Emotional Drivers of Consumer Behavior with Jim Pietruszynski

Jim Pietruszynski, the CEO of the Chicago-based branding agency Soulsight, explains how to uncover and leverage the hidden, emotional drivers of consumer behavior. With over three decades of experience working with iconic CPG brands, including Nike, Campbell’s, and Coors, Jim shares his expertise on some of the ways brands can understand the powerful emotions that drive consumer choices and how MOVE, Jim’s new research framework, yields deeper insights for brand development.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Jim Pietruszynski: MOVE is identifying consumer emotions that are tied to their motivational needs, values, and ultimately the brands they love. So with a really data-driven, more quantitative process, we understand emotional intelligence that drives product development at each stage of a brand.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Today, brands face some unique challenges. Algorithms personalise ads, data targets our interests, and AI chatbots mimic human conversation. But in this world of digital efficiency, can the human touch get lost? People buy brands, not algorithms, and the strongest bonds are often built on emotion. So how can brands understand the powerful, yet often unconscious, emotions that drive consumer choices? Our guest today is an expert on this topic. Jim Pietruszynski is the Chief Executive Officer of Soulsight, a Chicago-based branding agency specializing in uncovering and leveraging the emotional drivers of consumer behavior. Jim’s background blends graphic design, strategy, and cultural anthropology, and he has three decades of experience working with iconic CPG brands, including Nike, Campbell’s, Kraft Heinz, Molson Coors, Hershey’s, Mondelēz International, PepsiCo, and many more. To discuss how brand strategy and visual identity design can be informed by consumers’ implicit responses, I’m delighted that Jim is joining us today from Grayslake, Illinois. Jim, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Jim Pietruszynski: Thank you, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: As I mentioned in the intro, you have a pretty unique blend of interests. So what led you to a career in branding and design?

Jim Pietruszynski: When I started to study graphic design in school, I did also have some interest in filling those electives with psychology and cultural anthropology courses. Just totally out of interest. As I graduated from school, my first job was at a small package design agency. that focused on more consumer goods that were industrial or food-related, which are like total opposite ends of the spectrum, but understanding that they were primarily the same type of consumer when we looked at briefs and we looked at targets. After that agency, I moved on to a larger global agency where I got to experience what it was like to work with very large brands and different types of processes to understand human behavior. And the light bulb went off and the understanding of culture and that interest I have in culture and the interest I have in psychology applied to what we were doing with art and design. So the more experience in branding for packaging and making connections between branding and packaging and holistic brand expression really elevated the importance of what it meant to culture. And we know that the package is one activation of a brand, but it is the moment of truth and connection between human and brand.

Adrian Tennant: Well, today you’re the Chief Executive Officer of Soulsight. Could you tell us a bit about the agency, and the kind of work you do for clients?

Jim Pietruszynski: Yes. So we consider ourselves a brand design agency, and where we’re focused is in three areas we like to bucket things in. One is brand innovation, which is described as the development of a brand, sub-brand or product. Another one is brand renovation, which we describe as the redesign of an existing brand or sub-brand. And then brand activation, which is the amplification of a brand or sub-brand visual identity system across consumer touchpoints. Now, we can come in and come out of a brand’s lifecycle at any time. Our process is very flexible to meet a brand where their needs are and what they need at any time during that lifecycle. So there’s a lot of flexibility in how and when and where or what kind of relationships we have with our clients, but very much brand led depending on the needs.

Adrian Tennant: On the Soulsight website, you describe the agency’s expertise as, quote – “Intersecting human truths with product truths to reveal the subconscious motivating emotion that drives decision-making” – end quote. Jim, can you unpack this for us?

Jim Pietruszynski: Yeah, would love to. So when we look at human needs, and they all orbit around five or six, but the ones that we really focus on are growth, connection, certainty, significance, and variety. And those words can be swept out with words like control. Also, when you think about certainty or when you think about variety, the ability to be creative. So what we do is we look at those human needs and how are they intersecting with functional needs of a brand. So when we take that empathetic, strategic understanding, we make the connection. In briefs, brands will subjectively pick emotional reasons to believe. without authentically making sure they connect to a true human need or attention. So, hopefully during the insight-gathering process, we understand functionally, where is that niche or that point of difference that a brand can make, and how does it fulfill a need or attention in someone’s life? So how they fit together, almost like Lincoln Logs. When you have those two working well together, they continue to build some brand affinity and some brand loyalty, helping the brand grow.

