From Data to Insight to Action
Research suppliers and clients alike are responsible for turning the data they collect into genuine insight with which to progress brands and businesses.
In this episode of Real-World Branding, Finch Brands' own Kate Virzi, discusses her career - brand side on the Subway marketing team and as a supplier at Nielsen's BASES - and how researchers and clients alike can socialize insights to drive action.
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Greetings one and all, this is Real World Branding, I'm Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy. Thank you for joining us today to hear from Kate Virzi. Kate is an AVP of Insights at Finch, and what a powerhouse. We're so happy to have her. She's a handful of months in, and as she will tell you, she grew up professionally on the client side in well, actually, started in the agency world, but then quickly was with an Indian food purveyor, at Subway restaurants, and then comes to Finch directly from BASES, which is part of Nielsen and obviously sort of a venerable innovation research company/methodology that she'll talk about.
And really, our topic kind of this month, or however frequently we're going to do this, is about socializing insights. Kate has seen that from both sides, both in terms of, as a supplier, wanting to make sure that the data that her processes yield and how it's served up, help inform decisions and help enlighten stakeholders. And she's also been the client of research, helping apply data that's collected to decisions around innovation and marketing and everything else. So enjoy hearing from Kate.
We are so happy to have Kate Virzi today, AVP of Insights at Finch. Newly minted though, it's been a while and you've so quickly become an important part of our company and our culture, and we're happy to have you on the podcast.
Hey, Bill, happy to be here. I'm very excited to be a Finch, I will say that.
Excellent. Well, our excitement is double, tripled, quadrupled, having you as a colleague every day. It's been so much fun so far, and just as we've enjoyed learning, I think our audience would love to hear a bit about the career journey that you've taken; really interesting client side, as well as most recently, supplier side experience. Take us through the chart if you will.
Yeah, absolutely. So I graduated from University of Connecticut, so I sort of landed here in Connecticut, the Fairfield, Connecticut now. My first job right out of college was really a bit of a strategy and media agency, where I was... That 22 year old, fresh out of college, helped cover for the receptionist when she went on lunch, signed for packages, and also did all the grant work on the Nestlé Waters account.
So definitely got a lot of opportunity and really got to get in very quickly, to a massive organization like Nestlé Waters, where you could start to see how these big companies functioned, and how these brands were built. After a couple years there at the agency, I moved on to Preferred Brands, which is known for their Tasty Bite product, the prepackaged Indian food. That's a really small business here in the US. It was about 10, 12 people.
So the marketing or the Brand Manager was also the Sales Manager, was also head of Trade Shows. I helped deal with a lot of different things, and again, thrusted into amazing opportunity, more likely, because I was the only one there, but I can happily say I've been to, I think like 80% of the Costcos in the United States, thanks to our Modules Lenders Program.
I got to do buyer meetings at Whole Foods when they were in Austin. I got to do a lot of really interesting things that maybe were probably a little bit above where I would have been able to get that access at a larger brand. So I got a lot of opportunity. But running around the country, doing product testing, doing trade shows, doing those sales meetings all over the different regions, kind of bored me out a little bit.
So after a little while of hopping around and really doing that small brand sort of startup building mentality, started to look for a little bit bigger pond to swim in, and Subway was located here in Connecticut at that time. So I joined the Subway restaurants team through their headquarters, so their FAF, or their Franchisee Advertising Fund. So when I was there, I was under the heyday of the $5 foot long [inaudible 00:04:47], so I was the CMO at that time.
We had a lot of really interesting big deal, talking about Super Bowl ads, and doing that kind of thing for the 30,000 stores across all the United States. So that impact was incredible, and I think really getting you in the mindset of this image or this picture of this sub that I'm working on right now, is going to be seen by millions of people, put in thousands of stores, and really have that real world impact that I very much crave, as being a marketer, of just walking around and being like, "I did that."
After a few years at subway, I kind of felt like I'd had enough of the brand side, I was ready to go back to the agency side, go back to working on a little bit different variation, I think. It's fun to be in a big brand, it's fun to be kind of part of that club, but you do just really invest in a single type of thing, and that at that time, it was sandwiches. I knew everything about sandwiches. I knew all about avian bird flu because of the impact that turkeys in Indiana had on my daily business. So definitely something very unique to the world, but ready to start looking at how I could impact more than one brand; how I could walk around a supermarket and say, "Hey, I did that on a lot of different products," instead of just one.
