Customer focus versus the vision thing

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I have been thinking a lot about the right approach to campaigns and product development. One school of thought is to focus on the client delight: this was exemplified by Waggener Edstrom’s Pam Edstrom who constantly asks of clients and their account teams ‘What is your business problem’?  There are advantages to this process:

  • Hopefully your clients main focus will align with the overall goals of their business
  • The focus on client delight will also cope with the client’s ego. If you play this right, you have a client for life
  • It also works best in an environment of gradual evolution rather than disruptive innovation

But what happens if the goals change, you have a client who is more driven by ego than making a difference to their business, you get a new client in the driving seat or the company changes and evolves?

The second option is to empower the end customer, this is what Dell has done with Ideastorm and Starbucks has done with MyStarbucksIdea. There is a number of pieces of work indicating that prediction markets can be a powerful planning tool providing not only sales forecasts, but also which ideas may work.

This second process isn’t likely bring you disruptive innovation: if you’d asked people what they would have liked in a better PC you wouldn’t have got the Macintosh (or Windows for that matter.)

A third way is to observe consumers and get insight, and, from this insight gain the knowledge of what consumers need often before they know it themselves. I was told a story in college when I was studying marketing by a lecturer: the story went something like this: instant coffee granules were successfully launched in the US, and then sales dropped off. Conventional marketing support tactics such as in-store sampling and discounts didn’t work out.

Meanwhile, the advertising agency on its own initiative took a different tack, by interviewing the target purchasers and watching how they interacted in their homes. It seems that the housewives felt that a key part of being a good homemaker was brewing coffee through more traditional (presumably a french press). Women that used instant coffee were perceived as being slovenly and sluttish. So a programme of advertisements and sponsored programmes was developed showing instant coffee being used as part of life within a happy and healthy family.

The rest as they say was history until Starbucks managed to get us to drink coffee on-the-go and pay 5 USD per cup.

Sometimes insight can be distilled from surroundings by an individual, it was the reason why Steve Jobs insisted that the Macintosh was able to create lozenge shapes despite being opposed by his development team, or believed that people would want a nicely designed MP3 player when there was plenty of machines already on the market.

The moral of the story is that in understanding a market asking the customer is often not enough, you need to get under the skin of the market dynamic and understand the why. This is where research and planning comes to the fore, supported by diplomacy because telling someone what they really need isn’t what they want to hear sometimes. I also cross-posted this at my company blog dot comms.