Masters of Marketing Interview: Lindsay Zaltman – CEO, Olson Zaltman

Our Masters of Marketing series continues with Lindsay Zaltman of Olson Zaltman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Zaltman’s father, Jerry Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School, founded the innovative marketing research company 22 years ago along with his partner, Jerry Olson, a professor of marketing at Penn State University. Lindsay joined not long after. They provide innovative research services to an exhausting list of clientele that includes PNC, Harley-Davidson, Johnson+Johnson, and more.

Olson Zaltman stands apart for their clients because they go beyond traditional research to reveal deeper insight. Twenty-two years ago they were the pioneers in applying mind science to consumer insight market research. Today, other firms have followed in their footsteps, applying neuroscience, system one, and biometrics. “We were the first System 1 research out there, before it was even called System 1,” shares Zaltman.

“We were the first to apply social science, as well,” he continues. “In doing that, a lot of the people we hired weren’t traditional marketers.” People that gravitate towards the company tend to have backgrounds in other areas like anthropology and neuroscience. “We have some traditional marketers, as well, but we have a diverse set of interests and disciplines that make up our eclectic bunch so clients can come to us to get a fresh take on whatever challenges they’re looking to solve.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt

When the original Zaltman and Olson first got together, they created their most famous technique: the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). It was the first research technique to receive a US patent. “It’s been our bread and butter technique. In the old days, that’s all we used to do. When a client would come to us looking for other types of research, we’d recommend someone who’d be good at that particular technique.” He goes on to explain, “ZMET is like the Cadillac version of study. It’s very intense, involving a one-on-one, two-hour interview with the consumer. It’s very involved and we get back a lot of data, but it does take a lot of time.”

They’ve now developed a whole host of new tools and other versions of ZMET to satisfy the need for shorter processing time and decreasing marketing budgets, making agile research more important in this day and age. So they’ve adapted their services over the decades. “ZMET is still our core offering, but we’ve gotten more agile. We’ve developed more qualitative and quantitative tools. We now tend to focus more on the deep-dive tools.” They stay at attention, looking at what new tools are out there and bringing on what they feel would be a good fit. “Time is of the essence, budgets matter, so we’ve gotten pretty creative in figuring out ways to bring in more tools.”

Zaltman’s own focus has shifted more towards the softer side of doing business. “I’m now much more into deeper client relationships,” he shares. The natural thinking would be to just take any client you can, because it’ll help to pay the bills in the end. “But we’ve taken a healthier look at it and want to work with clients who appreciate deeper insight and our people.” They pay attention to the same things they look for in their staff and culture.

“We want our clients to inspire us and interest us. That hasn’t always been my philosophy. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I understand you need to enjoy what you do. One of the ways you can do that is to be surrounded with people that challenge and interest you and work well together.”

Branding Your Voice

While Olson Zaltman doesn’t necessarily have an external brand voice, they have a sort of internal purpose. “I don’t mind that people don’t externally know.” Their purpose is to have insights that change the world.

“We want our insights to change our clients’ world, or our client as an individual – maybe helping them get a promotion, or change the consumers’ world by selling them a product they didn’t know they needed. Or maybe to effect real world change. We should in some sort of way impact a change in the world, whether big or small.”

They remain true to their core values: bold, empathetic, and intellectually curious.

What’s Wrong With Retail

With all the talk about the downfall of retail, some are arguing that it may be a myth; that the focus of retail has just shifted. Zaltman disagrees. “I think it is a real problem, but I don’t think it’s a flat problem. I think it’s something that retailers are just now realizing – too late. In the more extreme cases out there, they’re crumbling and having to close their doors.” He believes that the majority of them need to re-strategize and figure out the new role of what bricks and mortars can be now, in relation to what they were in the past. They need to stay up on what consumers want, and then change to meet that. That may be a different use or reason from what it was 10 years ago, but could still serve a purpose. “There’s always going to be a need to immerse yourself in a real experience,” he says.

He believes the retail experience needs to be just that: an experience. “For outdoor stores like Cabelas, it’s easier. It’s more difficult to make a kayak purchase online before seeing it first.” He notes the unique Capital One Cafes. “It’s a breakthrough way of thinking. They thought about what they can offer consumers. They’ve crafted a welcoming space that is secondarily about merchant services, while the primary experience is about relaxation and coffee.” Genius.

Olson Zaltman recently worked with a high-end jewelry company to help them think of new ways to cater to millenials who don’t enjoy the old ways of shopping for luxury. “How you sell luxury to a 60-year old is not how you’d sell it to a 30-year old, so changing those experiences is important. It requires a different way of thinking about what your space can provide. “It’s more about the experience and less about the product or service itself being sold in stores,” he explains.

Zaltman relates it to how his wife and daughter recently returned from their annual shopping excursion to New York City. “I don’t think they bought anything that they couldn’t have purchased here at home, but there’s something about those experiences that are fun to do in person.” Experiences like that trigger emotion. The whole weekend is something to look forward to: a trip out of town, time spent laughing together, the sights and sounds and smells of a big bustling city with a history of luxury shopping. It all blends to create a memorable experience that is tough to recreate anywhere else.

Some Words of Advice

In regards to someone looking to enter into marketing and marketing research, Zaltman says, “You need to take and learn from as many different disciplines or areas as you can. That’s where the beauty of things happening in the industry comes from: drawing from beauty, science, architecture, and more.” He advises people don’t just read business or marketing books. “You’ll just be a ho-hum marketer if you only have those blinders on. Whatever you’re doing, you need to be constantly exploring new ideas and areas out there because marketing is so open to accepting those kinds of ideas.”