So BASES came. They were part of the Nielsen kind of body at that point, so I went over to BASES and started working there. I definitely had to learn a lot about being a researcher, and doing research, opposed to being on that brand side and just sort in-taking the research and turning it into something else, but that sort of made me valuable and unique in the BASES' universe is that I understood what happened when the results were dropped, the presentation happened, and the researcher smiled lightly and walked out of the room. And then what happened?
I think my first couple of presentations to brands like Dunkin Donuts, Bear, things like that, I would get so anxious if results were not strong, or if I felt that people were going to have issue with them. And my colleagues at BASES were like, "It's fine. It's not your concern what happens next. You gave them the right tools. You gave them the right information, but it's kind of up to them with what they do with it next."
I think that was a big mindset shift for me because just coming from that brand, you come from that investment in what these results mean to the organization, and I think it gave me a lot of empathy for the researchers and the insights people that I worked with daily, as my clients. And then I think it also helped me guide what type of research they were doing, or giving the advice of what they were looking for when we started doing research at BASES, is okay, what does this actually mean? What does it mean when you walk away when I walk out of the room? What kind of answers are you going to have to deliver to your leadership?
Yeah, fascinating. Of course, at Finch now, as a firm that doesn't desire to just walk out, but focus on the so what and the now what, as our colleague, John, likes to say. Couple of just questions of along the way. I mean, you came up as a broad based marketer, definitely for those of us who are those, not of us, but people listening, we know we have a strong cohort of folks maybe earlier on in their career. There's a lot of lessons around seeking exposure, doing a lot of different things, rolling up your sleeves, pitching in where you can help, and all of a sudden you find yourself at a whole foods line review meeting.
But when you get to Subway, big brand, big bets, as you say, large budgets and the glare of millions of people, what is the role of... Before the BASES experience where you're handing it off, and in this case you're being handed off too. What happened? I mean, for a large organization to be data driven like that, could you speak to maybe Subway, but more generally, how organizations can best think through the application of these insights in which they invest?
Yeah. Actually, I think when I was at BASES, I worked with some really great researchers on a lot of different brands, but one point that really stands out very clearly to me is, they refer to socializing results as deployment. What happens after that report is written or after that research is fielded, is deployment, and deployment means a strategy of action. Deployment means moving forward, not necessarily in a single way.
So I think understanding that deployment of findings or deployment of what comes out of research, is different across a lot of different business units. So what you would be saying to someone in R&D, talking about the soda's too busy, or the flavor's not coming through in this way, is very different than what you're saying to your social team of, "This is what you want, your tweets to communicate," or, "This is how you are going to distill this down into a single image to be posted on the front of a store in the middle of Manhattan."
So I think their understanding what maybe a single piece of research might mean to one person, is totally different to somebody else. And I think even funneling up to senior leadership, there's a lot of times you're kind of trying to work upstream, against assumptions or preconceived notions, and you have to make sure the learnings are conveyed in a way that's understandable, but also something that means something to that individual, or that business unit. I think that's something that's really important when thinking about research and designing research is, who are your stakeholders at the end of the day? How are they going to interpret this finding, and what are their takeaways going to be?
I think, again, that empathy for your Insights Managers and things like that, is that they have to answer to all those people at the end of the day, with this kind of single thing that they did. So I think the support of people like researchers, or brands, or agencies that understand strategy beyond just this is what we do, is why that's so critical, and something that needs to be thought about, from the very beginning, needs to be baked into the entire process.
It's not just, "Here's 100 slides, here's the three we want to send to this audience," or whatever. There's benefit to thinking through the eyes of stakeholders from day one. And you're right, what an R&D person needs is very different than what a brand marketing, advertising person needs, versus senior management.
It's amazing how you could say one thing to those three different people, and they will all hear something totally different.
