Keep It Real: The Active Explorer’s continuous search for authenticity

As it warms up outside and more travelers flee to foreign lands, it seems the perfect time to broach the subject of authentic experiences.

We hear it every day. People want “real” experiences. More and more, consumers strive to live like locals, if only for a few days. Acting as chameleons, blending into their temporary surroundings to truly experience a place for its roots and culture.

Last year, we surveyed more than 400 Active Explorers and learned what drives this demographic to explore as well as what shapes their travel habits.

Now, recent studies show that frequent millennial travelers (who also happen to make up a large portion of the Active Explorer demographic, nudge nudge) are more interested in walking a day in the shoes of a local than a cookie-cutter, vacation-in-a-box type of tourist package.

The classic breed of tourist as we know it is a dying one. Fanny packs and maps flown full staff are the tools of yesterday, replaced by mobile devices and app stores. LonelyPlanet is becoming a lonely place as millennials ditch traditional guidebooks for peer recommendations through social media or Yelp ratings.

Sure, attractions like the Space Needle or Eiffel Tower still hold appeal to the deep-seated tourist in all of us, but the younger generation of frequent travelers would rather take a moment to veer off the beaten path for a more fulfilling travel experience than surround themselves with other visitors.

Why cab around Copenhagen when you could blend in, unnoticed, biking alongside the Danish baker? Why spend your time gazing at Times Square when you could camp out on a rooftop in Brooklyn? These are the stories millennial travelers want to tell—a personal experience tailored to them.

So, what does this mean for your brand? It’s yet another cue to stay genuine in your mission and values while offering unique experiences your competitors can’t match. Don’t just say you’re authentic. Be authentic. Build trust. It’s the holistic experience that consumers crave, with 63% of global consumers expressing they would prefer to buy from a company they deem authentic.

There’s a reason campaigns like Dove’s Real Beauty and Chipotle’s Food with Integrity continue to resonate with people. The Active Explorer holds authenticity in high regard—whether shaping their travels into cultural adventures or engaging with your brand. Keeping it real has never been so vital.

Need help figuring out what your brand is all about and how you can convey the truest version of your product or service? Let us lend you a hand.

A Brand Guide to No-Win Politics.

For years, business in America has beenalice-donovan-rouse-195453 cautiously apolitical. We build brands to appeal to people who love the outdoors, to fashionistas, to shoppers on a budget – never expecting any of those brands to become a political stand. That’s why working in marketing is so disorienting right now. The ground is shifting beneath our feet.

Today, brand management has more in common with a war room than a corporate office. We’re seeing brands forced to pick a side. We’ve seen Budweiser defend the idea of immigration in a Super Bowl spot. We’ve seen Nordstrom drop a line of clothing because of its association with a daughter-in-chief. We’ve watched as Starbucks pledges to hire 10,000 refugees, and we see more examples of politics affecting brand every day.

jose-moreno-196356It feels like marketing is coalescing around “resistance” brands who stand in defiance of current politics, and “cooperator” brands who do not. For some companies, angering “cooperator” customers isn’t a big deal. For some, it’s half of their business.

At Williams Helde, we believe brands should be true to themselves. If that means taking a stand, then by all means, take a stand. But if that means trying not to anger any of your customers, then you must be very careful in how you craft your communications. Here are three things to keep in mind.

Be Vigilant.  Social media makes it too easy for a small misunderstanding in customer service to become a hashtag and rallying cry for a highly politicized customer base. For example, Uber intended their dropping of “surge pricing” in New York to help their customers, never thinking how they affected striking cab drivers, and were taken aback by the #deleteUber hashtag. Brands should monitor all channels consistently to make sure those misunderstandings are addressed before they spiral out of control.

Have a Plan. As noted above, brands never jerry-kiesewetter-195442expected their love of the outdoors to become a political stand. But as policies become more controversial, positions that once seemed benign could suddenly become a battleground. Make sure your marketing department has a response to possible flashpoint issues like immigration, education, the environment, and more. You never know when your brand will be accidentally pulled into a controversy.

Communicate Clearly. Your brand is a collection of experiences, and the bulk of those experiences happen when your customers interact with your employees. If those employees don’t know your corporate position on an issue, you increase your chances of miscommunication or misstep. For example, if you are a retailer and one of the brands you sell makes a “resistance” or a “cooperator” statement, your retail brand is affected. Williams Helde has developed expertise in making brand decisions resonate throughout corporate culture, and we know how to let your employees understand how and why decisions are made. We can help you develop a plan to protect your brand from backlash.

