Skip to content

4 Lessons From The Decision-Driven Consumer Insights Revolution At Blue Diamond Growers

Erik Larson Feb 27, 2023 2:30:00 PM
Sarb Dhanjal-Brown, Director of Consumer Insights at Blue Diamond Growers.

Over the past decade, the old view of market research became obsolete as leading companies informed their innovation and growth initiatives by investing heavily in new consumer insights capabilities. Now, a new decision-driven revolution is underway.

That message came through loud and clear in a recent Decision-Back Podcast featuring Sarb Dhanjal-Brown, Director of Consumer Insights at Blue Diamond Growers, the world’s leading almond company.

Traditionally, market research was treated like a business support function. According to Dhanjal-Brown, it was “a very transactional relationship many years ago: we're going to explore advertising, so let's conduct a market research study.”

“The [consumer insights] change was to understand behavior versus just reactions to content or product ideas,” she said. “It's about understanding what drives the behavior of a human being that will then reveal the true, underlying insight of what drives them and how we can address their unmet needs.”

However, research shows that ​​those insights only make it to the decision table 22% of the time. “There's no shortage of data. Everything’s accelerating. We have to deal with demand issues continuously, with rapidly changing consumers,” explained Dhanjal-Brown, but “all our data sources don't provide any return on investment unless we act on them.”

With economic uncertainty at historic highs, companies must get the most value out of their insights and analytics investments in the shortest possible time. And given most companies' poor adoption and activation of consumer insights, any improved use of these insights can quickly become a competitive advantage.

Dhanjal-Brown sees intensifying the focus on “decisions to be made” as the way to elevate consumer insights' return on investment. “The point of decision-back or decision-oriented thinking is, what are we actually trying to do with all this? It's fascinating to see how much noise gets stripped out of the process when you're down to maybe two or three pertinent questions that ultimately inform a business decision.”

How to unlock insights with decision-back thinking

The point of decision-back thinking is to focus consumer insights on the business's specific decisions. Dhanjal-Brown outlined four steps to make this happen.

#1 - Elevate consumer insights teams to become objective decision-back champions. 

From the perspective of consumer insights teams, perhaps the most important step is to elevate their function's role in the company. As Dhanjal-Brown described, consumer insights teams must shift conversations “from understanding how a particular concept scored with consumers…to what is the decision we're trying to make so that our insight professionals can recommend the right approach.”

To this end, Dhanjal-Brown purposefully established the consumer insights function at Blue Diamond as its own constituency. “We need to be an objective consultative voice for the enterprise, whether it's popular or not. Our team will give you an objective opinion and not have it biased in any way because ultimately that’s in the best interest of the enterprise going.”

“That doesn't mean we do not partner incredibly closely with our stakeholder partners in marketing, sales, finance or supply chain,” she explained. “In fact, many of my team members are embedded in those functions and they work collaboratively and very closely with their marketing and innovation partners.”

This approach ensures that consumer insights teams understand their partners’ business issues and what decisions they are trying to make, building relationships to harness the power of data and technology to get better insights that directly inform commercial decisions.

“It's about having rich discussions…placing it into implications for the enterprise,” Dhanjal-Brown emphasized. “It's one thing to describe what is occurring, but it's another to elevate the discussion, explain the net impact of what could happen or is happening, and recommend solutions.”

#2 - Connect data to insights to decisions to outcomes.

“It's fair to say that…there will not be a future of insights unless we connect the disparate data sources together,” according to Dhanjal-Brown. “That's where the power is. When we can connect the analytics data to our insights data to our advocacy data…then you have a supercharged knowledge base that can provide insight…and that you can activate against with evidence.”

Companies have extensively invested in data and analytics capabilities to increase decision-making confidence. However, that return-on-investment is not realized until the analytical insights are connected to business decisions that drive high-performance outcomes. 

“If insights are siloed, we just won't realize the value of the data investments we make. The real value is when we're able to validate our own work...and predict what is going to happen in the future,” Dhanjal-Brown emphasized. “I can't see a way around that.”

#3 - Remember that not all decisions are created equal.

Determining when to apply a decision-back approach is critical. Dhanjal-Brown described, “We can't do it for everything. It's very question pertinent depending on the business issues. Not all decisions are created equal.”

The scope and risk of a decision are major drivers of determining the right approach and choosing the right tools. Insights professionals benefit from training to understand the differences. “Is this a small decision, or is it a medium decision? Is this a big risk-taking decision we are about to take?” said Dhanjal-Brown. “That's something our insight professionals need to be more well-versed in. We want to be able to go back to our stakeholders and business partners to provide them with the right approach and the right tools.”

#4 - Build new muscles across the enterprise.

Decision-back thinking requires that commercial decision-makers take a new perspective to tie insights and decisions together.

As Dhanjal-Brown described, “Muscles need to be developed across functions. It requires training. When we think about decision-back, what are the decisions that we're trying to make, it's an art form to recommend the right approach [and identify] the risks we may be willing to take.”

Thus, the learning opportunity includes not only insights and analytics professionals but also marketing, sales, category management, or finance.

“Business stakeholders are very good at posing the questions, we need to know X, we need to understand why people aren't buying Y,” Dhanjal-Brown explained. “But when you ask what decision we are trying to inform, there's often a pause, and if there's a pause, it’s because they haven't quite thought it through carefully, why am I asking for the information in the first place?”

The goal is to bring focus and simplicity to the commercial decision-making process. “Ultimately, it strips away the noise of what you might be exploring, which may not be the right way to get to the ultimate question that we're trying to answer, the decision to be made,” Dhanjal-Brown advocated. “It will be more efficient, but…it will take a new muscle.”

To succeed, she believes companies must “not only develop strategies that are rooted in the needs of the consumer in the future but also make sure that our people are trained accordingly.”

Decisions at the speed of post-pandemic consumers

In the past, relatively slow-growing consumer-focused industries had little time pressure to improve decision-making practices. Then the pandemic changed everything, and again necessity was the mother of invention.

“Demand is changing so rapidly and the consumers are changing so rapidly, and we have to keep at pace with that,” according to Dhanjal-Brown. “There has to be an investment in growing our own people, as well as keeping an external curiosity on how the future consumer is behaving.”

In her view, decision-back thinking provides a guide for faster, more impactful reactions to the new world. “The process starts with effectively harnessing all the insights that we have…and making sure there is a common thread, a connection point across all of those to bring value to the enterprise.” She concluded, “It's going to be quite empowering and requires the permission to fail but to fall forward and learn.”

This article was originally published in Forbes.