Maria Vorovich of GoodQues: “Worship insights!”

Worship insights! — Every company decision should start and stop with the target audience. Brands that are consumer-obsessed are the brands that are the most trusted and believable. REI is a great example of this sort of brand; REI closes during the biggest retail holiday of the year — Black Friday — because they know that their community of consumers will […]

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Worship insights! — Every company decision should start and stop with the target audience. Brands that are consumer-obsessed are the brands that are the most trusted and believable. REI is a great example of this sort of brand; REI closes during the biggest retail holiday of the year — Black Friday — because they know that their community of consumers will be more loyal as a result of the gesture.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Maria Vorovich.

Maria is an award-winning leader in bringing empathy to brands in a way that builds their business for a purpose-driven world. She commits to the effective power of more human business as leader and cofounder of GoodQues, a research studio specializing in empathetic data. Throughout her career Maria has launched, built and repositioned companies for success — overseeing strategy for brands such as Covergirl, Marriott, Kiehl’s, McCormick, MAC and more. Maria’s role is that of a data-powered, consumer-centric growth agent, challenging convention and pushing CEOs, CMOs and founders to think differently. The practice of empathy across her career has improved cultural relevance and leveraged unorthodox insight for effective strategy — earning EFFIES, Cannes Lions and Clio Awards along the way)

Having lived, studied and worked in Belarus, Italy and India, Maria is a globetrotter, culture enthusiast and trend-spotter. To help circulate the culture of creativity in New York City, she invests in the arts; on rare weekends you can find her as a docent at the New Museum.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The journey started in 1996 when my family escaped from Belarus to America. As poor refugees in a new country, my parents put a lot of emphasis on “serious” education. To their dismay I skewed heavily to the arts — testing into art school and painting murals on my childhood bedroom walls. Fast forward to college when I begged my parents to go into an arts program and they told me, “Over our dead-immigrant bodies” — ha!

Marketing, advertising, branding — this was the closest thing to art school that I could negotiate with them: a promise of a “serious” degree in business with potential for creative thinking.

Most people who follow my educational track begin their career on the agency side, but I was lucky enough to start on the brand side at 3.1 Phillip Lim. At the time, Phillip Lim was still a little-known designer and a small business owner. Joining a smaller team gave me brand ownership and helped me to fall in love with the practice of brand development. It’s a very different experience from that of an agency. Agencies are structured in a way that most people work on multiple brands and there is a wider gap between brand stewardship and brand ownership. At 3.1 Phillip Lim we lived and breathed the brand all day, every day.

Years later, when I joined the agency world, I was armed with first hand experience; having helped to grow a brand from its starting foundation to a globally renowned name. This experience was formative and gave me a very different perspective when I moved over to the agency side and eventually, started my own business.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made and learned from so many mistakes!

One story I still laugh about happened when I interned at Prada many, many moons ago. I was an intern in the Marketing and Advertising department. The brand was hosting a big event at the flagship store where big-whig journalists were in attendance.

At one point in the night, I saddled up next to legendary model and creative director Grace Coddington and struck up a conversation. The truth is that as an intern I was oblivious to famous faces and didn’t realize she was the Creative Director at Vogue. I just saw her as a friendly woman with beautiful hair who could save me from standing alone in a corner.

Anyway, she asked me something along the lines of, “How is Prada doing?” and within earshot of a Prada executive, I started blabbing about the state of the American economy and my concern for luxury brands and the health of their business. Needless to say: not the right conversation to have with a journalist. The next day, the same executive who overheard me gave me a very stern talking-to.

Brand perception, brand positioning and managing a brand’s reputation at every touchpoint (even in casual conversation) — all of these concepts suddenly started to make sense after the infamous “Grace-Vogue” incident.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are on a mission to revolutionize the orthodoxy of market research. Cindy Gallop calls herself “the Michael Bay of business” because she “blows shit up”. We consider ourselves “the Michael Bay of market research.”

GoodQues will never conduct a staid focus group behind a two-way mirror; doesn’t it always feel like an interrogation? We will never be mechanical in our survey designs and we will never subject our respondents to a clinical survey interface. We believe the creativity that goes into research design directly correlates to the insights you get on the other side. By breaking the orthodoxy of research methods, we can uncover what is unspoken in order to shift business decisions small and large, across all organizational departments.

We apply our empathetic design to qualitative, quantitative and even machine learning methodologies.