It’s getting weird out there, people. We have to stick together. Williams Helde is helping brands like yours figure out how to navigate uncharted political waters. If you need to talk a little strategy to keep your brand off the rocks, please drop us a line.

Love is Served: Food Gets a Little Emotional.

“[Food] makes you think of happy times. It warms your heart.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

kzwp2iiyxma-toa-heftibaAfter years of studying the Active Explorer, one of the most loyal and dynamic psychographics in marketing today, we’ve learned one thing: they never cease to surprise. After tracking down every food trend, from meal delivery services to sous vide cooking, that affects this adventurous group, we finally sat down and asked them a few questions about how they think about eating.

And it comes down to honesty, authenticity, and family.

The most important value for food companies, from restaurants to retail, among Active Explorers is honesty (24%). A close second was family (21%). We were expecting more exploration values to pop, like originality (2%) or innovation (1%). Maybe even adventure (2%) or discovery (1%). But no. AE’s may be pushing the envelope on self-discovery, only not when they’re hungry. The biggest values after family were ethical (9%), respect (7%) and caring (7%).

“Comfort food to me is the meal you cook after you have completely ruined a meal you were going to try.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

xksrpuh0vzo-yvonne-lee-harijantoFood is comfort, and comfort means food. That’s what our User Group played back to us. They rely on it to warm them during spells of cold weather (29%) and ground them after stressful days at work (16%). But you don’t need to be sad to reach for the mac and cheese: comfort food is what AE’s reach for when they’re in a good mood (13%) or when they’re in the mood to celebrate (11%). In short, comfort food is “fresh, fills you up, and makes you feel loved,” in the words of one respondent.

Ultimately, this is what food means to Active Explorers. It’s an emotional connection to friends and family. It’s a place to feel safe and warm. It’s a place you leave every morning, touch base at lunch, and return to at dinner to share stories, build memories, and express love.

No matter whether they’ddzyotzunbk-eaters-collectivere cooking for themselves or going out to eat, food occupies a special place in the mind of the Active Explorer. It’s a beginning and an end to the day, fuel and sustenance, an expression of honesty and family. It’s where they start and where they inevitably return. It’s a place called home.

Active Explorer Restaurant Chains: A Top Ten List

Tried and true. With a dash of spice.

e6hjqab7uea-dan-goldThat’s what our Active Explorer User Group told us they preferred when they went out to eat. Not in so many words, mind you. In general, Active Explorers are the most likely to crave culinary adventures. They love learning to cook new things, explore new restaurants, and taste dishes they haven’t tried before.

But not always. When they responded to our survey, they revealed that their default setting was a little closer to home. When deciding to go out on the spur of the moment on a Saturday night, nearly half (44%) of Active Explorers choose a sit-down restaurant close to home.

But which five sit-down restaurants were the most likely to be chosen by Active Explorers? Drum roll please…

  • Olive Garden (11%)
  • Chili’s (10%)
  • Applebee’s (9%)
  • Outback Steakhouse (8%)
  • Cheesecake Factory (8%)

The fact that these were national chains wasn’t surprising; this was a national survey. What’s interesting is who was left off the list. No Denny’s, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, or TGI Fridays – names you’d expect to be competitive in this race.

When we dug a little deeper, we noticed something our winners had in common. Each of them has recently emphasized a value in their marketing that olivegarden575-calpromostrikes a chord with the Active Explorer. For example, Olive Garden has recently hit “fresh,” “healthy” and “gourmet” pretty hard. Same with Chili’s and Outback.

When it came to fast-food restaurants, we learned even more. Here are the top five finishers:

  • McDonald’s (10%)
  • Panera (9%)
  • Chick-fil-A (7%)
  • Taco Bell (7%)
  • Chipotle (7%)

Panera and Chipotle are perennial Active Explorer favorites, so it’s not surprising to see those place well. But we were curious to see what McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A were doing right. A lot, as it turns out. All three have spent a great deal of marketing emphasizing their fresh, local, bold new menu items.

mcdonaldsbillboard2Even McDonald’s has made a big push in the Pacific Northwest, sourcing their fries from Washington farmers and putting up billboards that connected the McDonald’s brand to a sense of outdoor adventure.

What else did we learn? 1 in 4 Active Explorers said that spending time with family and friends is the best thing about going out to dinner. About the same number said the best thing about going out to eat is not having to make it themselves.

