I spent some long days on the road with packaged-goods clients in the United States last week, conducting ethnographies in grocery stores during the day and prepping focus groups at night.
The clients, with a mid-sized firm from Toronto, were experienced and cerebral marketers.
In this business, it's rare to get time to philosophize about marketing. This was one of those uncommon, completely immersive trips – away from the distractions of the office and smartphone-free for long periods.
We had the opportunity to get into a few deep conversations about the role of marketing in a contemporary context, for organizations big or small. Those discussions, and the results of the research we were processing in real time, proved to be affirmation for an ideology in which I firmly believe.
The three big "marketing must represent the voice of the customer" lessons from the trip were:
Better marketing decisions are assumption-free.
Marketing must seek out problems looking for solutions, not the other way around.
There is room to re-think marketing as an integrated function, and to instead keep it separate from other functions in the organization
Better marketing decisions are assumption-free
We all know, academically, that assumptions about customer attitudes, habits, tastes, preferences and propensity to purchase are guesses at best and, at worst, ingredients for a failed product or campaign.
But every day we make or encounter assumption-driven marketing decisions. How many Super Bowl commercials during the half-time show on Sunday were aimed at men (Nissan snowboarding truck, Budweiser men's hockey), while the entertainment was supplied by Madonna and drew a massive female audience?
In stores in Chicago, we observed local merchandising decisions and consumer purchase behaviour that defied logic. But it was real. We saw expired product stacked incorrectly on the wrong displays. We witnessed consumers mistaking one brand for another. We watched customers ignore prominent packaging claims only to tell us they had picked up on small colour and image signals.
It was a great reminder that assumptions about retail compliance and about consumer behaviour could have sunk our ship. And of how important it was to communicate those simple consumer truisms to top executives at our client's organization.
Marketing must seek out problems looking for a solution, not the other way around
One of the better discussions on the trip revolved around the orientation of marketing in the modern organization. We debated the role of marketing in the mid-20th century and landed on something close to "communicating the value proposition, the differentiating features and benefits, of a product or service." In other words, in the past, marketing was about making something cool and promoting it, and consumers would buy it. It was an era where solutions went looking for problems.
That orientation, of course, has not disappeared. In fact many firms – particularly in technology – still proceed with a product-led or engineering-led platform, designing based on capability rather than on market need. Tying back to the first point, those organizations make a lot of assumptions. But it is changing.
Market-led or customer-led innovation practices are now much more common, as they should be. Master Lock is a good example of a company that let customer insights drive new product development – what it sorted out was that the market need was not for stronger locks, but for locks with a specific purpose, such as securing BBQs and lawnmowers.
In two of the focus groups we ran, we had to take some of our own medicine. The category we were studying proved to be quite pedestrian and well served, and the food product we were testing was not a home run. I kept trying different "what if?" avenues with participants, to no avail.
At the conclusion of the groups, the clients and I decided what we had was a market with no discernible problem, and so our solution had no home – at least not yet.
There is room to re-think marketing as an integrated function, and instead to keep it separate from other functions in the organization
On the last day of the trip, one of the clients talked about how easy it was to get "polluted" by company-created mythology because of the physical proximity of her office to the product development department. "Marketing should actually be in a separate building, and decline invitations to product meetings," she said. "If you think you don't get influenced by product guys talking about how great the last incarnation is, you're wrong."
It was provocative in an old-school way. It is not an orientation you see advocated for very often in today's business magazines and books, which preach integration. Yet it makes so much sense – if marketing's key role is to represent the voice of the customer, keeping a bit of a distance from the core of operations can only help maintain objectivity.
The natural tension created by the resulting differences in opinion over design or positioning is actually healthy for a company, and it helps create an internal/external balance.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.
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