• Lou Killeffer

Market Research in the New Normal with Merck's Lisa Courtade

Updated: 6 days ago


During an interview last week, for my friends at Informa Connect, Lisa and I discussed the difference between a finding and an insight, balancing the seemingly antagonistic imperatives in her work of depth and speed, and actually getting things done during the pandemic.


As the leader of Global Customer Insights at Merck & Co, Inc., USA, Lisa leverages insights, analytics, and design to create innovative, compliant solutions to the challenges facing patients, providers, and payers in the delivery of lifesaving medicines and vaccines. Lisa’s been called an “innovative disrupter” and “change agent” for challenging the status quo and harnessing emerging technologies with the behavioral sciences to create deeper insights and value-creating solutions. 


Lou Killeffer: Lisa, good morning, thank you so much for joining us.


Lisa Courtade: Lou, wonderful speaking with you but you need to know from the outset that while I’m happy to share my personal experience and opinions with you, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the work we’re doing here at Merck.


LK: Lisa, understood. Our focus will be quite general, beginning with, just what’s an insight in your view, how do you define it?


LC: Great question. Many people think an insight is something you get from simply doing research. But more often than not we simply have findings. To me an insight is something that’s actionable, that is uncovered through the syntheses of disparate data sources and research, that yields a real “aha” moment that explains how to unlock an opportunity around behavior.

Importantly, insights aren’t findings. Like the number of people who have COVID-19; or the incidence of COVID-19 among certain populations. Those are simply facts. An insight tells you why people are behaving or feeling a certain way, such as stocking up on toilet paper, even if they can’t articulate it themselves. In truth, it’s not simply that they are afraid of running out, it may have a more deeply-rooted instinctive driver in feeling in control when everything else is spiraling into chaos.

LK: What’s the role of an insight team within a large multi-national corporation like Merck?


LC: The role of insights in a corporation is about driving business impact. Understanding our customers in a way that enables us to deliver results for them and the company. I’ve spent much of my career in pharma, where human health, developing and delivering life-saving medicines and preventative vaccines to patients is the ultimate value proposition. But it’s also about understanding the needs of healthcare providers such as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, caregivers, and payers and governments in order to uncover the equation that delivers value for each of them separately and all of them together.


It’s important that insight teams don’t just count the numbers and report what’s happened numerically. We have lots of data; if anything we’ve too much data and that can only take us so far. Our challenge and scope is to investigate and understand behavior; why people do what they do so that we can change the trajectory for the better.

To understand these kinds of things we need to go deep; we need to dig deep. And of course when we’re investigating things in a dynamic marketplace, where so much is happening and changing all the time, we constantly need to be faster, to move more quickly.


LK: Fascinating; so how do you balance the imperatives of such seemingly polar opposites - depth and speed?


LC: It does appear to be a conflict to move at speed and to also dig deep to understand motivation, but holding these two orientations simultaneously can enable a researcher, or a team, to flex, to pivot, and to adapt to the situation. My approach is simply about finding the right tool for the occasion. When you’re managing a market or an evolving situation, you need to be agile and move quickly in capturing and analyzing data. And to be methodologically agnostic, behavioral data, purchase data, social data, primary market research – which best addresses the question or how do you synthesize them to better understand the market dynamics? While we need to move at the pace of business, we often need to know not only WHAT is happening but also the WHY that lies behind it. That’s where it’s important to go deep. Not everything is fast, and not everything needs to be deep.

LK: What tools do you turn to answer these kinds of questions; when you’re digging deeper?


LC: In my experience, the best tools for going deep are rooted in behavioral science. The worst way to find out something is to simply ask, because none of us testify very well at all to our own behavior. We’re great at rationalizing it. Why did you eat that cookie? Why didn’t you take your medicine? More often than not the answer you’ll get is the story we tell ourselves or others to explain the behavior – but that’s not necessarily the real reason.

LK: Which research tools do you most often turn to?


LC: I don’t have a single preferred or most often used tool. For me, it’s about which is right for the circumstance. In the current environment, doing an ethnography, which is great for observing in-context behavior, is neither feasible nor practical. But a video diary, mobile ethnography, or even an interview employing the right perspective of curious inquiry in a non-judgmental manner can unearth tremendous insight. The person I described earlier may have been homeschooling young children and eaten the cookie because between working and homeschooling she didn’t have time to eat or remember to take her meds.

I also think that there are increasingly relevant automated, digital tools and techniques that, even though there’s been some push back against them by traditionalists, are proving very worthwhile to addressing our business challenges. Having a strong digital IQ has enabled many insights teams to quickly pivot during the current period where we are social distancing. Being open to experimentation has a further benefit in that it means we’re culturally comfortable with adapting to change and innovating how we address issues in normal times and in times of great disruption.


I’ve heard about a lot of companies who have put most, if not all, of their research on hold for the time being. If a team has been encouraged to experiment and to have a learning mindset, they are able to re-assess and modify pretty quickly. I think that approach is paying dividends right now for future focused insights teams. For those that haven’t, it’s not too late to start. I believe that it’s the role of the insights leader to create a culture to enable learning and experimentation so that their insights teams and their organizations can be resilient in times of change and have a much larger toolbox from which to operate, and reinvent, and reimagine.

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