, quantitative data, you know, approaches in a remote way. That we where we can create some efficiencies, but we're not going to break the bank every single time. Because if you think about some of these companies, you know, they were doing, you know, two, three sessions a day, maybe with internal and more user bringing outside consumers in and field sites. Of course, that's a different, you know. It's like, are we gonna be able to get back to that level again? I think we're gonna have to come up with some of these, you know, these tools.


John: Testing other product will have to be more strategic.


Darla: I think we're gonna have to really think about do what are the questions we need to ask and what's really important and prioritize those, at least for a while.


John: Now, have you been involved in with the virtual focus groups? How is that look? Is that something you are already doing?


Darla: Yeah.


John: I always have this concern that when you have people tasting in their homes in a what's supposed to be more controlled situation, you don't have any idea about, you know, the cleanliness in their house. Is the house stink of cat litter, you know, like how do you handle that if you do a virtual focus group? What it does that look like in practice?


Darla: Well, I think for, you know, the kinds of questions that we're asking, focus groups that home, that context of where they normally consume the product is valuable. Yeah, this is a project that I did long before this, but. One that I can talk a little bit about on heartburn relief, where we actually went into their homes. But this could easily have been, you know, an online one on one, you know, in-depth interviews. And it was so important for them to take us around to show us where were they taking this medication.


John: Interesting.


Darla: How were they being compliant with it? Was it reactive or a proactive approach for them and would never have gotten that information out of them had we not been in their homes. Talking about when that actually happens. Because otherwise they would've been working on memory with me. It turns out being that group and brought them in, you know, in person. Some of them. To have an in-person workshop, if you will. But I think again, the questions change a little bit. I was talking to a client about this is quantitative. But we're talking about doing a home use study, I mean claims studies is home use.


John: Yeah, of course. I mean, I definitely understand the value of having something I was thinking of in focus groups situation, though.


Darla: Sometimes having that context is really important because they're in their environment. But, yeah, if you if you're wanting if you've got to have control over the product, that's not the place that you're going to be. That's just not the approach you're going to take. And then I mentioned like claims testing. You know, just because you can do it doesn't mean you should do it, because at some point, you know, if you have to be defending what you did.


John: Yeah, right.


Darla: You know, so it's the same with anything. You know, if it doesn't make sense, then maybe it's something that you wait on. But I think you just move the question on. You know, sometimes it's like, well, maybe we can't ask that question right now, but what can we ask, you know?


John: You know, I think that the opportunity to collect more ecologically validated people's homes using technology is really exciting, actually. Probably something we should be doing more of.


Darla: I think you did something, did I just read maybe one of your LinkedIn posts where you're talking about how VR work can change people really, you know, we're validating the fact that it's changing people's responses for acceptance. And I remember I actually participated in that study. Yeah. So I was one of the participants and I think again, there are so many opportunities, right? For technology to play a part. We just need to understand. Again, it gets back to benchmarks right? How to respond before we put them in that context with that technology. How are they responding now that we are putting him in the context with technology? Do you know, it's just like we've done focus groups or quantitative approaches and, say, a tap room for, you know, for a spirit or, you know, or some kind of alcohol product. You know, when you put people in a place of social, you know, socializing and fellowship and, you know, their scores are going to go up. It really isn't a prize. But what else can we get from that experience? Right? We see behavior. We understand how they react. We get more of a sense of their motivation. You know what their selections are and how that changes where and when they're in that situation versus a sterile, you know, lab situation. So I see it as an opportunity for us to build out what can we be doing in this time that we may be able to take forward as best practices?


John: Yeah. Very interesting. It reminds me, actually, you know, we're talking about how I was forced to try new products as a result of this crisis. But we as researchers are being forced to try new methods. And it's very similar. I think analogies apt that we are going to diversify our research as a result of this crisis. I'm going to find that different tools are maybe appropriate or inappropriate in certain environments. Yeah, I think that's really a good point.


Darla: Also, just to add on to that, you know, I think sometimes we're so afraid of making mistakes. It's like the research is all about, you know, research is about mostly failures. Right? You can learn from. But we're in this. I think hopefully this is going to maybe get us back to saying what really is the importance and value of research, and that is learning as opposed to always coming up with the right answer, which I think most of us have been forced into doing. It's the whole, you know, kill the messenger kind of thing. You know, when we don't have a right answer, you know, then there was a failure. Well, that's not true. It may be that we were asking the wrong question. We were not taking the right approach. Maybe we have the wrong product. Maybe we don't have the right action plan, you know? And we're just we're not allowed as researchers to really freely be curious and learn anymore. Not always, that's not the way that everybody but oftentimes, you know, there's a lot on the line. Well, maybe this will take us back to a time to say, you know what? Maybe we can play a little bit. I mean, that's what research is all about, right? Let's play on them for a while and see what we find out.


John: Right. Well, disruption does drive innovation.


Darla: Right. Mother of invention I think is, you know.


John: That was excellent. We actually we're kind of overtime. You did many amazing points there in the last 30 minutes. Thank you very much for being on the show. I would like to conclude with advice for young sensory scientists, someone that just graduated, undergraduate, graduate degree for Food Science, Sensory science, that kind of thing. What advice would you give to that person on how to be most either fulfilled or successful over the next couple of years? What would you say to that person?


Darla: Well, I would first say do not be discouraged because there's plenty of opportunity out there. And as quickly as we went into this situation, we're gonna come out. And I think it's probably even more important for our students to really do a deep dive into where their passions. What would they do even if they weren't being paid for it? What would they be doing? And those are the places that they should be looking. I think to start their careers and also, I think it's a question now. And we've all had the opportunity to say what's important and what's our priorities in our lifestyle. I think it's a really good time to say what's the lifestyle that I want to lead going into my professional career? You know what? To me, and to keep those personal priorities equally as important as those professional priorities for growth, to be able to balance that for themselves because we've had the opportunity. All of us, I think, have had time to take restack and to say, I don't know, maybe there's some things I won't go back to and doing.


John: Yeah. That's great. Not all disruption is bad. Some disruption is sometimes quite healthy. So yeah, that's good. Excellent. Thank you so much for being on the show. And if someone wants to get in touch with you, what are the different platforms that you're active on or ways that you can be reached out?


Darla: I am on LinkedIn and I pop up as one of the first options there so they can find me in Research Vibe. Also email is always the best way at darlahall@researchvibe.com. There is a phone number there that you know that they can reach me. So that's the easiest initial. And then I might give them my cell phone possibly.


John: We'll put your Research Vibe's address, the URL in the show notes and we'll put your link here.


Darla: Yes, just join me on social media.


John: Sounds great. Thank you so much, Darla.


Darla: You're welcome.


John: Okay. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.



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