Group Manager of Guest Insights
Would you please tell us a little bit about your role at Target?
Brian: Sure. I’m a group manager on the Guest Insights Team at Target. Our team is here,
really, to drive better business decisions for the company and help deliver a great guest
experience through understanding guest behavior and understanding the marketplace. So,
I lead a team of insights professionals here who do just that, working on a whole host of
different topics. I personally have worked on all of our merchandise categories at Target.
Although, most recently, I’ve spent most of my time working to identify opportunities to
grow our apparel and accessories business.
You already have several private apparel lines, correct? In fact, that’s the crux of
your apparel business just so I make sure.
Brian: That’s correct. We have a mix of national and our own brands on our apparel floor
Obviously, Levi’s, etc., and then Target private labels.
Let’s talk about getting that proverbial seat at the table because that’s an issue that
consumer and shopper insights professionals have wrestled with for years with
varying degrees of success. Your group at Target, based on our previous
conversations, seems to have effectively crossed the bridge from a decision support
function to strategic business partner. What can you tell us about embedding
insights into the fabric of a company’s organizational structure at a strategic level?
Brian: Sure. Based on what we’ve done here, based on what I hear from our agencies,
based on what I hear from our manufacturers, I would call out a few important themes. I
think the first one is about the strategy-setting process for the business, itself. So, for any
company to develop truly consumer-driven strategies, those strategic planning processes
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really need to explicitly incorporate the perspective of the guest -- as we refer to our
shoppers. You need that clearly defined moment where that happens to ensure that that
gets embedded in.
I think the other benefit to having that moment in the process where you really reflect on
the guest and the marketplace is that it is a good chance to reconcile all the work that’s
been done since the last time you went through it from your own tracking studies, any
custom research you’ve done, any manufacturer-led insights that we’ve gathered and
really work to reach common conclusions and a common understanding of what’s
happening in the marketplace.
In addition to that, we as insights professionals need ongoing exposure to the business,
right? So, we need to be at the table with some frequency. We need to take the time to
really understand the business, not just from a shopper’s standpoint, but in terms of the
financial model, industry trends, even the personalities of the leadership to some extent.
It’s really important for us to understand and to have exposure to help us stress test our
findings and recommendations against the realities that they are facing in the business
and to really establish yourself as an ongoing thought partner with the business owners.
In fact, at Target we often refer to our merchant and marketing partners as clients within
our team. We really think of it as that kind of a consulting relationship or partnership that
goes beyond just delivering insights from time to time.
Lastly, I think related to that, is the talent that you bring on to a team like this. It is really
important to bring a mix of different experiences and different skill sets. And not just
market research and analytics, but business and consulting skills, marketing expertise and
financial acumen. Really important to have those different perspectives. And the teams
that are too heavy or, I suppose, too light on market research skills, in particular, may
find it harder to deliver a holistic point of view to the business owner in terms of what we
are seeing and our recommendations for what they should do about it.
Is that mix of specialization and expertise something that is a legacy or something
that’s relatively recent to your organization?
Brian: At Target we are always looking to attract the best talent we can find, and we’ve
had that approach for quite a long time. So, I’d say we’ve been in this position for a while
in terms of the mix of the talent that delivers this kind of function at Target.
I think it’s commendable and perhaps a bit unusual. Frequently you see a shopper
insights department being, as you put it, extremely heavy on shopper insights
expertise without bringing in those additional pieces of the puzzle that really help
people wrap their brains around what’s going on with the business. That’s a terrific
asset to have.
I want to take you up 30,000 feet. So much about the shopper and consumer
research industry has changed in just a few years. I’m wondering what your take is
on where the industry is headed in terms of trends, technology, methodology, etc.
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Brian: Sure. To continue on the theme I was just on, I think one is making sure that we as
insights professionals continue to do a better job of understanding what it is that business
owners care about. I don’t think it’s possible to over-invest in really thinking through the
prioritization of the work that we do and, even more importantly, clearly scoping each
piece of work that we do.
Some of the more successful projects that I’ve seen executed often took two or three
months to really properly scope. Frankly, a lot of the studies that end up sitting on the
shelf and collecting dust are the ones that were not properly scoped in the beginning and
a team went off and did work that wasn’t quite the work that needed to be done.
When you get to the end of these studies, we also need to be cautious about the
specificity of the recommendations that we make. So, it’s not our job to make business
decisions. We don’t own the P&L. Our work is an input into some of these decisions and
we need to think about the value that we add coming not just from the data that we
collect, but as I mentioned, from that ongoing thought partnership, that advocacy for the
guest perspective over a period of time.
Related to that, as well, is to be really careful about predicting the future. So, I tend to
look at the “who” question, the “how” question, the “why” question and to be a little
more cautious about the “if” questions or the “will they buy it” sorts of questions. We
know that consumers are sometimes unreliable in trying to predict their own future
behavior. And to my point earlier, business owners have their own intuition about the
marketplace and the financial environment and making those predictions. So, relieving
ourselves of feeling that responsibility to come with hyper-specific recommendations or
hyper-specific predictions for what’s going to happen in the future I think, actually,
results in a better partnership.
The last thing I would say is just around project design, generally. We have found that
projects that tend to have a more iterative approach--shorter, more iterative steps--to a
project tends to be a lot more successful than going off for months and then coming back
and unveiling the results.
