From Georgia to Georgia: Asking Qualitative Questions Across Your Brand Footprint

From Georgia to Georgia: Asking Qualitative Questions Across Your Brand Footprint

Killer business instinct. It’s praised in business and critical for any growth strategy. But no one relies on instinct alone. Great CMOs, Insight Managers and VPs of Business Development know research informs their killer instincts. New products and services and reinvented old ones all require research when your company is ready to put together a marketing strategy.

Quantitative research is familiar and reliable. It yields deep pools of data and statistics. Customers are polled about their experience and are asked to distill their feelings about a brand, product or service. Certain quantitative research may also rate a consumer’s degree of internalized brand loyalty or preference

Numbers are powerful, but they only take you so far in understanding your consumers and your brand. Data tells you what people’s intentions are – what they think they would do or choose or what they plan to do or have done. But deeper meaning that identifies behaviors and taps into opinions, beliefs, cultural nuances and feelings simply cannot be quantified.

Enter the ethnographic approach to solving problems.

Crack the Nut

At Big Squirrel we believe that “cracking the nut”  for your brand is based on talking to people. It’s about spending time with consumers in the environments where they live, breathe and interact with your category, your competitors and your brand. It involves revealing truths that lie beneath the surface of what someone says, getting to the heart of what they really mean.

We don’t come to the table with a hypothesis, assumption or guided questions that manipulate responses. Instead, we engage in meaningful conversation with you and your consumers to develop a deep understanding of the challenges your brand faces. We then reach into our bag of tools and ask probing questions that inspire people to thoughtfully consider their own reality in new ways. We observe the unscripted product and brand interactions people have in real-time, in real life settings.

To truly gain a competitive advantage for your brand, you must push hard to get beneath the surface. We look for patterns that identify what unites people–no matter their lifestyle or demographics. We identify what is trending and what driving these trends, taking into account how these findings and insights translate across cultures, whether it is Atlanta, Georgia or Tbilisi, Georgia.

Brands who come to Big Squirrel aren’t looking to get more data on their consumer or product experience. They’re not trying to gauge brand loyalty to complete a report. Our clients are looking to master the understanding of their market to create a deeper impact across the entire brand. Ultimately, action must be taken from the results of our research, so we focus on identifying how to create deeper connections and more meaningful relationships with people.

Our projects are designed to use a proven ethnographic approach to move brands closer to their consumers. Taking a deep look at your brand through the lens of a qualitative approach might look something like this:

Industry at Large

  • Who is innovating in the industry?
  • What larger global trends may affect your industry positively or negatively either in the immediate future or in the long-term?
  • What category conventions can you challenge and change?
  • Are their cultural, regional or national issues on the horizon that could have a major impact on your company?
  • What can you learn from other brands outside your category?
  • What does it take to be a thought-leader in your industry?

Target Market

  • What is the personal effect your product or service provides?
  • How does your loyal consumer perceive your brand? How is this different from other consumers?
  • What are the triggers that motivate consumers to engage with your brand? What are the hurdles that prevent engagement?
  • Will your brand equity translate to a new generation of people or will your marketing message need revision?
  • Are your marketing messages effective across the entirety of your brand footprint?
  • How are influencers eroding your brand position?
  • Is your target market changing?
  • Is you brand promise still relevant to your most loyal buyer?
  • Outside your category, who is doing the best job reaching this target market and what are they doing?


  • Who do your consumers perceive as your actual competitor(s)?
  • Is there a dominant competitor in your market?
  • How does your company deliver your solution to the target market differently than your competitors?
  • Is another company or approach to what you provide currently disrupting your established flow of consumers?

When the numbers aren’t enough, we’re ready to go deeper. Here’s how we’ve moved beyond the numbers to reveal intimate and personal stories that demonstrate how to better connect people to brands:

The Rush to Plus

The Rush to Plus

Lately it seems like everyone is jumping on the plus sized bandwagon. With mainstream clothing brands like JCrew expanding the sizes they carry in store (and posting apologetic notes about it) to mid-market brands like Target creating their own plus line of clothing, brands and retailers of all kinds are trying to clue in to the needs of a dramatically underserved market. Since plus apparel is a rapidly growing area of retail — US sales of plus apparel rose 6% in 2016! —  it’s no wonder that brands and companies want to get in on the money to be made — and fast! But meeting the needs of plus women will be about more than just making clothes in her size.