Adrian Tennant: Jim, we love examples and case studies on IN CLEAR FOCUS, so could you give us an example of how emotional insights informed a specific project?

Jim Pietruszynski: Love to. One that sticks out for me and is really a game changer in how I think about brands and insights and definitely emotional insights was a project that was briefed as, I’m not going to use company names, but a beer that was targeted towards Mexican-Americans. And when I say a beer, I mean a domestic beer that they may consider to drink. We know that Mexican-American Males particularly like to drink beverages, especially beer beverages, that are imported from Mexico and are authentic to Mexico. So our domestic beers have trouble showing up at their family gatherings, showing up at places where they celebrate together, and showing up in their homes. We did an ethnography that we were in three different cities in Chicago, in Dallas, and in Los Angeles. And it was a very enlightening experience to do almost speed dating with consumers, but then picking a few to go into their homes and hang out with their families and their friends to understand and observe what those needs might look like. So doing so, we discovered a numerous different types of product types. This was about 10 years ago. And one of those was Aguas Frescas with alcohol. And you see them in the market now. I think we were a little ahead of our time trying to release a project that didn’t stick regionally. So it was abandoned at the time, but has since been brought back to life. But the interesting notion of being in there to see that emotionally, these families and these friends that we’re gathering. weren’t looking for hard spirits. They wanted something that was going to be able to keep them in control, allow them to be able to, you know, have fun together as families. And beer is a staple in the community as something that doesn’t make you feel as if you’re overdoing it. That’s a good way of putting it. And then looking at what other things are we drinking and aguas frescas being something that is very traditional. If you’re not familiar, they’re large jugs of water that are flavored with fruit and everyone in the family can enjoy them. They’re also something that showed up everywhere in our study. So functionally, the archetype of the project changed, but the archetype changed because we saw it as such a relevant piece of insight. in a need that was already there being fulfilled by something that was non-alcoholic and substituted with alcohol. So an easy drinking beverage with aguas frescas was a insight that was pulled from that experience of being able to go into people’s homes and have grandma cook us dinner, families with babies crying in the other room, and the welcoming notion of entertainment and taking care of each other that came across in that project.

Adrian Tennant: I love to hear about ethnography because I feel it’s so often overlooked in commercial research projects.

Jim Pietruszynski: Agree, agree.

Adrian Tennant: Now, you’ve described the role that emotional insights can play in informing successful branding. Given how prevalent AI and automation are becoming in marketing strategy, how do you think brands can maintain that human connection?

Jim Pietruszynski: Great question. I’m not an AI expert by any means and still being continually curious, always wanting to learn. But right now I don’t quite understand how we can make the connection between empathy and emotion between brand and human that is digital in terms of like digitally developed in a digitally developed mindset. I think AI is a great tool for gathering insight and data with awesome potential for learning insights quickly and building insights quickly. But I think brands really need to be authentic and connect with emotion in order to create that brand loyalty and affinity. One worry I do have with AI What happens with the generalization and homogenization of over-stereotyping with the AI information that we receive? You know, we’ll have to see how that plays out. I just question whether it limits the human creative possibilities or narrow our focus too quickly. So we’re not evolving, we’re not innovating. It’s kind of playing against everything that AI is supposed to be about. Now, I’m not against AI by any means. I think that, you know, it’s here, it’s part of our culture and we need to evolve with culture. It’s just understanding where is it most beneficial in our process.

Adrian Tennant: Now, when we were chatting a few weeks ago about the topics we might want to discuss today, you mentioned some research you’ve been working on. Could you share some preliminary insights from what you’ve learned so far?