Active Explorers are, at their heart, explorers. But as we learned from our travel survey, they also like coming back to a place they feel comfortable. In the food industry, that’s where fast casual brands are making their biggest gains. There’s always a place for known quantities that are trusted brands, are convenient and reliable, but also consistently provide new flavors or refreshed menus.

Put all the Active Explorer learnings together: buzzwords, restaurants, food trends and lifestyle: what does it all mean? Let’s talk about that next week.

For Active Explorers, Food Buzzwords Don’t Equal Buzz.

shutterstock_126187640We were wrong.

Like we said in our first post about the Active Explorer Food Survey, we went into our latest study with some expectations about how they viewed the terms “natural,” “sustainable” and “gluten-free.” We thought we were confirming some things about the Active Explorer that we already knew. Some of that – well, most of it — turned out to be wrong.

But that’s a good thing. We’re happy to be wrong. Now we understand some things that get us a lot closer to right. This information may come in handy if you’re in the food industry, or even within shouting distance of it.

So, how do Active Explorers feel about the words “all-natural,” “sustainably grown, and “no trans fat?” Suspiciously, it turns out. Those terms seem to be table stakes on the grocery shelf. They’ll make Active Explorers more likely to buy those products than products that don’t have those terms – but surprisingly, they won’t pay more for those products. Let’s take a look.

Of the terms we tested, only “organic” makes Active Explorers more likely to buy and pay more. Other terms, like “fair trade,” “farmer-owned” and “non-gmo” didn’t move the needle at all. That’s at odds with what we suspected they valued in a food

And don’t get us started on “gluten free.” It was a net negative for our user group, making them less likely to buy and less willing to pay more.

What we’re learning is that Active Explorers aspire to a certain set of values, but that those values only come into play when there’s a clear, differentiated benefit for themselves and their family. “Organic” is the one value that drives purchase intent and price upward, which makes sense – it’s not just a label, but a certification, a badge that makes you feel more wholesome. That makes sense: more than half of AE’s (56%) say that food certifications are somewhat important or very important in their food purchases.

Everything else? Just words on a package.

But that’s in the grocery store. What happens when Active Explorers go out to eat?

That’s a funny story. We’ll save it for next week.

Active Explorers Go Out to Eat: Food for Thought.

shutterstock_222631798_editSome of the world’s most adventurous, experiential people?

When it comes to food, they often choose the tried and true.

That’s just one of the unexpected, surprising, and insightful results we learned from our Active Explorer User Group. Conducted in late September and early October of this year, our survey included 433 respondents who fall into the Active Explorer psychographic – one of the most loyal, educated, and growing consumer segments. These are people evenly distributed by age between the ages of 25 – 65+, 40% earn between $100K- $150K household income. Many have a 4-year degree, and one in four have a graduate degree.

We asked a wide range of questions about how these customers think and feel about the food they eat, in restaurants and at home.

Did you know…

  • Nearly 20% buy organic produce when available? (We thought that would be higher.)
  • That 75% workout most days, or at least a few days of the week? (We thought that might be lower.)
  • Nearly 40% dined out 3-5 times last month and nearly 20% dined out over 8 times last month? (We didn’t know what to think, but that’s good stuff.)

Here’s what really surprised us. We gave our people a pop quiz. What do you do when it’s Saturday, and you have nothing planned for dinner?

Our respondents told us that 59% of them planned to go to a restaurant for dinner rather than choosing to make something at home. We could see that. These people are seekers, adventurers, the ones who want to try that new place on the corner.blogicons_food-02_720

But of these respondents, 83% would choose a restaurant they’ve been to before, instead of trying something new. (That’s higher than we expected. By a lot.) That tells us a lot about how food connects with Active Explorers. Even though they’re a demographic most likely to try new experiences, when it comes to restaurants, their loyalty kicks in hard.

Of the 41% of Active Explorers who said they’d break out the pots and pans on a Saturday night, 85% plan the meal before they go to the store and 81% make a grocery or shopping list for it. This suggests opportunities to reach them while they are deciding at home and in planning mode — even at the last minute. They have good reasons to cook at home: cooking/preparing food at home helps AEs have control over what they are eating (20%) and it helps them save money (20%). They also believe that it has higher quality ingredients (16%).

As you’d expect from a demographic that likes to learn, Active Explorers report that their interest in cooking exceeds their skill level. 31% rated themselves a 5 for skill, while 38% rated themselves a 5 for interest.