Based on our research and work with plus women, we predict brands playing in and entering this market will face two key challenges: culture and consumer.

CHALLENGE #1: Culture is slow to change.

One of the biggest challenges facing brands entering the plus market is that culture hasn’t quite caught up. Plus women are acutely aware of the differences between plus and non-plus. Non-plus sets the standard in retail, fashion, advertising and inspiration. There are a multitude of sources that represent a vast diversity of styles for non-plus women — just flip through any mainstream fashion magazine on any give day. When plus women are featured, it’s “a thing” and there are only a handful of plus models that are considered to appear in mainstream fashion magazines. How many magazines does Ashley Graham have to appear in before she’s recognized for her beauty and not her beauty AND her size?

The current offering for plus women at retail further reinforces cultural norms that non-plus is the place to be. In most department stores, non-plus is prominently featured with mannequins outfitted from head-to-toe in trendy clothes with details and embellishments. There’s a huge selection and variety of styles to choose from and a wide range of price options. Plus is usually relegated to the back of the store, with a small and cramped space that lacks the same selection, details, style and pricing options. Worse yet, many stores have the plus section next to the maternity section. (No, we’re not kidding — have a look next time you’re in a department store.) This type of treatment makes plus women feel like second class citizens. They are clearly an after-thought, not a valued consumer. It’s the brand and retailer’s onus to take responsibility for their treatment of plus women, helping to shift cultural norms in a direction that’s more positive for plus.

The plus section is adjacent to the maternity section in a lot of stores.

CHALLENGE #2: All plus women are not the same.

Many brands entering and playing in the plus size market are looking at plus women as a group rather than individuals. This is a complex, dynamic group of women with differences in attitudes, opinions, lifestyles, and preferences. It may sound like a given that not all plus women are the same, yet this group gets treated by brands and retailers as if they all want exactly the same thing. One huge misconception is that plus women want to be smaller or are ashamed or embarrassed by how they look. Brands and retailers create clothes for plus women that cover and hide instead of accentuating and flaunting. Many plus women are completely comfortable in and extremely proud of their bodies, but are limited by the choices and styles that brands and retailers are providing them. Fashion for all women is a means of self-expression. Imagine how it must feel for plus women not to be able to express themselves and have brands and retailers that support a positive self-image?

Understanding how individual plus women feel about their bodies, their different life stages, and where they find inspiration will be the foundation for key points of difference for brands and retailers that want to speak to plus women. No amount of focus groups and surveys will paint an accurate picture of the differences in experiences and attitudes of these women. Really understanding this dynamic group means getting to know them on a deeper, more personal level. It means living with them, shopping with them, listening to them and recognizing their individual needs, feelings, desires and expectations. Understanding the subtle nuances will enable brands and retailers to take the steps necessary for plus women to feel valued, inspired and excited.

Imagine how it must feel for plus women not to be able to express themselves and have brands and retailers that support a positive self-image?

What should brands and retailers entering the plus market do?
As the rush to plus continues, it may be a good time for brands and retailers to pause for a minute to ask themselves some key questions: How can brands and retailers help to positively shift cultural norms in favor of plus women? And how can they get to know plus women on a deeper, more personal level to better meet their needs, expectations and desires? With a little focused effort, there’s a lot of opportunity for brands and retailers to minimize the gap between plus and non-plus and to provide a positive and inspiring experience for a group of women who have been overlooked for too long. 

Keep in mind, this isn’t a problem for just the plus market. All brands and retailers should get to know any audience they serve on a deeper level along with gaining an understanding of the cultural context that influences experience, desires, and decisions. This is the key that enables the delivery of a meaningful, unique, and memorable experience in a crowded market. 

Interested in getting to know the plus consumer (or any audience) on a deeper level?

We would love to help! Let’s start a conversation. 

Brand Responsibility

Brand Responsibility

What is the role of a brand when it comes to responsibility?

And we aren’t just talking about social responsibility and environmentalism, but the kind of responsibility that’s about helping consumers make good – or better – choices.


