Why customer insights matter to brands

Steve Jobs rejected customer research, as we are routinely reminded in social media posts every few months. We watch his video dissing market research and read his articulate quotes about how customers don’t know what they want. Perhaps this approach worked for Steve Jobs. It may have been his genius, brilliant team, or luck.

Though I refuse to believe that his success was not insights led. There are many way to gather insights, and market research is just one of them. Some people are blessed with keen insight into human motivations and anxieties. When such people have the resources to push through these insights, they can create magic by the force of their conviction. That is what Steve Jobs did with Apple.

Most of us, though, need help with insights or resources or conviction. This is where spending time understanding customers and their motivations and anxieties play a critical role. In this article I share a few instances from my experience when customer research played a key in the success of a venture.

A fundamental insight can reveal a simple solution to an intractable challenge

I worked with an UK based organisation that wanted to improve health outcomes in the South Asian community in the UK.  Health practitioners commonly believed that the health behaviours of South Asians, such as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans, are similar within each ethnic group.

We did a deep dive into the South Asian community in the UK, which includes people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. We looked at demographic, socioeconomic, and health outcome data for these communities in great detail. We also studied existing intervention models and their impact. We met with people from the community from all walks of life, ages, and locations. We met them at their homes, schools, places of worship, health centers, cafes, and online.

Our research found significant variations within each ethnicity and similarities between different ethnic communities. It was as if the migrants had taken with them the diversity of the countries they left behind. This made it tough to design communication or interventions that could resonate across and within each ethnic community. 

Despite their differences, the ethnic communities shared a common central motivation. The second-generation Sikh professionals in fancy city offices to first-generation Pakistani butchers in Asian grocery stores had many differences, but there was one motivation that was common and palpable among all of them – that of financial advancement and success at work.

This enabled us to devise a workplace based solution that would address the key motivations of different segments as well as provide a setting where the strategies could be executed in a planned manner.

Differentiating a new brand in a competitive market

A new brand was entering a category with already established competition. The competitors were very strong and the brand had to offer a clearly distinct proposition to make a dent in the market. There was little scope for product differentiation as customers could not really perceive the technical differences.

Our qualitative research with the customers and influencers revealed deep motivations and anxieties related to the category that no other competitor had addressed. This led to a refreshing new positioning that really stood out in the market. It determined not only the new brand’s communication, but also the packaging, customer services and helped prioritise the products to be launched.

Fostering alignment through the insight development process

When companies are small, teams work closely togethe and share a reasonably similar understanding of customers. Everyone works in sync – with R&D, sales, marketing, finance all on the same page. As companies grow functional teams start to operate in isolation. Each team may work with its own understanding of customer needs which may not be accurate. This leads to developing a brand that feels distant from the customer.

We have seen repeatedly that a well thought out and collborative process of understanding customers is one of the most effective ways of bringing different teams to a common view of the customer.  Once that is achieved, it is easier to build alignment around a strategy. Without customer insights as an important factor in decision making, we have seen many discussions becoming endless iterations of opinions. 

Case 1: Internal stakeholder insights led strategy development

Our task was to shape a positioning strategy for a global technology firm. We opted to build it around insights from our internal stakeholders. However, in the face of fast-paced changes in the company and market dynamics, each stakeholder had their own take on what customers required, believed, and felt. Months rolled by without a decision that teams could align on, leading to a lack of action on the positioning front.

It could have been better to conduct external research to understand what customers genuinely needed, thought, and felt. This could have laid a more robust foundation for the positioning strategy and would have increased the likelihood of stakeholders reaching a consensus.
Case 2: External insight led strategy development

We helped develop the funding strategy for growth of an educational technology initiative of an established university. Insights from customers, external experts, existing data, as well as from internal stakeholder informed a collaborative strategy development process. Within months, the teams had aligned on a strategy, briefed agencies, and launched a highly successful digital campaign.

If we had tried to do this without a robust collaborative process of understanding customers and influencers, achieving team alignment would likely have taken much more time, or worse, might not have been accomplished at all.
Example: Two approaches to strategy development with different outcomes

To succeed, brands need to blend customer insights into how they sell, market, and plan products. This calls for a well-organized effort that combines data analysis and a deep understanding of customers, influencers, and others.

There are practical ways to make this happen. Online tools have made market research more accessible. There’s a wealth of data from sources like social media and analytics tools that smart insights professionals can turn into practical advice. This coupled with in-depth customer conversations can help brands create a unique and effective customer-centred strategies and plans.

Importantly, developing insights is an ongoing process and must be linked to business goals and strategies. It keeps the brand responsive to customers changing market dynamics.

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