I recently led a workshop at the BRITE Conference at Columbia University on how to connect to customers and was honored to be among speakers including Shelly Lazarus, Ogilvy’s chairman emeritus; Vikram Somaya, ESPN’s global CDO; Linda Boff, CMO of GE; and Columbia Professor and innovation thought leader Rita McGrath. Organized by faculty members David Rogers, Matt Quint and Bernd Schmitt, and now in its ninth year, BRITE promotes dialogue on top brand, innovation and technology trends across business and academia.
I’ve condensed about half the workshop into a self-directed exercise, so you can try it.
The workshop started with three premises:
- People-based offerings are the basis for market relevance. Product pushing cannot endure. We are doing business in an “I want” world where companies like Amazon and Apple have set an “anything is possible” standard. The standouts will be companies that know how to walk in the shoes of the people they aspire to serve. These successful brands will follow the customer’s journey through life with authenticity — not just fixated on how to push product selection and purchase.
- Customers wear different hats – they may be users, buyers or payers for your offering. People see different brand benefits based on their role. Building brand/customer connections requires you to parse these roles and tune into the relevant benefits. The benefits may not be the same — this matters when it comes to product, communications and experience decisions.
- Network thinking overrides linear thinking and action. Building a business through binary relationships with suppliers on the one hand and customers on the other hand has been supplanted by businesses driven by value networks, or “value constellations.” Once you have a clear picture of the user, buyer and payer roles, you have in hand raw material to begin to assemble the members of your constellation. More on this topic in a future post.
Growth and Transformation: The Holy Grail
There’s not a conversation I’ve had with a senior executive in the past few years – irrespective of business size or sector – that didn’t share two linked priorities: growth and transformation. Technological possibilities, customer expectations and the need for speed demand a departure from historically beneficial but now outmoded strategies.
To Solve A Big Problem, You Have to Chunk It Down
To paraphrase a favorite colleague of mine from my days at American Express, “you just have to chunk” the big, hairy problems to make progress toward solving them.
Traditional business strategy starts with questions like: “What business are we in?” and “What core competencies can we use to compete?” These are inside-out questions whose answers assume “sustainable competitive advantage” is something you can achieve and own.
Set these assumptions aside. Our economy demands you define your strategy from the “outside” — where the customer is. Twentieth-century notions of strategy revolved around your position relative to competition. Twenty-first century strategy revolves around the customer.
This means the first chunk to work at is “Who is our customer?” And next, “Can we engender a transformational relationship with our customer, starting with focusing on needs, and then align all of our activities and decisions to deliver?”
A Simple, DIY Tool to See Your Customers as People, Not Data Points
Here’s a tool you can use to deepen your brand’s connection to customer needs and begin to conceptualize new business models for enablement.
Whether you complete it in your head or around the table at a team meeting, this simple template can nudge even stubborn traditionalists to ask new questions about how customer insight translates into business results.
Milton Rokeach: The Hierarchy of Needs and the User/Buyer/Payer Model
Rokeach, a 20th-century social psychologist, conducted research resulting in an inventory of desired end states for human existence. These end states, or values, are summarized below:
How Does This Theory Apply to Brands and Innovation?
Brand managers tend to enumerate product features to explain value to customers. Better brand strategists get to the benefits, too. But almost always, brands stop short of the much richer territory – connecting the brand to the values people strive toward in life.
By pushing a little harder to understand which values your brand satisfies (i.e., back to Rokeach’s inventory) you can find new growth levers, and pragmatic transformation priorities can emerge.
What Does Soup Have To Do With It?
So, in the simple example of a can of soup purchased for my family, the benefits may be a tasty, quick, low-cost meal that satisfies my daughter’s hunger and provides some nutrition. But as a mom, my values are things like fulfilling my sense of duty to family, maintaining family harmony at the dinner table, keeping my life under control and getting time back in my day. Brands that demonstrate connection to these sorts of deeper values will win my perpetual loyalty. Features and benefits are temporal. Values endure.
Next, by delineating what is sought by users vs. buyers vs. payers (and understanding what the implications are when these roles are played by different people), you will establish a new angle on segmentation and shine a light on otherwise hidden innovation opportunities.
So back to the can of soup, note the differences below between the benefits that matter to the user, the buyer and the payer. These may be one, two or more people. But even when one person plays all three roles, the benefits that one person sees through each lens are different.
So what about features?
Features may provide reasons to believe in the brand benefits, or even ladder up to the brand values. But by themselves, they will almost never endear customers to you. And, in fact, they may burden people with detail that distracts from a quick determination of whether the brand represents a good choice. At a minimum, features must be shared for the sake of ingredient transparency – the latter representing a brand value that has gained in importance especially for millennial buyers.
Try to complete the user/buyer/template model as a team exercise or on your own. See how it can get you thinking about improving customer focus and engagement by connecting to the higher-order needs of whatever marketplace you serve.