What can we infer from these results? That when it comes to food, decisions are made well before the time to make them. That the opportunity to influence comes far before the moment of purchase. And maybe restaurants need to balance the thrill of something new with the comfort of the familiar.

blogicons_food-03_720But we’re just getting started. In our next post, we’ll explore the emotional and rational triggers that inspire Active Explorers to choose what they eat – and it’s more interesting than we thought.

Stay tuned. See you next week.

Something to Whet Your Appetite.

It might be the change in the weather, but these days, we’re thinking a lot about food at Williams Helde. But we’ve also been doing something about it. We asked over 400 participants in ourshutterstock_285854987 Active Explorer User Group some questions about food – what they eat and why they eat, what motivates them and comforts them – and the results are starting to come in.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing a series of posts about these results that caught us by surprise. We went in with some hypotheses and came out with a whole lot of insights we’re excited to share. Things like: What foods do AEs eat on the spur of the moment, and how do they think?

What kinds of “food words” inspire AEs to spend more on what they eat?

What names are top-of-mind in this segment for fast, casual food?

What’s the most surprising thing we learned about this loyal, affluent psychographic?

So if you’re at all interested in who your best potential customers are when they eat, keep an eye open for our next few posts. We promise there’s a lot of food for thought.

If you missed our last blog series about Active Explorer Travel, click here to catch up.

If you have questions about how this applies to your business specifically, contact us. We’re always hungry for fresh opportunities.

The Window of Opportunity

Traveling Active Explorers and your brand

shutterstock_425107057As we’ve learned from our Active Explorer User Group, opportunities for brands to communicate with travelers are plentiful, but without understanding the motivations and expectations of Active Explorers, these efforts might miss the mark.

As marketers, we’re often in pursuit of the key takeaway, the high-level message that can be the catalyst for fresh approaches to our communications. Here are our essential takeaways:

Active Explorers relax on vacation by being active.

Relaxation and active adventure are a natural combination for Active Explorers. Our user group results revealed that the top three motivations for travel were relaxing/recharging, exploring new places and experiencing different activities. Nearly a third of Active Explorers said discovering new places was their top reason for a vacation, while another third said it’s getting away from day-to-day routines.

There’s not one preferred type of vacation, just like there’s not one type of consumer. Active Explorers are defined by their appetites for adventure, their loyalty to brands that help them reach their destinations and their thirst for authentic travel experiences. But like any demographic, they’re a diverse bunch. AEs can be constant thrill-seekers, but they also love the creature comforts of a cruise or a hotel room. Over half of user group respondents said that staying in the same place for more than a week is the best way to relax, with 41% saying that 5-7 days is an ideal vacation trip length.

So meet them in the middle, tell a story about your brand that’s relatable and compelling. Marriott got it right with their Travel Brilliantly campaign, juxtaposing the ease and comfort of their hotels with the unlimited possibilities of travel they make possible. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to Active Explorers, but it also casts the net wide, inspiring a broad audience to activate not only their travel, but their adventure, through Marriott.

Timing is everything.

Make no mistake, Active Explorers have a clear picture of their ideal vacation, whatever it may be. In fact, they typically plan that ideal trip a few months in advance. And over a third plan their trip more between three and six months ahead. With booking windows this wide open, travel brands need to remain relevant throughout the consumer purchasing journey, constantly in the sights of Active Explorers in the thick of planning.

What’s more, 69% of AEs plan their next trip right after their current one. Here, the window of opportunity narrows, but it’s still important that brands reach consumers while they’re still coming off their travel high. It might be as simple as a free gift when they arrive home or an email blast with an exclusive offer and a survey.

The statistics can only get you so far.

The numbers tell us a lot about how Active Explorers interact with travel, from planning to purchase and execution. But they don’t explicitly tell brands and marketers how to leverage consumer behaviors. That’s where research, brand-building and targeted communications come in.

Data is great. Insights are better. Saying something that resonates with the Active Explorer will go miles toward inspiring them to hear more of what you have to say. Don’t over-invest in a campaign that hasn’t been tested thoroughly — try multiple approaches. Always push the envelope, don’t be afraid to say something surprising. And never miss a window of opportunity to make communications timely, nimble and impactful.

Follow those rules, and you’ll find your brand’s window of opportunity larger than ever before.

Adventures in Familiarity

When Traveling, Active Explorers Won’t Risk Comfort


Look at a dozen of your friends’ Instagram feeds and you’ll see a series of spontaneous moments taken from some of the world’s most exotic locations. Here’s what you won’t see: the planning, consideration and research that went into it.

