Customer insight

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Open (Subway Sandwich Restaurant) on Villier Street

I have been thinking a lot about customer insight recently. Part of this thought process goes back to when I was at college I was told the story of instant coffee’s launch in the US. 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.

A more personal example happened to me on Sunday, I got called by Stuart, the owner of Mainline Menswear, who followed up with me as I was a first-time customer. Part of the reason was help prevent card fraud but by the end of the call he knew I had a specific interest in adidas’ original line and had told me that if I could get an adidas part number for an item and dropped him an email he could plug in directly to adidas and get the item.

PR as an industry is shockingly bad at getting decent quality research done like that adverting agency to gain real customer insight, developing a big idea based on the findings and building our programmes on top of them. Part of the reason for this is that PR spend is only a fraction of that for media buying or advertising and PR people only really get paid for implementation. Our research tends to be secondary data and very media content focused rather than looking at the audience itself.

We can understand the media, we can understand the problem from the clients perspective like the coffee problem, but we don’t have a real tap into audience motivations. Digital channels allow us to do research to find out what people are saying, but anybody who has been in a relationship knows that what people people say and what they mean or the reasons behind what they do often don’t match up. For example, you have an argument with a loved one about the last incident that tipped a scale, rather than all the factors that have caused discontent.

Is customer insight research a more important resource for the PR agency of the future than digital skills?