The following are excerpts from the Insights Association's April 10 Virtual Town Hall: Fireside Chat – Corporate Insights Departments Respond to COVID-19. Edited from a session transcript provided by Focus Forward & FF Transcription. 

Please Note: The views expressed are the personal views of the panelists and may not be understood or quoted as being made on behalf of or reflecting the position of their employers. Views are presented solely to aid discussion and should not be interpreted as company policy or guidance.

Presenters: 

  • Khary Campbell, Assistant Vice President - Research and Innovation, L'Oréal
  • Jackie Chan, Vice President, Head of Decision Insights Group, Prudential Financial
  • Lisa Courtade, Executive Director, Department Head, Global Customer Insights, Merck & Co. Inc. USA
  • Brett Townsend, Director of North America Insights, Electrolux
  • Melanie Courtright, CEO, Insights Association (moderator)

Melanie Courtright: Let's begin by asking, what's the single biggest change you've seen in your department as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Lisa, I'd like to start with you.

Lisa Courtade: I think the most obvious change has been the dress code but that's probably not what you're asking about. The team is definitely a lot more relaxed and they're bringing their full selves to work these days because you really can't hide your environment where you are - the kids, the dogs, the husband walking through the background - all of those things are meaning that we're having to be a lot more flexible and a lot more authentic. But I think these are actually good things because what I've seen the team do is really embrace what I'm going to call "extreme collaboration." They really pulled together. They're connecting, probably more now than we were when we were all physically in the building. Talking to each other, being really flexible around work schedules, around balancing capacity. And helping each other with new tools, new techniques, and bouncing ideas off each other. Asking things like, "How can we handle going to field in certain markets, or with certain audiences?" We did a sharing of some teams that have done online workshops, online design workshops with teams, very successfully. So teaching one another and really advancing the function in a time where people, I think, could be paralyzed.

Jackie Chan: I would echo all of that, Lisa. From where we're sitting, we see reprioritization really as the big theme here. At a very human level, we're seeing a blending of our personal and work lives in ways that we've probably never seen before, and we find ourselves having to reprioritize our time and figuring out how we play various roles throughout the day. Then at a work level, business priorities have shifted and are shifting given the broader context. So the kinds of demand for insights from our leaders and our stakeholders have changed, and we have had to reprioritize our portfolio of work as well. And, given people's headspace, it's being taken up by so many different things these days. We really have to be disciplined and focus only on what is important and has real impact.

Melanie Courtright: Khary or Brett, anything you'd like to add there?

Brett Townsend: I would say the amount of empathy that we have for our consumer has changed quite a bit. We've always liked to feel that we place ourselves in their place and that we don't think about ourselves but we think about our consumer, but now we're going through what our consumers are going through. So I think just in the discussions that my team has had, just that level of empathy and togetherness that we feel that we're all in this with everyone has changed quite a bit. Rather than being a detached observer and learned person about our consumer, we feel that we're doing a little bit more with them in this case.

Melanie: That's great. So, Khary, Jackie said that priorities have begun to change. How have Insights' priorities changed for you over the past few weeks?

Khary Campbell: I'd say we've been forced to become very hyper-focused, and I think of anyone who's been in the business for some time, this tends to happen. Whether it's the recession in 2008, whether it's that your business performance is on the decline or facing a big competitive move, there are things that will happen externally that force you to become hyper-focused and that's what we're seeing right now. I'd say for where I am in particular, we're doing a lot of upstream early innovation work. So, I think the impact is a little bit less. There's certainly still impact, but we're talking things that are maybe two or three years out. So, you have a little bit of room to make some adjustments and look at some postponements, but even then you start to trim out those things that were going to be nice to have. It could add some context. I think we're all familiar with some things that are more CYA, they're not really going to make a decision, but it's more to have backup plans. So now, we're just having really honest conversations. Is this something that in the state of where we are now - we're not really sure where the end is going to be - do we have to do this? What are we going to get out of this? What decision can we actually drive forward? So it's really created a lot of hyper-focused conversation and it's forcing us to do it globally because, similar to Brett's point, everyone is being impacted by this. Everyone is experiencing it. So every country, every region of our company - is experiencing the same thing. So it does create that more global prioritization which is certainly an exercise. I wish it wasn't this that was creating the need to do this, but I think being hyper-focused is certainly good. 

Melanie: Who else wants to talk about how priorities might have changed?