Jim Pietruszynski: Would love to. So for the past decade, we’ve been working on and off, but more intensely now, on a research tool that we call MOVE, which is an acronym for Motivating Opportunities Via Emotion. And as I spoke about earlier, in briefs, we receive emotional reasons to believe that we don’t really know are really what human beings are feeling when they relate to a brand or connect with a brand. So what we’re doing with Move is identifying consumer emotions that are tied to their motivational needs, values, and ultimately the brands they love. So with a really data-driven, more quantitative process, we want to understand emotional intelligence that drives product development at each stage of a brand, whether that’s innovation or whether that’s renovation, as we talked about earlier. And what’s that emotional attachment with the target audience? It’s insightful and transformative for us. I think we’re learning as we move, we’re learning more and more about what is sticky and what’s not sticky. But move is really predicting outcomes in a manner consistent with attachment theory. So attachments can vary in strength and attachments can be stronger associated with feelings of those human qualities and emotions that we talked about of connection, affection, love, and passion. So There’s still a little bit of work to do in test piloting this and making sure that we work out some of the kinks, but we really feel that we can gauge consumers’ emotional connections with products and brands in making a pivotal stride in evaluating what that surge of emotional affinity is to prove that emotion makes a difference. We know that from research, over 75 to 80 percent of our decisions are made subconsciously with emotion. So if we can learn a little bit more about that, it will help us be a little bit more targeted and a little bit more meaningful and authentic when working with brand.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. You have extensive experience working with large CPG brands. In our research, we see that while a majority of consumers are concerned about environmental issues, it is Gen Z and Millennials who are the most likely to select brands based on their sustainability credentials, whether that’s related to the way the product was grown or farmed, the supply chain’s greenhouse gas emissions, or the type of packaging that’s used. How are your CPG clients responding to the growing interest in eco-friendly solutions?

Jim Pietruszynski: I think everyone, it’s on top of mind for all of our clients in some way, shape and form with R&D. You know, there’s been some strides in what materials that can be used to be compostable, sustainable, recyclable. There’s a lot that I think of education that needs to happen in the whole cycle of how a brand lives and how it activates in the world. One great example is Molson Coors has introduced a slim pack of six cans that are in a paper box, removing all of those plastic rings that we see. We still see sometimes in craft beers, but you see big companies moving away from that six pack plastic carrier, which we know is plastic. And we could have a whole nother conversation about plastic in our environment. But our team of industrial designers are always pushing solutions. that are sustainable and we’re always trying to challenge and try to introduce new ideas so that R&D and innovation teams that are working on brands, you know, we feel like it’s our responsibility to deliver, even if they’re not asking, deliver solutions because it’s something that’s super important to us as an agency.

Adrian Tennant: Earlier this year, Jenny Stanley from Appetite Creative was a guest. And we discussed the many ways that QR codes can be used to connect physical in-store packaging and shopper marketing assets to digital content. Jim, I’m curious, from a brand strategy perspective, how do you approach the use of QR codes?

Jim Pietruszynski: So from a brand strategy perspective, QR codes for us is just making sure that they hold the purpose of the brand and the holistic experience of the brand together. What’s interesting is what’s caught my eye with QR codes is I’m seeing them a lot more in commercials or 30 second spots where. you can engage with a brand, you know, other than on package or other than on printed material. People want to know more about a brand and what its story is and what’s that authentic story. So as much as QR code seemed like they’ve went away and now have come back, I think they’re a super interesting vehicle, again, as a learning tool and it’s storytelling tool for the brands that, you know, are in market. Or brands that are being introduced into market are even maybe more attuned to use something that allows people to understand where they’re coming from and what their ambition is.

Adrian Tennant: One of the use cases that Jenny and I discussed was in Europe, where she’s based, they have something coming called the digital product passport, which is essentially a digital twin of every SKU from a CPG, which can potentially show its sustainability credentials or not. QR codes are a great way, obviously, for consumers to check The claims on PAC are actually matched by the company’s real-world endeavors. I wonder if we’ll see that in the US.

Jim Pietruszynski: Yeah, I would love to see more of that happen here, especially as it becomes, again, I think the education and the learning cycle needs to be embedded into our culture a little bit more aggressively, starting at a really young age.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Jim Pietruszynski, the Chief Executive Officer of Soulsight, a branding agency that specializes in uncovering and leveraging the emotional drivers of consumer behavior. Jim, you and I both share an interest in the design and use of distinctive brand assets. Last year, as you know, I was fortunate to interview Jenny Romanuk of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute, Jenny, of course, literally wrote the book on the topic, which describes a subcategory of distinctive brand assets called fluent devices. Non-marketers know these simply as mascots. Think of Tony the Tiger [Frosted Flakes], the Geico Gecko, or Flo in the Progressive Insurance ads. They’re all characters that convey the brand. Jim, what are some of the challenges of developing new brand mascots or working with existing ones?