McDonald’s is at an interesting brand to consider when it comes to responsibility. For a brand that does so much good in the world – from the Ronald McDonald House to the Global Women’s Initiative – it is hard to believe that this same company also sells (gulp) fast food that has been accused of contributing to our country’s growing problem with obesity. Questions concerning responsibility are becoming more complicated. Should a fast food chain be held accountable for a problem it didn’t necessarily create? Or for that matter, should the brand be blamed for contributing to social issues just because the products it sells are unhealthy? Is McDonald’s any more guilty of promoting an unhealthy lifestyle than brands like Captain Crunch or Hershey’s? Where do we draw the line and who draws it when we begin to think about and debate brand responsibility?


McDonald’s is clearly thinking about this and has taken significant steps to respond to the growing trend of healthy living. They’ve expanded their product offering to include more health-conscious options like salads, milk, and apple slices. But, is this enough? Or are we to believe that the good they do as a company is enough to make up for selling fatty Big Macs?


For our first brand case study, we decided to explore the role of brand responsibility by taking a closer look at how McDonald’s is walking the line.


There are 6 key things that McDonald’s does that enables the company to give customers what they want (amazing french fries) while maintaining a sense of social responsibility:




McDs-Journey1Example: Nutrition Progress Report 
In 2012, McDonald’s published its first ever nutrition progress report, revealing the company’s nutritional performance over the past year. The report is easily accessible online to anyone who is interested. For the report, McDonald’s hired Ernst & Young LLP to conduct an independent examination of McDonald’s progress against its commitment goals. The report highlights focus on three key nutrition commitments: Children’s Well-being, Nutritionally Balanced Menu Choices, and Nutrition Information and Education.

Read more directly from McDonald’s here.


Example: Our Food. Your Questions.
In 2012, McDonald’s opened up communication lines with the social media campaign and website called “Our Food. Your Questions,” that allows customers to submit queries to McDonald’s Canada, which then answers some of them with videos.


One result of this campaign is a very honest, behind the scenes look at why a McDonald’s burger in an advertisement looks so different than one a consumer purchases in the restaurant. With this kind of open communication present, consumers instill more trust in the brand.
See the YouTube video here.







Example: Global Parents’ Table
McDonald’s established a global Parents’ Table in March, 2012. The membership is comprised of 10 parents and dads from the U.S., U.K., Australia, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Taiwan. McDonald’s met with the Parents’ Table twice to focus on how the company can play a positive role in children’s well-being.


Read more directly from McDonald’s here.




Example: Giorgi Khmaladze designed space in Georgia
McDonald’s embraced a design by architect Giorgi Khmaladze in Batumi, Georgia, leaving behind cues that are commonly associated with the restaurant. The result is a stunningly modern space that takes brand into an entirely new space and creates a new experience for the average McDonald’s customer:

On the inside there is a creative use of space, semi-private seating, beautiful wood paneling, and what appears to be some sort of grass field in the upper part of the building (where it is the most tapered). The grass area is actually an elevated garden with huge skylights, so people can eat small, rectangular apple pies with a natural backdrop and lot of sunlight.

Read more about the McDonald’s of the future on and on PSFK.




Example: Regional menu items
McDonald’s doesn’t simply duplicate local cuisine, rather the corporation puts a “McDonald’s twist” on it, creating menu items that incorporate local flavors but that maintain a sense of consistency and fit the brand. McDonald’s maintains a sensitivity to local customs and preferences and creates menu options using local suppliers. For example, when they introduced the Parmigiano Reggiano burger in Italy, they formed an alliance with the official Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, made up of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers in Northern Italy.


Read more directly from McDonald’s here.




McDs-Consumer-Values-e1379531943651Example: Ronald McDonald House Charities
The mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) is to create, find and support programs that directly improve the health and well being of children. The House program provides a “home-away-from-home” for families so they can stay close by their hospitalized child at little or no cost. McDonald’s Corp. is the largest corporate donor and McDonald’s employees are dedicated volunteers. Owners / operators participate in local and global RMHC board.


Example: Global Women’s Initiative 
Supports the recruitment, development, and advancement of women at all levels of the company while creating a culture where women have the opportunity to succeed and grow.


Watch the YouTube video here.