Jackie: I'll jump in. I think now more than ever we have to keep a really good pulse on our target audiences. There's a lot of really good work already being done by different research companies out there to monitor impact on consumers. So really for us, we've shifted some of our time to - instead of doing actual primary research - to synthesizing a lot of the great work that's already sitting out there, and extrapolating what the relevant insights might be for our institution. What it means for our specific businesses. So beyond consumers, our target audience includes employers and institutions that are retirement plan sponsors, financial advisors, and institutional asset managers. So we've also started to do more on understanding how COVID is impacting those audiences and their outlook because there's a little less existing research on those fronts. In terms of some of the projects that are being held or postponed, I think those are where we think the results may be a little skewed because of current events and any price sensitivity type research. There are also some projects that may be unnecessarily clogging our customer communications and headspace, so those are the things that we're also shifting away from.

Brett: With us, it's provided a really good opportunity internally because a lot of our projects have been moved to Q3, Q4, even into 2021. So what it has allowed us the opportunity to do as a team is to lend our expertise and experience to other groups within marketing. So we are helping out our ownership team which is everything post-purchase. We're helping our customer marketing. We're helping our brand marketing team. So it's allowing us to display the versatility that we have and our knowledge of the entire business by being able to work with these other groups and show that we're more than just Insights people. That we're really using our marketing experience and our understanding of how Insights works within the entire business structure that we're able to very seamlessly work with some of these other teams. So in that sense, it's been a really good opportunity for our team. Especially for the people on my team to be able to demonstrate their thought leadership in other areas of the company.

Melanie: How do we think this might impact us long term, post-COVID? What things may linger?"

Jackie: There are so many angles to this. Thinking about projects that are being postponed, for example, we really appreciate our partners' flexibility to work with us through the reprioritization process, and some that have been willing to step in at a minute's notice for advice and guidance, almost acting as an extension of our team. I think this is something that will continue to be really important for us as we continue down this economic path. 16.8 million Americans lost their job in the past 3 weeks. So in this kind of environment, we're really being prudent with our resources. So the ability to tap into trusted pools of resources as demand changes will be very valuable. And I think something else to think about - this idea of presence free or no physical contact. I think people will be more conscious about what really requires physical presence, and this has implications on multiple fronts. The way we work as teams will be changed forever in my opinion. Organizations that were previously less open to remote work would likely have a very different view coming out of this experience. And in terms of research methods, things like digital ethnographies, that might gain popularity along with tools that are powered by natural language processing algorithms to track and make sense of consumer conversations that are happening across social. Those are just some of the things that I'm picking up.

Lisa: I think what we're seeing is that even though the team already had a lot of digital and online and mobile tools, there were always some holdouts both within the Insights team and the commercial teams that there was only one right way, a traditional way of approaching insights. What we're seeing is the greater adoption of those methods, and probably an acceleration to understanding that you don't always have to be face-to-face to be effective. We're even evolving some of those tools as well to say, "How would we take this process that we have that works very well in person, and how do we adapt that to an online platform?" Which gives us a greater reach as we think about global and how you connect with audiences or even customer types that may not be able to come to you personally?

Brett: I would agree with everything that Jackie and Lisa have said with the caveat that it's still a little early to tell exactly how it's going to be. A lot of it's going to be determined by the consumers. Are they going to let us back in their homes if we want to do in-person research again? We're going to be at their mercy as to whether they want strangers back into their home after all this settles down. I think there's still so much uncertainty about how the economy is going to recover, and how work is going to go, and how our lives are going to get back to normal. I think a lot of that is blending into our work as far as what is it going to look like? The only thing I can say for certain is that we're going to be pretty busy after this all blows over because of everything that's being pushed into the latter half of the year.

Khary: I'd say the same thing. The moment I think I've got a good grasp on it and can somewhat guess what's going to happen next, a new piece of information comes out, there's a new development. There's new decisions coming down from a company standpoint. But I can certainly see in broad terms, there will be more stuff moving online. I think that's a great point by Brett - we're going to have to see where consumers let us interact and engage with them again. As a beauty company, there are certain categories, such as makeup that requires being placed on the skin. For testing, for example, where we're applying the makeup for consumers. Or if you think of the retail makeup department, where beauticians are helping them apply products. What type of impact is that going to have? And so we're currently thinking through what all those implications can be, and we've had some conversations with futurists to try to understand where things might go. But we're in the middle of the eye of the storm, and so anxiously awaiting and seeing where we can get a good beat on what's going to take place long-term.

