TRUE NORTH MARKET INSIGHTS- Keeping Pace with Insights into How Humans Make Decisions

True North Market Insights - David Santee | The Enterprise World

How does a company know where to invest? What new products to create? What to say in their ads? How to improve their customer experience? These are all foundational questions. And the answer to these questions can make or break a company. This is where market research comes in. And this is where True North Market Insights excels.

“We act as the eyes and ears for corporations.”

Featuring for The Enterprise World’s this issue of The Most Innovative Market Research Solution Providers in 2022 is True North Market Insights, a company that helps others grow with the right kind of insights.

The Company- True North Market Insights

True North Market Insights is a market research company. The firm conducts studies to identify what their customers want, if they might like a new product idea, and how to improve their experience with the firm. They test communications to ensure that the companies can connect with their audience.

With the dedicated efforts of the team, this acts as a motivating factor and a rewarding feeling, because helping others connect with the audience is at the very core of the success of the company. A company will not survive if it does not understand its customers, know what they want, and be able to deliver what they want in the way they want it. And that is how firms such as TRUE NORTH MARKET INSIGHTS serve.

Now a lot of companies may do this. What separates True North Market Insights from others is that they are always searching for better methods. They consistently conduct their own research-on-research so that they can better service their clients. This has led to more predictive solutions that offer more insights. But being innovative is not the end in itself.

The Key To Success

“There have been many like me who left the corporate side (or were let go) and tried to start their own market research consulting gig.”, says David Santee, Founder of True North Market Insights.

But only a few of them become an ongoing firm. Some of the biggest challenges for the company were the same as the others have faced. The only difference was, True North Market Insights was able to overcome those with Dave’s client-side reputation.

The first challenge was simply to get a few clients so that you can pay your bills.

“I believe what got us there was a good reputation and trust.”

While on the corporate side, David did all he could in his pursuit to not get caught up in the office politics and serve everyone well. This made it easy for the firm to get hold of those first few clients.

True North Market Insights first set of clients came from those who knew David on the corporate side. Sometimes when having coffee with the new entrepreneurs, or those exploring the supplier side of insights, David makes it a point to recommend avoiding office politics and to serve everyone well.

Because you might never know what role someone will have in the future. One mantra insists on –

“When you are doing a project for someone, do the best you can. It doesn’t matter who they are.”

“We search for better ways of doing things so that we can better serve our clients and make them successful.”

“When you are doing a project for someone, do the best you can. It doesn’t matter who they are.”

They have a financial incentive to keep doing the same thing. Firms such as True North Market Insights can make that adjustment much more quickly. 

“We are not content standing still. We are always testing, growing, and doing our own research on research.” 

The Growth Quotient- True North Market Insights

True North Market Insights long-term success has been due to staying true to who they are. Since the firm has grown up on the client side, understanding what the clients want is at the core of their services. The team strives to be their long-term partner and not just a transactional vendor. And to achieve this, the team always looks at the lifetime value of the client.

A key component of True North Market Insights success, and why they can establish partnerships, is that they are always thinking about the client, and what is best for them. That includes the team’s primary contact.

“We want them to be successful.”

Those who have not been on the client side do not understand this person’s role and the pressures and expectations they face. That is where True North Market Insights makes the difference. For example, if the team knows to whom the report is going and they understand that person’s perspective, they craft the report for that person. 

“When I was on the client side, I frequently asked my vendors for updates on new trends, methodologies, and new thinking. But I rarely got it. I want True North Market Insights to be the firm that understands the trends, which is worthy of exploring, and which is merely a fad.

Too many firms simply do research the same way it has been done for decades. For example, the way we measure brands has not changed since the 30 years when I was a junior analyst at Hallmark Cards. Ok, the data collection has changed from mall intercepts, telephone, and now online, but how we structure the questionnaire has not changed. That would be ok if the method was good – but it’s not.”, says David.

The Search For Solutions That Better Reflect Real Human Behavior

So much has been discovered in the last decade or so about how humans truly make choices and decisions. We used to believe that everything was rational. What we are learning is that 95% of our thought process is unconscious. We make decisions unconsciously and emotionally and justify them rationally.

This is what Nobel Prize-winning psychologists and economists say (i.e., Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler), as well as many more. Yet our research methods have not changed in decades. We still act as if everything is rational. But they are not. There is now an entire discipline that studies this called Behavioral Economics.

When David first began studying this topic, he was a bit defensive. It was clear that if this were true, how we do much of our research is wrong. But as more and more came out, he reached the point where it needed to be addressed. As a result, David, with his team began designing studies that fit within these new insights.

Unfortunately, the biggest research firms are many times the slowest to learn. Their data norms and internal procedures are based on the research methods from the past decades. It takes a lot of time to test, make the decision to try other approaches, and then train throughout their organization.

“We have conducted some of our own research-on-research on these methods. We have found that following the principles of Behavioral Economics and how humans truly make decisions, our methods can be more predictive.”, David 

In short, humans don’t make decisions on 5-point scales. They make choices. Yet most researchers are reluctant to give up the decades-old approach of using scales such as the Likert scale. By the way, the Likert scale is almost 90 years old. It’s not our father’s scale – it’s our grandfather’s scale. And it is not consistent with how humans make decisions in the real world.