Example: 5 sustainability focus areas
McDonald’s sustainability efforts expand beyond just the environment and into general well-being. The overarching goal of McDonald’s sustainability efforts is focused on continuous improvement through five focus areas: Nutrition & Well-Being, Sustainable Supply Chain, Environmental Responsibility, Employee Experience, and Community.


Example: Mobile Payment App
McDonald’s is currently testing a new mobile app that lets customers order via mobile phone and pick up food in stores, curbside or at drive-thru windows. As we move closer to a cashless society, McDonald’s is looking for ways to incorporate new technologies into the brand experience.








Example: McDonald’s restaurant remodel 
McDonald’s recognizes the importance of creating an experience that matches the direction in which the brand is headed. By beginning a $2.9 billion remodeling effort in 2012, the brand hopes to “gain broader acceptance for top-tier times that are already on the menu like smoothies and Angus burgers and to better compete with the fast-casual industry.”


Keeping pace with the changing lives of consumers, “the company is moving to seating “zones”: slow zones for coffee sippers enjoying the Wi-Fi, fast zones at high bar tables for single diners wolfing down a sandwich and family zones with booths for parents to “lock” their children on the inside to prevent them from wandering.”


This remodel effort combines McDonald’s value with the quality and comfort of a higher-end restaurant, creating a better overall brand experience.


Read more about McDonald’s remodel in the Chicago Tribune.




McDs-Hamburger-UExample: Hamburger University
In 1961, McDonald’s founder Ray Krocs launched a training program, later called Hamburger University, at a new restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. There, franchisees and operators were trained in the scientific methods of running a successful McDonald’s. Hamburger U also had a research and development laboratory to develop new cooking, freezing, storing and serving methods. Today, more than 80,000 people have graduated from the program.


Example: Diversity Curriculum
McDonald’s has developed an internal “diversity curriculum” that teaches employees how to move from awareness to action in the area of inclusion and intercultural management.



The courses include:
Asian Pacific Middle East Career Development
Black Career Development
Hispanic Career Development
Lesbian Gay Career Development
Women’s Career Development
Intercultural Learning Lab


Read more about McDonald’s diversity program in Forbes.



McDs-Favorites-e1379533508395Example: Menu expansion
McDonald’s strives to help consumers make more informed choices. Over the past few years they have expanded the menu to include low calorie items like smoothies, egg whites on breakfast sandwiches and the sandwiches that include cucumbers and other vegetables. According to McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, the chain’s best known items, such as Big Macs, fries and chicken nuggets, account for just 25 percent of the chain’s sales.


In 2012, McDonald’s introduced a “Favorites Under 400” menu that highlights the calorie information for items to help put calorie counts into context for customers. They company also promised to list calorie counts on restaurant and drive-thru menus.


McDonald’s is also introducing a voluntary nutrition e-learning program for their employees to help build employees’ knowledge of calories, nutrition and McDonald’s menu offerings.


Read more about McDonald’s and nutrition in the Chicago Tribune.




McDs-Meal-BuilderExample: My Meal Builder & McDonald’s App

McDonald’s enables customers to access nutritional information quickly and easily for all of McDonald’s food and beverages through their app and website. Consumers can create and tailor meals that suit their individual needs using the My Meal Builder feature on the website. McDonald’s has also begun including calorie information on their overhead menus and drive-up menus.


What role do you think brands should play in influencing the decisions we make as consumers?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Brand Leadership

Brand Leadership

We have been working with Studioriley on a project for Samsung to explore the changes that are happening in the world that affect our work as brand strategists. As part of this collaboration, we’re taking a deep dive into the world of brand leadership to explore what it’s all about in 2013.


Here’s a snapshot of what we have learned:

People have new expectations for what they want from a brand. As individual aspirations have become more personalized, so too have brand expectations and experiences. Brands have had to evolve how they connect with this hyper-networked and globally aware audience, who have an increased self-understanding, changing ambitions and improved tools for pursuing and attaining them.


One significant change: brands no longer have permission to set the standards for what is good or bad for the masses. Instead, evidence shows that people want to express their own unique values and do so in the form of voting, endorsing, “liking” and sharing.


