Meet the Expert: Kathy Sheehan of GFK Consumer Life
Kathy Sheehan is Executive Vice President and Global Director, GfK Consumer Life. GfK is the fourth
largest market research company in the world, with offices in 100 countries and more than 12,000
employees globally. At GfK, Kathy leads the GfK Consumer Life | Roper Reports practice, which provides
a holistic perspective of consumers across cultures, time and categories to identify and drive successful
innovation opportunities. Kathy joined GfK in 2001 to provide Roper Reports® US clients with actionable
and future-focused insights on the American consumer landscape.
StyleSage: Tell us a little bit more about your expertise and the specific kinds of research you focus on at GfK.
Kathy: At GfK, I lead the Consumer Life practice, which is all about understanding trends in people’s attitudes and behaviors, so that we can advise our clients on what is next and how they can prepare their businesses for the future. Each year, we interview over 30,000 consumers across the globe to understand what they are doing and thinking and analyze how this is changing and predict what may happen in the future.
StyleSage: What have been some of the most surprising insights you’ve uncovered in some of your recent research?
Kathy: Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work in understanding the post-millennial generation. Some call them Gen Z or Gen Next, and GfK we’ve been calling them the “Now Generation”. I think just the fact that there isn’t consensus about what to call this generation reflects the lack of understanding and knowledge about who they are. What has been most surprising to me, however, is how very different they are than the Millennial generation. They have very different attitudes about things as diverse as technology and retail, and are just exhibiting a very different set of priorities.
StyleSage: In your work, what kind of questions and challenges are brands bringing to the table these days?
Kathy: The one thing I really love about the work that we do is it diversity. I work with clients across all different sectors - from media and advertising to FMCG to financial services. I think what is most interesting is not only the variety of questions we get from clients, but often how an issue that I hear from one client, at its core may be the exact same issue I hear from another client, although in an an entirely different category and context. One recent example that has come up is the notion of brand trust, and how that is evolving. Smaller, new brands are coming onto the scene very quickly and are appearing to establish trust with consumers in a very short amount of time. Clients want to better understand what is driving this trend.
StyleSage: If you had to pick the 3 biggest shifts you’ve seen in consumer values and preferences over the past five years, what would those be?
Kathy: Probably many people would cite the drive to digital. While this has certainly been a game changer in almost all industries, I wouldn’t say it is a shift in consumer values; rather, it has been a shift in the technological landscape. The real shift with consumers is the flexibility that this affords them, and with that is consumer empowerment. People are a lot more used to, and comfortable with, taking things into their own hands. They like researching things and getting the best deals. They feel empowered to tell others if they have a positive or negative experience with a brand. Another trend is that of convergence. By 2030, 60% of the global population will be living in cities. Increasing global urbanization means that there are converging urban lifestyles. Urban dwellers, no matter in which country, are more likely to be engaged in out-of-home activities, are ahead in adopting new technologies and tend to be more economically bullish than their rural counterparts. We see convergence based upon urbanization, but we also see convergence within age, and more recently, gender. The third shift I would mention is a demographic one. For the last 40 years the cultural zeitgeist in the US, and in many other developed (and developing economies) has been driven by what we call the Baby Boom generation. In the last 3-5 years, we have really seen the pivot away from that to focus on the Millennials and post-Millennial generations.
StyleSage: As brands look to cultivate the next generation of consumers, there’s a lot of talk around millennials and Gen Z and how their realities and values are quite different than those who have come before. What are you thoughts on consumers being grouped together by years of birth versus shared experiences? Do you think that some of these values can actually cross the demographic lines because of changes in how people marry, work, and generally live?
Kathy: What do Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Gene Simmons all have in common (besides being musicians)? They were all born in 1949. Just as their music differs from each other, certainly lumping people together as one cohort just because they were born the same year is an over-simplification. A generation of 70 million people is certainly not homogenous. Yet generations do give us an easy short-hand for understanding a group of people who have experienced many of the same cultural events and may have a similar frame of reference.
StyleSage: Building on that point, we had the privilege of sitting in on a recent presentation you gave, and you mentioned how millennials and Gen Z have some different milestones in life than Gen X and before. What do you think those look like for them?
Kathy: For prior generations, we saw a lot of what we would call “linear life stages”. That is, you would graduate high school, then you may go to college, then you would get married and then you would have children. Today, it doesn’t have to follow that trajectory. You may have a child before getting married and going to college. You may never get married at all. Younger generations are going to remember life events that are more driven by technology (e.g., when they got their first cell phone) as those chapters or stages in their lives.
StyleSage: Can you talk a little bit about the value that younger consumers are placing on a company’s social responsibility? Are you seeing that translate into how they actually choose to spend their money?
Kathy: I think this is a trend that is related to empowerment that I mentioned above. People feel empowered by the choices and knowledge they have in the marketplace, and, especially for younger consumers, there is an increasing expectation that the brands with which you engage should be aligned (or at least not against) your values. All other things being equal, many younger consumers will choose the brand that represents who they are as individuals.
StyleSage: If you were to advise a brand on the one question they should be asking consumers but perhaps aren’t already doing so, what would that be?
Kathy: Consumers have a lot of choices, and with those choices come stress and complexity. I think brands should be asking their customers how can I make your life better, how can I make your life easier? This is especially true when thinking about younger consumers, as that cohort is more likely than any other to say that they are willing to pay for convenience.
StyleSage: In your point of view, are there any brands or retailers who have been around for a while, yet have still really remained in synch with the newest generation of consumers?
Kathy: It is one brand that is cited quite a bit, but it is still a good example - Oreo. It’s been around more than 100 years, but it continually innovating and re-inventing itself to be in line with changing consumer tastes.