“Our industry’s research methods have not changed in decades. We still act as if everything is rational. But they are not.”

True North Market Insights developed 3 new solutions based on these insights.

Solution #1 –

Brand Insights –

One thing we now know is that everything is relative. We don’t have an absolute value in our minds for a brand.

Humans compare alternatives and make choices. No scales and relative to each other. Yet traditional brand studies have you evaluate a brand on lots of attributes all on scales. In other words, in isolation. Not relative to anything else. And that’s a problem.

The traditional studies are long and difficult for respondents.

True North Market Insights solution follows a very different approach.

They ask the respondent to evaluate the client brand and its relevant competitors together and choose which they like the best. They will choose which offers the most value, which has the highest quality, which best delivers on any number of dimensions.

What’s noteworthy in this process is that they put the brands together and not in an isolation. Presenting these reports to the clients, they are then asked to make choices as they do in the real world, and not evaluate on a scale.

From a practical standpoint, this helps them capture much more data on more brands using this approach. And it is much more engaging for the respondents so they are more likely to stay engaged throughout the entire survey.

Solution #2 –

Rapid Review:

A client included True North Market Insights in an RFP (request for proposal) to develop a system to evaluate many new ideas. Now, as a part of the product development, the team was quick to screen out ideas that have a low probability of success so that more time and resources can be invested in the ideas that truly have an opportunity.

The traditional approach would be to ask respondents to evaluate each of the ideas on a 5-point purchase likelihood scale.

The team sat back and watched the purchase process and mimicked that process in their approach. When shopping for almost anything, shoppers will identify a sub-set of products that they would consider. Second, among those that they might consider, they will choose their favorite. Finally, they checkout. Notice, no scales, just choices. 

True North Market Insights process goes through the same process. The team asks respondents if they would consider the alternatives – a quick thumbs up or down – just like they do in the real world. Then of those they would consider, the team would ask them to come back and tell which they would purchase; again, yes or no. Finally, depending on the product, we take them to checkout to confirm their “purchase.”

So does it work? True North Market Insights did their own test-control study to validate the findings. They had a cell where they asked the interest of 10 fast food restaurants using the traditional purchase likelihood scale. Then they had a cell using their choice approach. And the result – not even close.

Both Wendy’s and McDonald’s received a very similar score. Not surprising. But here’s the problem. McDonald’s share is very different. In fact, McDonald’s share is almost 3 times that of Wendy’s – but they received the same score. What’s going on? That should give any researcher heartburn.

But True North Market Insights choice results were amazing close to the actual market share.

Now, there are other good choice-based methods, such as MaxDiff. But by using the Rapid Review approach, the firm has been able to test over 200 ideas within one study. Something MaxDiff could never do.

Besides being more predictive, since the questionnaire is straightforward, they can have results fast – typically in a week.

And the price is typically lower, too, because the firm doesn’t need a big PowerPoint deck and hours of analysis. The metrics are very straightforward. 

Some companies may forgo testing products ahead of time due to the time it takes or the cost, but make it easy to bring the voice of the customer into their decision-making process.

Solution #3 –

Defection Detection

Understanding why customers leave is important to understand. Some believe customers leave due to dissatisfaction. That might be true. But the fact is that even satisfied customers will leave. The reasons for attribution can go far beyond dissatisfaction.

Behavioural Economics states that 95% of the decision-making happens in the subconscious. So, when the question is put forward, “why did you leave,” there is less probability of getting the real reasons. There could be any reason for this. Perhaps the brand does not fit them anymore; perhaps they have outgrown the product as they have entered a new life stage, and perhaps their friends are now using something different. Perhaps the brand personality does fit them.

Defection Detection is an approach that gets past the logical, surface reasons for attrition and discovers the real reasons.

David Santee- Leading the Way-


For the most of his career, David has worked on the client side of the businesses. His stellar professional journey includes the names of some of the biggest organizations like that of Hallmark, Colgate (Hill’s Pet Nutrition), and H&R Block. Even though most assignments he has worked on have been in market research, he has also had roles in Product Management, New Product Development, and Key Account Management.

David’s last corporate role was as the Director of Worldwide Market Research at H&R Block. This role helped him learn a lot of new things. Things like, it is not just about research. He got to work with the C-Suite and other leaders to bring them insights into how and when they needed them. The job became one of communication and influence rather than providing data. Most of those at the top do not read market research reports. They get their information other ways.

David’s Message to the New Entrepreneurs-

“Unfortunately, there is a rather large misconception about a typical entrepreneur. We have this image of someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a young guy with a new-to the- world tech product. But that is not the profile of most successful entrepreneurs.

The profile of a successful entrepreneur is someone who has worked for others for years, and is in his or her 40s or 50s. This type of person has a better idea of how businesses run, what might be a good idea, and has business connections that can help him. Thus, if someone wants to be an entrepreneur, the most successful path is to work for someone else and learn.”


“I believe these non-research positions have made me a better researcher.”

“If we want customers to have a real voice, we need to be prepared to have their voices heard through these other channels.”

“When you are doing a project for someone, do the best you can. It doesn’t matter who they are.”

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