Sure. So I'd imagine your background gives you a unique perspective on both sides of that bridge. BASES is obviously well known, and in some ways, is a foundation for decision support. Often people may not, no offense, hire BASES, but they ask for BASES testing; it's become sort of a method. Could you speak to why? I mean, I guess some of it's benchmarking, some of it's kind of frameworks, but how does a research method become so deeply ingrained and widely trusted as a decision support mechanism?
I think understandability, just digestibility of what comes out. I've seen research be launched and trends come and go throughout my time across. I think about, it's now part of BASES, but as ANOVA back in the late 2000s was huge, that learning algorithm that essentially taking the Pandora Music Model, and applying that to product development or package development or things like that. That was really interesting and great, but it was a heavy burden on the researcher, to collect all those elements, or it was really complicated to say, "These four different variants that came out of this research, they are very different, but all of them are likely equally successful, depending on deployment."
So I think being able to utilize research in a way that your organization understands it can be broken down and sort of teased into exactly what the different business units need, at different specific times is critical.
I think that we need to be mindful of how it's not just good enough to say this is BASES, they've been around for 50 years, it's our stage gate, because I've seen a lot of organizations just sort of say, "I need to get X score on a BASES in order to move this forward or in order to get funding or in order to pass this flag in terms of our development process."
But sure, then I see businesses catering their design to just make sure that they achieve X score in whatever type of research they're using as that benchmark. So I think instead of just building a process at one time, and assuming that as long as we do it this way, and we replicate it identically every time, we're always going to have success. I think that's a self-fulfilling prophecy at the end of the day, in the sense that you will just build your design around winning, in terms of whatever that stage gate or whatever that type of research you're using is as that threshold.
So being mindful, paying attention to, if we're talking about one type of industry or one type of product or one type of consumer, you might want to look at a different type of research or a different methodology or a different mentality when you're deciding whether it's a go-no-go, or it's going to get a big bet investment, or it's something you're just sort of going to launch and see where it goes.
So I think looking at initiatives as different types of deployment or different types of launches, is important. Not everybody looks at everything as going to launch this and it's going to be the next biggest thing for the organization. It's not always the best bet. Sometimes it needs to be like, "This is a strategic play. This is something I'm going to look at and try to approach this certain segment of my consumers, and I'm going to make sure this meets their needs," while something else might meet a broader base of needs, but clearly, is leaving these people out.
So I think understanding what you're trying to achieve every time, is important instead of putting a blanket like, "This is what we do."
Sure. I think you're hitting on an interesting dynamic. In some ways, custom research can be really compelling because methodologies can be designed or deployed, that are very situationally astute, I guess, based on the facts on the ground or the objectives. At the same time, BASES probably has benefited in the same way that NPS has.
It's a framework that is widely understood, and there's benchmarks for what's good and what's not good. But you're right, the analysis or interpretation to that is based on a range of situational characteristics, so, I mean, it's all complicated, but I would imagine it was thrilling, and interesting to have some frameworks to lean on.
I think research is important. I think in my experience across everything, it's not getting those insights in early enough in the process, is something that is derailed. Huge companies are really big initiatives, and I think that it's great to move, and I understand that organizations need to move in at an incredibly fast pace. Things are changing constantly. There's a lot of different things coming at the success of something.
But not getting those insights in early enough, not getting that understanding of the long term goal, and how that's going to be achieved through understanding the bigger picture, is something that I've seen, sort of become a stumbling point for more organizations and more opportunities than I've ever seen. Is just sort of having to either deal with or something that's fixed or manage around something that's really fixed, is not always ideal, certainly something you can do.
But getting your insights in there early, getting an understanding of a bigger picture from the consumer side or from your audience side, is invaluable to being able to do the right thing the first time, opposed to having to launch and reiterate, launch and reiterate, which is as expensive, costly on resources, all those things.
Right, thank you. Based on your experience and both living through it, as well as being a high level service provider, I mean, are there certain organizations that are client organizations, I guess, brand organizations that are better at applying insights than others' deployment, as you say? What are some of the characteristics that help make a broad based organization effective at what we might call the ROI, the Return On Insights.
You make the investment in research, it's designed to illuminate a path or decision, and some organizations seem to really excel at that, and others maybe less. What's your opinion or your perspective on that?