Brands are expected to support and facilitate this shift, helping consumers turn their aspirations into realities by providing information to help them understand and achieve. In an era of information overload, it is important to point out that people aren’t looking for more information, but rather tools that organize and apply information in a way that helps them take action. Information is only valuable in this digital culture when it helps people realize their dreams.



Brand leaders have 5 new actions that demonstrate they support the values of the consumer and enable dreams…



In an increasingly connected world, a growing class of global citizens share concerns over issues affecting everyone in the Majority World, from climate change to poverty. Brand leaders are promoting thoughtful consumerism and responsibility by encouraging people to be more aware of how their actions and purchases impact society and affect the environment on a global scale.




Example: Patagonia 

By encouraging people to be more thoughtful about their purchasing power and how it impacts the environment globally, Patagonia demonstrates they are part of the human collective, behaving as thoughtfully and responsibly as consumers themselves.




Who works, where people work and how they work has continued to change rapidly. There is an increased female presence in the workforce, along with an aging population who are delaying retirement. Traditional ideas of what work is or where it is to be done are fading as brand leaders fuel a more collaborative, plugged-in and dynamic workplace; here, productivity and creativity are seamlessly integrated and are no longer thought of as mutually exclusive ideals. Brand leaders have developed new media and technologies that encourage the pursuit of individual aspirations at home and at play, and have begun to encourage these same pursuits at work as well.



scr-angley-hands-e1344408409929Example: Square
Square represents the result is a rapid rise in small business entrepreneurship worldwide puts the power of the financial transaction in the hands of the small business owner. They facilitate new ways to work by emphasizing fluidity, mobility and collaboration over structure, permanence and stability. 






Doing good has become a given. Brands can no longer differentiate themselves based on their social responsibility practices. While these actions are clearly important to consumers, they are now considered to be must-haves and must-dos for companies. That said, one significant change we have observed in brand behavior is that the definition of socially responsibility has not necessarily changed, it has expanded: it means doing good for the world (the given) AND it should personally improve the quality of how we live (the new necessity) AND it must enable consumers to take action on their values (the real desire).


Simply giving money has become an empty gesture, and corporate social responsibility has shifted from impersonal, big philanthropic gestures that address major social needs to simple, smaller, more personal and individual initiatives that help everyday people to live better. Consumers want to effect real, genuine and meaningful change in their local communities and the world at large and look to brands to do the same.



Example: Apple 
Transparency, honesty and responsibility are “givens” in todays world, and Apple has pulled back the curtain to reveal their own actions in very rational and simple ways, demonstrating that their behaviors align with those of the consumer and their actions really do speak louder than words.



Every consumer has the power to be a rock star, thanks to technologies like YouTube and GoPro. Documenting and sharing everyday events makes people feel more important and powerful, and has quickly become the norm. Brand leaders are providing a new set of tools to fuel and support the ability to share experiences through visual media, creating a new social currency.




Example: Twitter and Weibo
Hyper-connectivity enables not just creative collaboration, but also story sharing with a broad audience. Some stories are entertaining, some are irrelevant (“I had pancakes for breakfast!”), but some can effect powerful social change. Twitter and Weibo offer outlets for otherwise marginalized communities to tell their stories to the world, joining the “global conversation”, giving rise to the individual hero expressing his or her own voice. Unlike previous generations, people no longer need to rely on the voices of others to tell stories or to unite communities; brand leaders fuel each consumer’s personal ability to share their own stories in their own voices. 



When data is distilled into visible tools, desires and aspirations become attainable realities. By making information more visual and accessible to consumers, simple yet engaging tools provide personalized information which better informs people’s ability to make decisions.



Example: Nike Fuel 
Technology just got personal. By turning your daily routine into a stream of helpful, understandable data, Nike Fuel enables consumers to make the decisions needed to achieve their goals. Today’s consumer fully believes they are capable of achieving more than previous generations thought was possible and we now see a newly empowered set of global consumers using digital tools to create bite-sized, digestible goals to make and track progress towards bigger desires and achievements. 

What’s the overall takeaway?

Brand leaders are now expected to behave and act differently in response to the changes in how consumers see themselves. To be a brand leader, you must support the values of the consumer and help them realize their own dreams. Simply inspiring people is no longer enough. This is especially important as we consider the growth of entrepreneurial brands and how they are shifting the global landscape and changing how we live.