It turns out that those moments of seemingly spontaneous adventure are often meticulously planned. That’s one of the many insights from our latest survey into the Active Explorer, one of the fastest-growing segments in the travel industry. We were surprised to discover that this highly experiential group always kept an eye on the safe and familiar.

Basecamp: Trusted Hotel Chains

Surprisingly, nearly a third of Active Explorers prefer hotel chains for their accommodations.  In addition, nearly half believed that staying in one place is the best way to relax. Names like Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Kimpton offer more than shelter – they offer a taste of the familiar. It seems that no matter where you go, you need a place to call home – the more familiar, the better.

Come Aboard, We’re Expecting You

Despite the value they place in traveling with freedom and independence, about half of Active Explorers express interest in cruises — even if they’ve never taken one. On the surface, a cruise seems very un-Active – playing shuffleboard on the Lido deck clashes with the extreme lifestyles we see on their social feeds. While it seems counterintuitive, it makes sense when you realize they’re craving a familiar base. Recent campaigns from Norwegian Cruise Lines emphasize the point that a cruise ship can serve as a mobile basecamp for exotic destinations.

Risk vs. Reward

Although there are extremes at both ends, traveling Active Explorers are in a constant game of balance. Some love to ping-pong from one spontaneous adventure after another, while others have their itinerary, reservations and all, planned to the half-hour. But most of them are seeking that balance of spontaneity and reassurance that keeps our senses awakened and our spirit nourished.

So What?

It’s not a surprise that Active Explorers are looking for comfort to sustain their sense of adventure on the road. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it. There’s an opportunity for well-known, “safe” brands to provide familiarity and reassurance even when their customers are exploring their wild side.

Active Explorers and Travel: UnScripted Adventure

shutterstock_354764354The results from Williams Helde’s latest Active Explorer User Group revealed that for Active Explorers, travel is a basic need right up there with food, water and shelter. We also discovered that travel is often inspired by books, music, movies and more.

But once consumers get the travel bug, what happens next? What’s going through their minds as they explore their options? What is their ultimate objective? And as marketers, how can we leverage their desires and push the right buttons through targeted communications?

The results from our user group point to a few key insights regarding purchase considerations for Active Explorers.

85% of Active Explorer respondents search for new experiences when they travel

User group respondents strongly agreed or agreed that when traveling, they prefer new activities they can’t do at home. Active Explorers are, by nature, always in pursuit of the “new,” whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime view or unique regional meal. In place of the sanitized bus tour or curated restaurant checklist, Active Explorers would rather go on a winding back-road trip to a country winery they saw in a film once, or learn how to make pasta from a legendary local chef.

Here’s how one respondent described the perfect travel experience:

“Taking art classes – learning from new artists. Trying new food – experiencing the difference. Visiting museums – understanding old cultures. Speaking with new people – learning about living in different places. Snorkeling, sightseeing, eating; because there’s always something new to discover.”

For Active Explorers, “new” doesn’t have to involve exercise

We asked our Active Explorer User Group what they like to do most, even when they’re not traveling. While more physical activities such as hiking, swimming, biking and going to the gym were high on the list, respondents most frequently responded that they enjoy trying new restaurants.

The findings also suggest that intellectually enriching activities such as theater, cooking classes and live music also rate very highly. More than anything, Active Explorers love to be immersed in everything they do, at home or in their travels, experiencing the world first-hand and never letting opportunities pass by.

The art of the new

We know that travel is the art of the new. Brands that help Active Explorers plan, activate and enjoy their travel, and all of the new experience it offers, are fast becoming industry tastemakers. Airbnb tapped into this trend with their recent Live like a Local campaign. It was a compelling appeal to Active Explorers, urging travelers to live in their destinations, rather than simply touring them. To experience a new city as if it were home, and in the process, discover the truly new, exciting facets of a place. Active Explorers, as many brands have noticed, are demanding anything but the typical from their travel.

So what does it all mean? Basically, that marketers have to train themselves to look into every single touchpoint of their brand, from customer service to mobile experiences to word-of-mouth, to identify moments of the new and unexpected. It could be as simple as a tongue-in-cheek mobile alert, or a surprise discount at the register as a spontaneous loyalty reward. But those moments will be far more impactful than a native advertisement or a video.

The Active Explorer User Group and your brand

We’d love the chance to put this group of loyal, engaged Active Explorer consumers to work for your brand. If you would like to learn more about how the user group findings can help your brand, email us or call us at (206) 285-1940.