Jim Pietruszynski: So I think, interestingly enough, creating brand mascots for new-to-the-world brands have to serve a purpose. And that’s just learned from, I believe, the history of how we’ve seen things. And I have an interesting story to tell you about one that I worked on that absolutely did not work for an iconic brand, but brand mascots for us help tell a bit of story and create a little bit of interest to help the brand and the category that can otherwise be mundane. So you mentioned some cereal brands, like they can be a great example. Those brand mascots can become awesome storytellers or describe attributes for what the product is, like a Snap Crackle Pop, for example, or the magic of Lucky Charms and how the marshmallows can turn your a different color, so they’re helping tell the story as part of the experience. And then I think there are others that, you know, Pringles, you know Mr. Pringle, the face, and whether you know Mr. Pringle or not, Pringles are not your typical type of chip, so they can be called a Pringle. And they can also be associated with an identifiable character that is relatable without even having to read the brand. I think Chester Cheeto is the same way. Other than being orange, like the product, he’s often a mischievous character to bring fun and livelihood to the pack. I don’t know if they have Tang all over the world, but Tang was a drink that was introduced, I think, back in the 50s as a replaceable beverage for orange juice. Although I don’t know that it ever really replaced orange juice. But I was working on a project young in my career on Tang, and we were trying to force fit a media campaign with a real live orangutan by incorporating it into all of the other brand touch points. cute, clever stretch orangutan and tang, but it really had no other purpose than that clever, funny, interesting, witty media spot. So it was quite a struggle and quite a feat to understand how this orangutan could live on with the brand, and of course, eventually didn’t. But, you know, I think it’s an interesting scenario where you have to think about what might work in media does not work across the board for every single brand touchpoint.

Adrian Tennant: Wow. That’s great. Well, from an emotional design standpoint, which brands do you think use mascots exceptionally well and why?

Jim Pietruszynski: I personally love legacy and nostalgic characters. And that just could be from growing up, loving to drunk, you know, characters off cereal boxes as a kid. I think of Kool-Aid Man, you know, he’s always bursting on the scene. He has a purpose. It’s interesting to watch the development of how the Kool-Aid Man came to fruition and being a character for kids. And actually I did work on Kool-Aid at one point in my career and got to visit the birth of Kool-Aid Man in Hastings, Nebraska. There’s a festival that goes on every year to celebrate the Kool-Aid man, which is quite interesting. So the brand mascot in itself, too, you know the brand by just seeing the man itself. You don’t need to read Kool-Aid. I think other brands that are interesting to me, too, are ones that create character like Boo-Berry cereal or Franken-Berry. They have an attitude and a personality that is embedded into the brand so that you’re recognizing it by a character. not having to even read the name itself. And then they become endearing.

Adrian Tennant: I can’t recall an auto brand that has a mascot.

Jim Pietruszynski: There are a lot of mascots used in gasoline, you know, like the Pegasus, but there’s not a lot that are used in automotive. The only other one I could think of is the Turtle for Turtle Wax, which is an automotive cleaning brand with a variety of products for cleaning automotive interiors and exteriors.

Adrian Tennant: I only fairly recently learned that the reason the Michelin man is white is because when he was created, tires were white because that’s the natural color of rubber.

Jim Pietruszynski: Yeah, very interesting.

Adrian Tennant: Well, today’s marketing landscape is of course hyper-dynamic. What’s one piece of advice you give to brands looking to future-proof their identity and remain relevant over the long term?

Jim Pietruszynski: Great question, and I think this is something that we preach at every briefing we have, but it’s to keep authentic and express yourself with purpose. With that, you really can’t go wrong. In a holistic expression, at every touchpoint, that authenticity and that purpose need to support each other in some way. So, if there are multiple agencies working on a brand or you’re taking the brand into a different medium, we make sure that it’s all working together. They all have different needs and how they touch our consumers. But in the end, a strong purpose that’s authentic and meaningful is what’s going to hold the brand together. We’ve seen many brands fall apart in many different ways when they veer off in stunt marketing. That could really, really hurt the bottom line for the brands.

Adrian Tennant: Stunt marketing?

Jim Pietruszynski: Yes, I call that marketing that’s mostly social that, you know, tries to grab your attention sometimes in ways that are controversial.

