Zappi is a technology startup that uses automated consumer insights to help brands make better decisions. Their platform uses cutting-edge technology like machine learning to help brands conduct research faster and at a larger scale. 

Last year, we used Zappi’s own technology to rebrand their company and help them demonstrate their unique value to their audience of insights professionals. We recently caught up with Ken Yanhs, Zappi’s EVP of Global Marketing, to talk about how branding can help shape a business and the challenges he sees in the tech sector right now. 

What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation with Ken.

Hi, Ken. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

When I was in school, I studied English and Chinese and had a love of creative writing. I really never thought I would have a career in marketing. I did a post-grad at a school that really focused on publishing — digital publishing, as well as books and magazines, et cetera. There’s always been a part of me that’s curious about the way things work. But then as I started a job as an analyst in New York at a tech startup, it made me more curious about the way businesses work and also how they add value to the lives of consumers.

My background in storytelling, language, and creative has shaped the work that I’ve done in a variety of different industries — from agencies to consulting or ad tech. I was drawn to Zappi because it helps other companies focus on consumers in a way that’s never really been done before.

What would surprise people about your role with Zappi? 

What might surprise people is the impact that marketing can have on the fundamental makeup of the company and the internal culture. For example, when we relaunched our brand, that really impacted the way people felt about the company. It’s not just that people get a new company sweatshirt with a better logo on it — it’s about being able to tell a story that reflects well on the culture and the individuals who work here.

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What do you think are common misconceptions around the tech startup space? 

We have a mantra at Zappi: “no buzzwords.” But our tech relies on buzzwords like machine learning, AI, and automation — so we try not to focus on those things from a marketing perspective, because in many ways, they dehumanize the platform. For us, technology is about enabling the success of the humans that use it. When you focus on these buzzwords, there’s this fear that tech is supposed to replace humans, but it’s actually there to enable humans to do their jobs better. Things like AI and automation also aren’t valuable in a vacuum — they only matter if they’re powering complex research that actually moves your business forward. 

Let’s dig into automation: Zappi was one of the pioneers of automating market research. How has that changed the research space?

When we started six years ago, the idea of automating research didn’t exist. There were research firms doing projects for brands. This process wasn’t systematic — it required a lot of manual work and a lot of back-and-forth between the clients and agencies, building questionnaires and fielding studies. The biggest change with automation is that at first it was a process for delivering faster, more cost-efficient results. But building automated questionnaires and automated samples was groundbreaking. It empowers really smart people to use really cool tech to add consumer insights into every part of their decision-making processes.

In advertising, you have your brief, and then you write creative copy, make mockups and go into concepts. At each of those stages, the work should be informed by what the audience thinks — what people like or dislike. Getting data into that process is actually more meaningful than just being faster and cheaper. The need we’re addressing isn’t “how do we automate these processes?” — it’s “how do we get the voice of the consumer into as many areas of the business as possible?” The feedback loops that we’ve given brands allow them to be able to make really creative things.

Technology is about enabling the success of the humans that use it.

What kinds of challenges do customers come to you with? 

The biggest challenge that organizations come to us with is that they need insights faster — it’s not about price. People need insights faster when their business processes are more agile, or when they need to know about how well a concept for a product line is going to perform before they meet with their CMO.

Beyond that, the question is how they can leverage this technology across their entire organization and in their daily work. Consolidating data on one platform allows marketers to compare studies across different brands and geographies. 

The third thing is predictability: Can we use data to predict the end outcomes of campaigns? Should I invest in a celebrity partnership for my ad? Will our data predict growth in sales, or is it just going to predict brand lift? Using our platform, people start to see the value of tagging and testing ads systematically to see what actually performs better.

What has been the most interesting research brief that your team has received?

Funnily enough, one of our big upcoming campaigns is actually going to be focus on ending research briefs altogether. Research briefs take so much time: creating that brief requires a lot of back-and-forth, then editing, and then the research teams need to be briefed in, and then you finally end up with a polished document. It’s possible that by the time the brief is actually compiled, that research could be old news for your business. If we can’t get rid of briefs, we need to tailor them to be better suited for the speed at which business moves. 

How valuable is branding today? How valuable do you think it will be in the future?

Given the nature of startups and tech, in some ways a brand is more important than ever. Ultimately, the value of the brand is the value it has to customers and consumers. For our brand, we need to be able to tell that story effectively about why we care about research professionals and why we’re trying to build the best platform for them. Instead of just showing the products we offer, we focus on why our platform enables our audience to be more successful at their jobs.  

It’s about understanding the audience’s needs and then tailoring the brand story to them. But how does that brand narrative inform the sales process or success metrics? How do you deliver your brand when you put proposals together, or when you send out thank-you emails? Living your brand means being able to tie together the various touchpoints of marketing, sales, and customer success.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing CMOs today?

The first is about people: it can be very hard to construct teams. Marketing involves a lot of different skills and characteristics, and things are constantly changing within the marketplace. For example, the channels and tools, the ways to get your message out there, are constantly changing. You need to find the right talent to be able to stay competitive, but having the right team dynamics while building skills can be a challenge. 

The second big challenge is attribution. Why are we spending money the way we’re spending it? In many ways, we know that building our brand, like the work we did with you, is extremely valuable. But we need to evaluate which channels and activities are really worth the resources and time. Beyond validating those activities, attribution is about optimizing our systems and our processes.

The third, which has always been a challenge, is: How do you tell stories that won’t waste people’s time? How do you tell stories that are of value to them? Marketing needs to understand where consumers are and play those needs back to the larger value of the product and how our teams interact with those consumers. 

Digitization doesn’t just mean that there are cool new tools to use — it means thinking about how to apply those tools to make a meaningful change.

When you think about Zappi’s structure, your staff, your technology, and the story you’re telling, what would be one change you’d like to see in your organization in the next few years?

Going back to what we were talking about earlier, I think we need to continue to deliver the goodness of the brand throughout our entire organization — and marketing needs to drive that effort, to integrate that beautiful new brand into every touchpoint with the customer. We’re still figuring out what the right systems and the right teams are to do that. It’s going to be a continued push.

We also need to continue to deliver value for our customers, so they’re not just using our technology, but leveraging it throughout their entire organizations. How can we help them with the change management process that they need in order for them to understand and deploy this sophisticated platform in many ways? Sure, they can use it for one-off testing, but where the real change happens is when you deploy these tools systematically. As an industry, we’re at a crucial inflection point of digitization. Digitization doesn’t just mean that there are cool new tools to use — it means thinking about how to apply those tools to make a meaningful change. 

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