Lisa: We're getting a lot of questions around what research is stopping and what's starting. I would say that increase in work that was noted by the client side in the IA survey isn't just about insights into what the market's doing today. There's certainly lots of trackers looking at consumer sentiment and consumer confidence. But the big question is around foresight. Can we help look into what the future is going to be, and what are the long-term implications on the business? The short-term ones are actually pretty clear, and becoming more clear day by day, but what does that look like long-term? And I think that's a huge opportunity for departments like ours within our organization to help lead that and help show how we can pivot in that future world.

Melanie: Exactly right. As we figure out the foresight of what's the new normal, we'll have to have new baselines and new metrics around that. And that brings us to another question - what are you starting new and what are you continuing? Brett, do you want to take a stab at that?

Brett: I would agree with what Lisa's saying. We're not doing any COVID research right now, because a lot of other people are doing it. I think after these first few weeks we're all seeing that it's pretty much the same thing. It may just be growing in intensity, but it's the same issues and the same concerns. What I'm being asked to do is, tell us what's going to happen after this. What is very much company strategy type work, about when this all blows over, we still have a business to run and we still have company goals and we still have strategic initiatives that have not been moved off the table, and need to continue to go forward. So, we're working now on these more strategic projects. If assuming things get somewhat back to normal, then we can't be caught flatfooted having just put all of our focus into what's happening now. Especially in a company with long lead times, like appliances and technology. We have to keep our timelines going in order to be able to develop the things that we're working on. So I would say that everything we're doing now is all future focused.

Melanie: Can you talk about what your philosophy is on research continuity?

Jackie: To Brett's point, we need to inform our strategy. There may be some small nuance that we'll need to take into consideration, but there's a broader strategy that's been put into place, and there's a lot of work that we need to do to help drive that forward. So that work doesn't stop. And then I think, echoing Lisa's point, the work now needs to be what does this mean for us in terms of our broader strategy for the future? What may change, and what needs to stay the course. I think those are the kinds of things we're helping to inform with the research that we're doing.

Lisa: There's a question around whether or not we keep doing foundational research, and does it depend on the industry? It absolutely does. It depends on the industry, and it even depends upon the business line within that industry. In some places - you can imagine it doesn't necessarily make sense to do a whole lot of work on cruise lines right now, maybe, or ad campaigns for exotic vacations. You might be looking for something more strategic in those areas, around how those marketplaces change in the future, or what sort of assurances you need to give people. But I'm actually a little surprised about the level of interest that there is in tracking right now, considering that's always a target for, "Why do we need this? Nothing ever changes." I think COVID gives us a really good example of why we do need it, because we're seeing changes fundamentally in how people feel. Now, how much of that is sticky is going to depend, but we have to make really choiceful decisions right now around what types of activities continue, and even what questions are appropriate to ask right now, and whom to ask. If I think about the healthcare business, many of the targeted professionals that healthcare companies would be talking to, whether they're in pharma or in medical or device, they're kind of busy right now. So we have to think about what makes sense in terms of connecting with them, and what we should be asking them at this time.

Brett: The strategy work we're doing, we're making sure that it can be adjusted after the post-COVID return to normal. Because I think just like we saw with the recession 10 years ago, there were some permanent behavioral changes that were a result of that, and I can only assume that we will see permanent behavioral change, or at least if it's not permanent, it lasts longer than just a few weeks or a few months. But it will be hard for us to assume any of those post-COVID behavioral changes right now, so we're still going ahead with our strategy work, but reserving the right to make adjustments to that strategy afterwards when we do our touch bases, and really get back in touch with our consumers to see what of these current temporary behavioral changes have stuck, what has dropped off, and then how can we adjust to that? So it's always about that flexibility on our side as well.

Melanie: That's great. This is a good segue into one of the questions we've been asked - what do we think the best methods are to use to understand what kind of relationship consumers will have with brands in the future, post-COVID?