I know for a fact this approach stands out; beyond the positive response from our clients and the positive changes we effect with this new approach, it’s clear that the world of research methodology needs disruption. We’re definitely presenting new solutions to an established market.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have so many projects in motion — from our Tech clients to our CPG clients, our goal is to make business decisions more human through data. The goal is to merge the gap between brands and consumers. The more brands can understand what people want and need, the better they can serve their customers.

As we are predominantly a research studio, our work delivers intellectual property to our clients that is entirely propriety, so while we can’t reveal exact projects or findings — we know our breed of empathetic research is helping them to perceive their customers and people very differently.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand marketing and product marketing stem from different business goals.

Brand marketing is best for long-term equity-building which can solidify competitive differentiation and consumer loyalty. Product marketing is best for short-term sales and conversion goals. However, for the untrained marketer — this will sound like a lot of jargon. The best way to explain is to give an analogy…

Let’s imagine Kim Kardashian, the queen of branding herself. Kim is tirelessly brand marketing; from the clothes Kim wears to the people she surrounds herself with, Kim is solidifying her reputation with every decision. Make no mistake, even the parties that Kim attends are scrutinized for brand equity fit. Most brands are not people, but the brand marketing behavior is the same. From the events a brand sponsors to the kind of influencers a brand partners with — every step is an opportunity to build the brand’s reputation. Whether it is Kim Kardashian or a brand, both are building a desired perception, something they want to be “known for” because this will help them in the long-term.

Now, imagine Kim was preparing to release a new line of lipsticks and wanted to drive sales. In this case, Kim needs to engage in product marketing. Kim would promote the release of the lipsticks on her owned channels, perhaps tapping into her famous friends to tout the lipstick and she may create content to show how beautiful the lipstick looks on lips. In other words, she would employ a suite of tactics to make sure people see the lipstick and buy the lipstick. Again, the same logic can be applied to brands. When a brand releases a new product, they need to make sure people know about it and make it easy for people to buy.

The case in point about brand and product marketing: it’s very difficult to do one without the other. Just ask yourself, if Kim’s brand wasn’t as strong as it is, would anyone care about her new lipstick?

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

A lot of people, particularly new entrepreneurs, believe that a product will speak for itself, especially if it is a great quality product. However, there are two truths that your readers must understand:

  1. Consumers make most of their buying decisions emotionally NOT rationally. A Harvard researcher once found that 95% of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously (How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, 2003). Brand marketing is a way to tap into the subconscious and appeal to emotion.
  2. We are living in the age of infinite choice. Consumers have access to an unlimited array of products at any time of day or night — right from their pocket on a mobile device! Differentiating based on product attributes alone is virtually impossible. Think about this: soap is made from three key ingredients that include oil, lye and water. Yet, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of soap brands. That’s the power of brand. Brand marketing drives product differentiation in consumers’ minds.

Simply put: building a brand is your secret weapon to sales. In a recent GoodQues study we found that a majority of people are willing to spend up to 20% more on brands that they feel are truly listening to them and their needs. Empathy does in fact lead to profit.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Worship insights! — Every company decision should start and stop with the target audience. Brands that are consumer-obsessed are the brands that are the most trusted and believable. REI is a great example of this sort of brand; REI closes during the biggest retail holiday of the year — Black Friday — because they know that their community of consumers will be more loyal as a result of the gesture.
  2. Connect every day! — Simply put: people change. What you learned six months ago may not apply six months later. The practice of extracting insights needs to be baked in into day-to-day business operations. One of our clients, Amika, is very good at this. Amika leans on their social media to engage consumers in a two-way dialogue as opposed to most brands who use social media as a megaphone.
  3. Be empathetic! — Empathy means thinking about what your brand and company can do for people. I’ve been in too many meetings focused on “disrupting” people. Do you ever want to be “disrupted”? No, it isn’t a very good feeling. Be a brand that people want to seek out and “disruption” will disappear from your consumer vocabulary. It’s ok to disrupt business models, not people.
  4. Embrace repetition! — Did you know that it takes approximately 10 exposures for a message to resonate? It’s a frequently referenced statistic in marketing, but the truth is that brand people are still people and that means they get bored. As a result, brand messages, campaigns and collateral are often so different that they give consumers whiplash.
  5. Have some fun! — Geico is a brand that has absolutely nailed the idea of a repetitive message that is still exciting. I’m certain that as you’re reading this, you are reciting their infamous tagline and visualizing the Geico Gecko. The goal isn’t always to be funny, but to take risk and color outside the box (as long as the box is still recognizable).