Again, I have to say, I am jaded as a researcher now, so I'm of course going to say, get that research in there, right from the beginning. But I think that open-mindedness, and that willingness to hear what the market's telling you, versus what you think or what you want or what you experienced before. I see a lot of good research being done, and then just being put on a shelf or not seeing the light of day, or not being acted upon, because we're like either, "It came in a day too late, and the order had to be placed and we were already managing materials," or something like that.
But it doesn't mean it can't then jump that step and move into the next phase, and I think that willingness for people to be open minded, and that willingness for people that change course, if that's the information and that's what pieces of information are telling you, is important.
I think a lot of that kind of does funnel up through leadership, and I think that there's a lot to do with, we say here at Finch Brands, "Live the brand." And I think as an agency and as strategic partners, and as researchers like, "Yes, let us live your brand, but I really do believe when you are on the brand side, you need to have your eyes open to the reality of your brand." So live the reality of your brand.
I often rant against organizations that really invest in segmentation, and focus so narrow on their segmentation research. This segment and, "These 11% of the population is going to drive our business, and this is the answer." I think, "Great, but what about the other 89%? What about everybody else? Why are you just closing, turning your backs to everyone in that sense?"
So I think being too focused, being too narrow minded, really trying to cater your entire offering to a single idea of a person is great, and I think could be successful, certainly an exercise worth exploring, but don't lose yourself in that. I think those industries and those companies that just sort get too laser focused on one thing, sort of lose that bigger picture.
BASES because of the methodology in the database, we always had to do research among the general population, and that was our biggest fight when we were working with a lot of companies is, they were like, we only care about our target consumer. We only care about that core, but again, your product will be available for anyone to buy, so why wouldn't you want to just open up your learnings and open up your eyes to that idea? I think that's a big difference.
Well, especially, I mean, people are the lines between, for example, retailers, I mean everyone shopping everywhere and the notion that there's one just sort of distinct person that. I mean, I can understand maybe lifestyle characteristics. You're probably not going to sell station wagons to 18 year old singles. I mean that there's certain overlays of product reality, but yeah...
Maybe that 30 year old single loves fly fishing, and they need a long narrow car to put their trouts in. There is always somebody else. There's always an exception to some of that stuff, and I think when you're focused, and Subway, for example, when I was there, the famous fans were a really big deal, because we were looking for that young male who would eat at Subway literally 10 times a day, but lunch and dinner. They thought they were making that choice, it was affordable, it was the best healthiest option. The Subway was right next to their office. They were able to walk there during lunch and then walk there on their way home, or after the gym or whatever it is.
There was laser focus on this type of individual and so many dollars a month and effort went into making sure we got those Super Bowl ads. We got those football buys. We got all those really heavily male skewing items, but then, well, what about moms? What about everybody? Did Subway create a situation where we were just a place that big football players ate or things like that, where I think understanding that, sure, that might be the board, that might be where a majority of your dollars come from; excellent.
I'm by no means saying ignore that, but I am saying, think about everyone else. Think about the mom of that 19 year old. Maybe she would buy four subs and bring them home, and just put them in the fridge if that's what her son eats every day.
Right. Makes sense. So understanding that organizations need to be open-minded to a range of research approaches and to be responsive to data, as researchers, what is our responsibility to... You mentioned at the outset, understanding stakeholder objectives and designing research to meet them, that's an important part of it, but what is our responsibility, not only to be true of messengers of the data, but to make sure that it has the desired and maximum impact within client organization? What ought we to be committed to, in order to make that real?
I think a big part of it is that simplification of that message, and under distilling that, learning of... I've seen years of research and series and iterations all get distilled down to a two pager and a board deck. As a researcher, you need to be thinking of, what's going to end up on that board deck on the end of the day, in 18 months?
And I think being able to manage what is coming from the brand, it's hard for the teams on the ground, your research partners that are actually on your insights team, to be able to actively manage. So I think being a little bit of a funnel, being a little bit of a filter, being a little bit that lens, that fresh set of eyes that says, "Okay, this is leaning really heavily towards getting into a certain type of answer, and are we ignoring everything else, or are we forgetting that this also needs to go somewhere else?"
So I think being able to be that higher view of what's going on, is important, and being those fresh eyes, and being that independent sort of gut check of, wait. Even as simple as a single question, could focus all on one type of attribute when you're like, "No, we need to think about the bigger picture."