That iterative process really encourages collaboration over time and does help course
correct for learnings along the way. And as you go, it gives you an opportunity to really
explore a wide range of resources and to dive into primary research, syndicated data,
basket data, whatever you’ve collected from manufacturers, trends in the marketplace and
so forth. Each of those has its strengths and blind spots, and by a more frequent check-in
with the business owner and sharing course corrections along the way, we’ve found much
better results with that than saying that we are going to disappear for four months and
come back with a 100-page report.
As a major retailer, Target manages obviously quite a few partnerships with
merchandise vendors. What does this entail from a shopper insights perspective?
How does that play out for your particular group?
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Brian: Our vendors have a real wealth of knowledge about our guests and about their own
categories. We are working as a company really hard to continue to build partnerships
with them. I think, first of all, getting the work that we do prioritized and distributed
appropriately across our team and across our vendors is really important.
Most shopper insights teams do create some version of a learning plan for a period of
time. And this is really a great opportunity for us to work with our vendors to understand
their priorities, to help them understand our priorities and plan the work accordingly. And
this can happen a lot of different ways -- from occasional conversations or occasional
sharing of upcoming work to a much more rigorous process where you are developing
joint learning plans across multiple vendors at the same time.
What’s important is the outcome, which is that we need to be leveraging the right
resources for the right projects. So, depending on who has the expertise, who has the
capacity and that we are doing our best to avoid redundancy in our work -- particularly
since our business owners may be seeing different studies on the same topic at different
points in time. I’ll point out, actually, that some of our most impactful work often
happens when we’re not partnering just on developing learning plans, but when we are
actually partnering on a project basis, as well. We do that from time to time and it works
out really well.
And then, lastly, obviously sharing our findings at the end of these projects is really
important so that we are making sure that either our business owners are hearing
consistent messages on the same topic or, if they are not hearing consistent messages, at
least that we all understand how we got to some different conclusions and that our
business owners can make an educated decision about how to proceed off of the findings.
In terms of recommendations, you mentioned earlier that you are not in the
predictions business, but in the understanding business. But, I also know that based
on what we discussed in our previous conversation that you take a very
collaborative approach with your business partners, which goes back to that initial
question about how do you embed yourself into the strategy and so forth. So, to
what extent would you say that you are comfortable with administering
recommendations to your business partners? Is this something that’s a very general
take or is it something that’s relatively specific? I’m trying to wrap my brain
Brian: Sure. Well, we have a lot of cross-functional partners with expertise in a retail
environment -- in marketing, presentation, finance and so forth. So, we often will take an
approach of recommending things that can be improved, white space for things that the
guest is looking for that we’re not delivering today, and really partner over a period of
time with our cross-functional partners to shape what the specific solution to the problem
But I think we are at our best when we are accurately and thoroughly describing what the
guest is seeing, thinking, feeling, liking, not liking. And that can be general in terms of
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the positioning of a business or it can be very specific in terms of a particular product, a
particular brand, a particular part of a store. But, I don’t think we should be coming with
specific recommendations when we have cross-functional partners who are smarter than
we are at how to fix those problems.
So, it’s more of an identification approach and awareness than anything else.
Going back to partnerships with your merchandise vendors, would you say that
those are playing a more or less or equally prominent role in recent times for your
Brian: Our goal would be more. We absolutely see an opportunity there. We have a lot of
really smart partners that we work with that have such a wealth of knowledge beyond
what we can gather internally. We are working hard to continue to improve those
partnerships to continue to plan our work, to continue to share all of the great learnings
that we have and build our business and improve our guest experience together.
Do you find it challenging to reconcile perspectives from a merchandiser vs. the
retailer and perhaps your internal client, as well?
Brian: It can be, but if we are planning the work early and partnering early on in the
process, we often will get to a much better place in the end vs. operating independently
and then coming together after we’ve completed different pieces of work that, let’s say,
reach different conclusions.
The key for us is partnering early on and making sure that we are all clear about what we
are out doing, what we are going after and then checking in along the way to understand
what we are learning and to find the commonalities, find the differences and make sure
that we are just understanding and explaining what the differences are.
We started out by talking about how to optimize the shopper insights function from
a business strategy standpoint. How about from an innovation standpoint -- you
mentioned white space for example. Is there a distinction? Can you elaborate?
Brian: For larger companies especially, there are some distinctions between strategy and
innovation. And how our teams deliver insights to drive those is a little bit different
depending on what you are going after.
So, first off, strategy and innovation feed each other. Your strategy informs where to go
look for new ideas. The new ideas you find today could be your strategies tomorrow. So,
we are always looking to innovate on our strategy.
But from an insights perspective, you just have to use the right tool for the right purpose.
So, in a strategic planning process, it’s important to have a really thorough assessment of
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the guest, the marketplace and the economic environment and so forth because what you
are trying to do is stay relevant in the marketplace by delivering the best guest experience
that you can.
Bringing radically new ideas into those discussions can cause a bit of swirl and actually
distract you from what your strategic focus is. So, the strategic insights, if you will,
should be a little more weighted towards assessment than opportunity.
On the innovation side, you are looking to experiment and explore, more than to assess
what’s happening. So, from an insights standpoint appropriate tools here would be
qualitative immersion, trend watching, looking globally, looking beyond your own
industry for inspiration. And this ties back to the point earlier about iterative studies.
Scoping a massive, lengthy project to go identify the big thing is, in my opinion, bound to
fail. You can be much more nimble digging around for ideas in a lot of different places
and then exploring and testing them as they come up.
You’ve given us a lot to chew on, Brian: some outstanding tips and certainly seed
for thought on how to get that seat at the table in a major retail environment, as well
as how to look at it from a trending point of view. This concludes episode two of
“The Shopper Insider.” Brian, thanks for joining us.
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