Lisa: Well, if you know anything about me, it's that I tend to be methodologically agnostic. I've always believed that we have to use the method, and flex to meet our consumers where they are. And I think right now we have both a professional and an ethical responsibility, to be really empathetic to their environment and their situation. If you're a physician or a nurse on the front lines in a really hard-hit area, whether that's in New York or Italy or Spain, if you're just coming out of it in China - what should we be asking them, and how should we be connecting with them? I've seen lots of studies and lots of feedback that doctors are generally willing to engage, but it's got to be relevant and meaningful. So a lot of the questions in considering, do we go live with a project right now is, is this the right time to have this conversation? And what is the right way? Today, most of the right way involves being online. Doing a lot of shorter mobile surveys, or community-based work. We've done some fancier, more involved work as well, but the idea is we don't want to ever put our teams, our partners or our customers at risk. And that's really incredibly important, especially right now.

Jackie: I think it's what is right for the audience, for the moment, and the context that they're in. I will say, though, I think for me right now efficiency is top of mind. And it's not just efficiency for my team, it's also efficiency for the people that we're trying to reach to get their advice. And there's already ten research companies out there asking the same set of people the same set of questions. There's really no reason for us to continue down that path, right? What are the right things that we should be asking, and what is the right way to reach out to those people that you're trying to get advice from? So we are trying to do more work with our financial advisors, for example, but I'm not just going to reach out to them without understanding who's already doing that work, so tapping into existing secondary research. Understanding that their time is precious, because they're trying to reach out to their customers to calm them down. So efficiency to me is top of mind.

Melanie: Let's pivot just a little bit to talk about your partner relationships. Khary, what's the best advice you have for partners and prospective partners right now?

Khary: I think that some of the best things right now are to be forward-looking. So I think a few of us have touched on the fact that everything right now is COVID-focused, very much in the moment. And while certainly we're going to need help navigating this, we need help understanding those implications, and therefore what should we be doing. And so those who can link very specifically, "Okay, COVID's happening. Here are the likely impacts," and then take it a next step further; "Because of this, these are the things you should be considering, or these are the things very specific to your business or your company that we already know," and then showing uniquely how they can help us work through that and help solve those problems or be those partners in thought, that's what's going to be helpful. Because quite honestly, anything that's coming my way right now externally that's COVID-focused, it's too much. It's drinking from the firehose, because not only do we have a lot coming in externally, we have a ton of activity that's taken place internally coming from different parts of the globe. And I think, to Jackie's point, showing us how to be more efficient, how it can be very much a value add. Those are things I would say would be very helpful, having been on that side of the table and been the partner before. That's how I would recommend approaching it.

Melanie: I remember post 9/11 they talked about people being affected by just consuming too much 9/11 media. They were just constantly watching the television, and there were people who really had to undo some of the internal change that happened as a result of just too much consumption of watching that tragedy unfold. While we can't watch with our literal eyes this unfold, because it's more of an invisible tragedy, some of that seems to also be creeping in here with just so much data, so much information. And even here in our business world, I'm hearing you guys talk a little bit about so much information coming at you internally, externally, from partners, from prospects. Are you guys feeling that there's just too much information? 

Lisa: Yes. I was actually going to say, we should turn some of that empathy on our client partners as well because I can't count the number of messages I get. "Since you have a lot of free time," or, "We would love to get together and chat about COVID, or do a round table, or participate in a study, or try out a new method and do a capabilities presentation." I would say my email volume has doubled in the past month, which is just incredible. So a lot of people are being inundated, and we're getting a lot of new demands from the business as well. What I would recommend is thinking about, how do you connect with your clients in a meaningful way to say, "OK, how do we plan together for what comes after?" There will be pent up work. As work gets postponed and there are things that we really can't find an online way to accomplish, what's that going to look like in the third and fourth quarter? Having a plan and sitting down with your key partners to really map out what that's going to look like from a resourcing perspective, from a budget perspective. And be patient, because not all of your clients are going to know. When you say, "Are you going to have budget?" They may be worried about, are they going to have a job? They may be also dong several other jobs at home, like teaching their kids and cooking and cleaning and trying to find groceries, and worrying about themselves or a partner or a relative who's sick. So there are a lot of things that are going on for that person that we need to take into context when we're connecting and asking them those questions.

Brett: If anything I'm busier now, because we have just as much or even more work to do from a professional standpoint, and then as Lisa said, we're helping with homework or things around the house. So I definitely don't have extra time, and yeah, I think the volume of emails I've got has been even more and it's all COVID-related or business development-related, and I'm saying, "Man, this is not the time." So I would just say patience, flexibility, agility. Just like things are changing for you on the agency side, they are changing just as much or even more for us. And things that I have planned for earlier this week have already changed, or things last week have already changed. And if you were to ask me the question about, will there be pent-up study demand for later this year? My guess would be yes, but that could easily change. We just need you guys to understand the situation that we're in.