Yeah, that makes sense, and I think that's one of the reasons why we at Finch, very much value client side operating experience as part of our team's background, where possible is to be able to have that overlay of exposure to how organizations process information like this, I think is tremendously valuable. One of the other things that I know has been important for us in this sort of endeavor, is to have a design team at the ready to help develop methods or assets for socialization, particularly on our larger clients with broad executive audiences, who may not be as close to the insights process, but certainly want to know what it says and be able to understand how it ought to affect their thinking, day in and day out.
Having the design capabilities, whether it's things like infographics or animations or methods of bringing data to life in ways that are digestible, and comprehensible beyond the insights team. I know that there's some likely some value in that.
Oh, absolutely. I'm a researcher, so I love the data. I want to see that stat testing. I want to see those footnotes, all those pieces, but that is me. That's my job. I think thinking about creatives or thinking about your agency, that then needs to turn this into something or very quickly, your senior level leadership, and your C-suite people. You need to be able to flash something, show it, and get the message across clearly.
I think a lot of that gets put on the internal business, and maybe that's, like I said, not that big picture view of things or that fresh set of eyes. So I've seen my clients for years, take my reports and distill them down into something shorter, where in actuality, had they just come to me or come to our team from the beginning, I feel like we probably could have given them a deliverable that got them there faster. And sure, have a 50 page appendix, I'm fine with that.
But if you have three and a half minutes on a call, tell me, we'll make sure we can utilize some of those opportunities and design or creative, just creative use of elements that can tell stories and that storytelling around the numbers, not necessarily always having to show every number. I think the ability to have a design resource in house at an agency, is massive. I think having someone that as connected to the data as they are to how it looks and how it gets shown and deployed, I love saying that word, but I think those pieces, and that thinking outside of the box of how we're going to share this information is again, something that needs to be thought of at the briefing stage, instead of just, "Here's all my sample, and these are all the data cuts I need to see." It's like, "Excellent. Happy to do that, but then are you really going to show 15 pages of data cuts?" Probably not.
How's this going to be used, and how's it going to be served up? What are the stakeholders expecting? Good advice.
I think leaving that to professionals with design experience is a big difference. I can't do things that designers do. I could tell them the numbers and they could come back with something much out of the blue, really out of the box, but really that's what they do.
Here's the story, how do we show this? Totally. Your own background, and of the Insights people that we interact with, it's not atypical to be broad initially, but just you Kate, when you think about your own journey, going from doing everything, seeing everything and now being a broadly aware, but sort, really effective researcher, what was it about research that sort of lit you up and caused you to go deeper, and really want to build your career around your excellence in this area?
Well, I always joke that I like researchers. I think that they are kind of quirky, fun people that I like hanging out with. So I've always been drawn to the personalities of researchers, and I think because I love logic, and I love the idea of a decision, not necessarily being a whim or a feeling, but something that's sound and built around a finding.
I think you can feel really confident walking into a meeting when you are ready with all your data points. You have a point of view, but you have a lot to back it up, where there's often some other... When I was more on the brand management side, and we would get scripts and you would just sort of be like, "Well, I don't love that script for Ryan Seacrest to be talking about the sub today," and not really having a reason why, made it hard to defend convictions and things like that, where research; I've got the data. Look, I have this, I know what it means.
So it always drew me in the sense of the confidence and the ability to really stand up for what the point of view I was looking to tell or looking to influence the organization with, and I think even at big companies like Subway, that we would have these standup meetings on Monday morning and there would be 65 people, the entire marketing team in the room, all the agencies, all the PR teams, everyone had to be represented.
I kid you not one thing was said without a glance to the table of the Insights people of like, "Yes or no, is this person being truthful or is this sort their crazy idea?" So I think that authority is something that I think, and that ability to really believe in what you feel and what you say, because you have the information behind it.
Yeah, totally. It doesn't happen much anymore, but every now and then we used to... People may think it, but nobody really says it, we used to run across folks who would say, "You know what? I don't believe in research. There's a time to listen in a time to lead. We're leaders. Consumers don't know what they want." Everyone quotes Steve Jobs out of context, "I don't believe in focus groups," and I understand if you're creating an iPod, nobody in a focus group is going to say, "You know what I really need?" Because they don't have the ability to visualize it.