Adrian Tennant: Jim, what’s next for Soulsight?

Jim Pietruszynski: So Soulsight’s continuing to grow and we’re committed to growth and evolution. I think you’ve heard the saying evolve or die. We’re constantly trying to break into categories that we’ve not worked in or not worked in for a while. Global expansion is something that we’re invested in working on currently with the constant evolution of our culture to meet the needs of our world’s culture. So as I think about what do we need to do as an agency to evolve, that means changing our approach, changing our support of our staff, thinking differently about our vision and how that needs to be communicated continually, thinking about our ambition. And we say you should be able to feel joyful when we’re working. You know, we’re lucky that we’re in a business that we get to love what we do and get paid for it. So that’s something that I think we need to highlight often, especially as younger designers and creatives are coming into the field of what we do. But there is a lot of inspiration and empowerment and potential that they can make on brand. It’s a mindset that we live with is empathy and compassion. And that doesn’t just go for our internal teams, but how we relate to our clients and the brands that we work with.

Adrian Tennant: I’m curious, Jim, is your team fully remote? Are you on a hybrid arrangement? What does that look like?

Jim Pietruszynski: I would say we’re mostly remote. We do have an office in Chicago on Wacker and Wells, right across the merchandise mart, where we do come together for crucial meetings, brainstorms, you know, client work sessions, really important client meetings. So there is a place for us to gather. We are based in Chicago in terms of location, but we have remote workers working across the entire country.

Adrian Tennant: Is it a challenge to keep the culture when a lot of you are remote?

Jim Pietruszynski: It’s a great question. I think we are still, and I think everyone is still figuring out what is the right balance. In my opinion, we have to work on our soft skills and our emotional intelligence even greater than we would have if we would have been in person because you miss some of the subtle indirect mannerisms or non-verbals that come across when you’re meeting in person or if you’re talking on a screen all day long. So. It’s really important for us to lean in more and make them even more intentional as we grow as is what I’m seeing. And then always being considerate to constantly evaluate that every single year or every six months, because the way we work as we know has changed. And I don’t see it going back to the way that things were. We’re still trying to define what the future of today looks like and beyond.

Adrian Tennant: Jim, Soulsight is obviously very successful. How have you maintained success over the long term? Is there a secret you can share with us?

Jim Pietruszynski: I sort of hit on it a little bit when we were talking just in a couple of prior questions. You know, one thing that I think that gets asked a lot in our world is what are the most important elements to maintaining a healthy business that’s sustainable? You know, we’ve been around since 1997. So what have you done? What have you done to do that? And I think it just really comes down to being authentic, creating authentic relationships. I believe in conscious leadership. Compassion is another word I’ve said. And it’s really important to be self-reflective and aware. And most of all, it’s okay not to be perfect. We have to be willing to work to make things better, but we’re going to learn from our mistakes. And I think just having that grace and compassion for ourselves and how we move is super important to having an agency that is going to be something that is sustainable and allows growth moving forward.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you or Soulsight, what’s the best way to do so?

Jim Pietruszynski: The best way to reach us is on our website. If you go to Soulsight.com, there is a contact us button on that website. I receive those emails, so feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to connect with anyone who’s interested.

Adrian Tennant: Great. Jim, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Jim Pietruszynski: Thank you so much, Adrian. It was a pleasure.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest, Jim Pietruszynski, the Chief Executive Officer of Soulsight. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation and links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at bigeyeagency.com. Just select ‘Insights’ from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.



00:00 – Introduction to the podcast episode

02:13 – Jim Pietruszynski’s background and interest in branding and design

03:38 – Overview of Soulsight agency and its work for clients

04:50 – Intersecting human truths with product truths

06:10 – Example of emotional insights informing a project

09:29 – Maintaining human connection in the age of AI and automation

10:55 – Insights from the MOVE research tool

13:01 – CPG brands responding to eco-friendly consumer preferences

14:49 – Approach to using QR codes in brand strategy

17:21 – Discussion on brand mascots and fluent devices

20:51 – Brands using mascots exceptionally well

22:30 – Advice for future-proofing brand identity

23:43 – Future plans for Soulsight agency

25:04 – Remote work culture and challenges

26:35 – Maintaining success through authenticity and compassion

27:37 – Contact information for Soulsight agency

And More