Melanie: That's great. What keeps you up at night right now?

Khary:  You know what? From a professional standpoint there isn't much that's keeping me up right now, because it's to a point where there's not much that I can really control. I spend a great deal of time during the day working with my team, working with our partners internally and externally and planning as much as we can. But it's also gotten to the place where we feel such great empathy for each other, of saying at some point we need to step back from this, just from a mental health standpoint and an emotional health standpoint. Because we really humanize all of our experiences working as professionals, but also the people we are outside of the office. I'd say the first two weeks I was staying up all night. Thinking about a lot of things. "I don't know what's going to happen. What are we going to do with these different studies? What are we going to do with our team?" But now it's really to a point where you just work smartly and with great empathy during the day, and then at night I'm allowing myself to just step back for a bit, be with my family, and be thankful for the things we do have and that we are able to still do, and most importantly that we're safe and healthy right now. So I think for me that's the perspective I've been able to take over the course, but in the beginning of the first week it was tough, and now it's leveled off a bit.

Jackie: I think that's great, Khary. Focusing on the things that you have control over, and not worry about the things that you don't have control over. I'm blessed in that I'm somebody who doesn't normally have trouble sleeping, so I can't literally answer the question. But I think there are a lot of things on people's minds. Like my family's health, my team's well-being, the economy, the future of the job market, the small businesses in my town. The list goes on, but I would guess that I'm not unique in that situation. Everyone's headspace is being occupied with a lot of things, and so I think taking the time for self-care is extremely important.

Lisa: After I notified my team that we would be working remotely, I sent a follow-up note to them, because I spent a fair amount of time working from home over the years, and gave them some advice around creating a schedule and keeping to it, even if you have kids and spouses. Making sure you build in breaks, so you get up and go for - even if it's a walk to the mailbox, you've got to - or run up and down the stairs in your own house. You've got to do something that breaks that up. And I was amazed at the number of people who sent notes back that that was a Godsend to them, because they had kids making pizzas at 2 in the morning, and playing video games, and sleeping until 1 and then getting up and foraging. And that becomes disruptive for everybody, and it's hard for them to engage. But I think it is important to keep that balance, because there are a lot of things that are on all of our minds in terms of managing our businesses and keeping them healthy, caring about our people from a physical perspective, a mental perspective, a financial perspective, and worrying about our families in addition to getting those studies out and connecting with our customers and understanding what's next.

Khary: I'm connecting with my team on video conferences. I spend the first three of the five minutes giving any type of business-pertinent update I need to, and we spend the rest of that hour or so just talking. What are you doing in your house? Or doing tours of each other's houses, and children are hopping on, saying hello, sharing things. We're sharing food recipes. We started two of them a day, realizing that timing is better for some people later in the day. So I'll hop on a morning one where we'll have a coffee happy hour, and then we're going to have another one later today and I'll join that one. So that's helped a lot from a work standpoint, and I'd say at home it's getting physically active. Just getting online and seeing some of my friends are posting their at-home workouts, and then we kind of do a challenge to each other. 

Melanie: You can hear the things that are changing in your own lives, and you still have those questions: What's going to linger? What's going to go back to a new normal? What's going to stay gone? What's going to stay in your lives going forward? So thank you all very much. Any final thoughts, Jackie, Khary, Brett, Lisa, that are-that you'd like to share with anyone?

Lisa: Well, I was looking at this question from Simon Chadwick that I thought was particularly relevant, and I think it's good to end on. And his question is, Do you believe the status of the insights function in our companies and in the industry will be enhanced when we come out of this? Will the impact be understood and respected? And the answer to that is, if we do this right. If we are reactive, if we are running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cutoff and we're in a panic mode, or if all we're doing is tracking this and admiring the problem, then the answer is, I think we're going to come out worse than we were coming in. But I think if we can take that leadership role, and not only diagnose the impact of what's going on, but also have the foresight to lead our company strategically and lead those brands strategically to be successful in the post-COVID world, I think that really elevates the function and what we could be. Because we've never been in more demand than we are right now because people are looking for insight. So, if we rise to that occasion, I think it puts us in a very different place as a department and as a profession.