So I get it from that perspective, but what do you say to people who just don't buy it? Who think that they can create a story that makes people feel something enough to buy a product, whether they know they need it or not? What's sort of the gentle or not so gentle response that you'd be inclined to give of a naysayer as it relates to insights?
I guess one, I do struggle with that because it is rooted in the idea that other opinions don't really matter. Question, because I think you would have to point to the idea of that single point of view versus the broader point of view, and understanding that optimizing is sure. Being a leader, that's one thing, but you could test and you could identify the potential for success within that idea, and you might understand, you might not be aware of all the pitfalls or you might not understand what's lurking beneath the surface of this really great idea.
It was before by time, but we always talk, the iPhone and the iPad were tested via BASES; methodology. They were. So those types of things, they're not... Sure, we probably all love that they're literally falling from a tree into someone's hand, and that is there. But I think probably some of the bigger bets and the big wins and the things that are really... The different types of emerging devices or products that have shaped our culture, probably have a lot more research behind them than we want to think, and probably are developed.
And sure your idea might not need the tweaking, but maybe how you speak about it does, or how you position it in terms of the different needs states. You need to understand a little bit more rounded situation or on the situation, just so that you're able to react to people that don't have the same reaction and don't have the same opinions as the innovator,
It would also seem like research, particularly for larger clients, larger companies, as a result of data, there's an increased confidence level before you make big investments on new products or new creative approaches. If I could spend a little to have the answers to the test before I take it, wouldn't I be inclined to do it?
Again, we were talking about trends in the industry. There was a minute, I think, where Amazon and online retail just became so easy that there was a desire or just a slip into like, "Well, let's just test it. Let's put in a market. Let's throw-"
It's a laboratory.
"Throw this flavor in Atlanta and see what happens to Coke." But what that did was impact your ability of your resource, up the chain. So your teams, in terms of the resourcing, the procurement, the actual production, is all impacted by this quick turnaround, these quick movements. And what does your brand necessarily represent or stand for when you're looking as a consumer?
So I think that for lack of a better term, that [inaudible 00:35:42] methodology of just let's get as much as we can out there and see what sticks, is just not really useful and not really a prudent use of resources, whether it's your marketing team having developed all these new marketing strategies for all these tiny little projects. Are they really giving their best? Are they really able to dig down deep and invest in something?
I think that trend is sort of gone to the wayside now that we look at supply chain issues and things like that. We're not quickly able to react, and being able to just, on a drop of a hat, just launch a product and see how it does, I think, it needs to be more thoughtful. It needs to be more invested.
Well, sure, and on the research side, on the supplier side, whether through communities or other methods of rapid data collection, have taken off the table, the objection of research, "Yeah, that's too slow and it's too expensive." By the time you get data, you already will have had to make decisions like the folks who really just objected primarily to the lethargy, and the bloat of the process as a reason, not to do it, don't have those. So we've sort of taken those excuses away.
That's where there's been advancements. The research industry is changing. We were just at Quirks a couple weeks ago, and everything was a new platform. Everything was a new technology. The pace at which the research industry is changing and growing, is really mesmerizing, but I think it's out of a demand and a need to get those insights faster, get those insights in a more digestible way. Get those pieces together, opposed to just sort of like, "Well, we launched this and it didn't really work out, and what do we do about it now?"
Going back and doing that research is a lot of lifting to try to fix a problem, opposed to just doing the right thing from the get go.
Totally. That's a great place to leave it. Kate Virzi, thank you so much, not only for your energy and excellence every day, as one of our best colleagues. We're so happy you're here, but also for spending a little bit of time here with us on the podcast, it was a pleasure.
Oh absolutely. It was fun, Bill. I love chatting with you. So happy to come back anytime.
Many, many thanks to Kate Virzi, who's a cherished colleague and really just all around fun person to talk to about all things, branding, marketing research, et cetera. Three ways to support us here at Real World Branding, if you like what we're doing and we hope you do, one is to, click subscribe. I know that our timing has been inconsistent over the past six to nine months, but I think our plan is to get back to this at least monthly.
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