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Despite recent controversy around Red Bull leadership, their 30 plus years of brand stewardship have been impressive. The drink was introduced in 1987 and is sold in over 167 countries today. What you think about the actual beverage is irrelevant because it’s an undeniably salient, resonant brand. Red Bull was one of the first companies to extrapolate that its brand could extend to experiential marketing. From Redbull Flugtag to the Felix Baumgartner Stratos experiment, Redbull gifted us unforgettable cultural moments all centered around levitation (i.e., “RedBull gives you wings!”)

To replicate some of RedBull’s success marketers need courage and conviction. Marketers need to create touchpoints that make the heart soar even if there isn’t always an instant correlation to the bottom line. This directly reflects the principles of how people make emotional buying decisions in a world of infinite choice.

Today, Red Bull is entering a new phase of brand building where they need to navigate diversity and practice empathy. We will see what their future holds.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

There isn’t one way to measure success for a brand building campaign. In fact, we’ve staked our model on the need to evolve past limited thinking prioritizing dry, detached sales data.

Measuring brand equity is the art of quantifying emotion; this presents an arena where marketers and analysts can be very creative, looking for indicators that suggest that people care about a brand and that they find the brand to be meaningful to their lives. Key performance indicators can range from self-reported feelings to social media conversation to metaphorical exercises and more.

At GoodQues we use and create a bevy of methods to measure brand building success. One of our methodologies borrows techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to extract subconscious emotions about brands. Another methodology utilizes AI to map brand personality traits against core audience values in order to find overlapping similarities. We encourage companies to ask questions and dive deeper in order to drive new methodologies and answers.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media is just another brand touchpoint — but the catch is that social media is a living, breathing thing. Unlike a website or a television commercial which are static, there’s a flurry of movement and energy on social media. Communities of people rally around a brand to follow, like, comment and create. Brands need to treat social media accordingly with content that has elasticity to stretch and bend. It’s a daunting task but it is also exciting. The kind of stories that can be told in social media can’t be told anywhere else. The amount of empathy that lives here is immense.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Learn the enormous power of no.

One magical word that can give you the focus to prioritize what’s important and to protect your team from being overworked. Women have been enculturated to find it especially difficult to say no, especially if they think someone’s feelings might be at stake. No is freedom and protection. No frees you from menial tasks and no can protect you from feelings of inadequacy when “doing it all” is too much.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to encourage a movement that makes listening cool, maybe for the first time in our speech-focused society.

Listening has become wildly unpopular. From our classrooms to our companies, people are hell-bent on being heard but they don’t stop to hear others. We are rewarded for “speaking up” and “voicing opinions” and while communication is an essential skillset, talking is only half the recipe. As a culture, we seem to have lost our ability and proclivity to listen to each other.

In the same way that meditation has picked up in culture, we need to treat listening as a practice and use techniques to train our attention and awareness. I hope to see the “Headspace” of listening trending in my app downloads one day!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was a little girl, my grandpa was my best friend. He was a tall, lanky man with a crooked nose and a kind smile. If I close my eyes, I can hear him creaking to meet me, seen from the height of a six-year-old. He told me lots of stories and idioms and made me laugh until my stomach ached. Out of all the knowledge he imparted, there’s one “life lesson quote” that still stands out to me. I think about it often when I’m faced with daunting business challenges. Roughly translated from Russian to English, he used to say, “There’s nothing in this world that can’t be done better”.

It sounds simple, but the statement is loaded with meaning. I believe my grandpa was saying that life is iterative. And that everything is a work in progress. The statement celebrates creative thinking in the face of any problem large or small. The quote gives me hope: no matter how dire a situation may be, I know there is always room for change and there is always room for “better.”

This one little quote has given me courage to question the status quo and to challenge practices that were “always done this way.” The life lesson that helped to birth our company, GoodQues! Asking how things can be done better is fundamentally a good question.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek. His TED Talk on the “Power of Why” inspires me to this day. Recently, he’s also been talking about the meaning of empathy in business and how important it is to listen. Selfishly, I feel that my core values align with his — and I would love to brainstorm with him over a meal on how we can make the world a better place.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow me on Medium and on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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