Listening to the Customer
A Global Look at the Growing Consumer Role in Research for Innovation
By Gail Chiasson
Whether your product is geared for a business customer or for a consumer at the retail level, one thing is certain: that consumer is changing, possibly more quickly than at any time in history.
The ease of buying and selling products across borders, the Internet, the global economy, laws, politics, and the cost of oil are all affecting businesses. These also affect the consumers’ behaviour. Already a variable in part because of the consumers’ various life stages, their behaviour is also changing drastically with the advent of social networks, the local economy, emerging trends, educational opportunities and a million other factors.
Does the new immigrant to Canada think the same way and want to same things as a third or fourth generation Canadian? Possibly not — yet.
But companies should bear in mind that, of Canada’s 33.3 million population, 45.5% are of ethnic backgrounds other than English, French or Indigenous.
AND, MORE THAN EVER, THE CONSUMER IS IN CONTROL!
As a manufacturer, you know that innovation is crucial to keeping and building market share, to increase the bottom line for the owners and/or shareholders.
Whether it be a for a totally new product or an extension of your current product line, to move into new business channels or to create new markets, successful innovation today involves — not pursuing an idea because you think it is brilliant and you want to convince those around you of that — but rather listening to the consumer and find out what your business needs.
Easier to say than to do, you might argue. Innovation can impact, and often disrupt, the current business model, from how products are made through to their distribution and sales staff.
And a company may believe in and invest in a product that looked like a good idea, only to have it fall flat simply because the potential customers don’t want it.
IT PAYS TO LISTEN!
Much of today’s breakthrough innovation is based on challenging the accepted beliefs of consumers. Designing successful products means changing the way you think about people, and likely means rethinking your design and product research.
A key to innovation is creativity, and companies are not only asking consumers for their opinions, but are actively seeking their help in bringing a brand idea from the drawing board to the customer or product shelf.
One company that has done this is Philips, whose approach was discussed at the global Esomar conference in Montreal attended in September, 2008 by 1,000 representatives of research companies worldwide. (Research isn’t small business: the global market research turnover was estimated at more than $28 billion in 2007; in Canada, the research sector expanded at 8.2%, and 6% after inflation, to generate US$768 million, after an approximate 2% year-to-year growth in 2005-2006.)
Philips is highly recognized for a wide range of products, including televisions, phones, and personal grooming products, among others. Seeing what was happening in social technology and the huge changes underway in the entertainment sector, Philips management decided in 2007 to become consumer-centric.
It recruited an online community to give insights.
Named Sensorium, this group essentially ‘owned’ the conversation, helping Philips to understand the forward-thinking consumer; to learn likes and dislikes; to tap into emerging trends in everything from fashion to functionality, and to test advertising and other marketing material. Since the members communicated with one another, it built an atmosphere of trust and gave the company and each member continuous ideas and feedback.
“It’s more methodology as opposed to traditional research, but you have to let go of some control,” said Andrew Lynch of U.S.-based Communispace who works with Ria Dierikx of Philips Consumer Lifestyle in the Netherlands on this program. “You have to have the consumer online group together and encourage them to talk. They develop some sense of ownership of information and conversation.”
From learning how the consumers use their TVs and controls, Philips then built prototypes of products that could solve their problems, sent them to the consumers to implement, and then were able to put products to market with improvements based on the consumers’ comments.
“The modern consumer wants to play a role,” Richard Gehling of Research International, Germany, also told ESOMAR delegates. His company works with such brands as Henkel‘s Perwoll (called Perlana in some countries.)
“Henkel’s innovation strategy is based on the belief that change equals chance,” said Gehling.
“In this fast-changing world,” he said, “consumers have access to informed information and companies have to let go of control. It’s a challenge and a change from doing things alone. Successful marketing needs to be ready to assume risks, The fear of failure hinders innovation, but a company that encourages its people to learn from failure encourages innovation.”
The Perwoll/Perlana group developed a SuperGroup for research because it wanted to share information across borders to develop relevant insight for its products. Its innovation research involved consumers, including several ‘early adopters’, client representatives including marketing specialists, graphic designers and even a fashion expert who could advise on trends. They attended two-day workshops and were divided up into smaller groups with ‘homework’ assignments, each responsible for different things but incorporating such aspects as consumer perspectives and visualization of ideas.
“The place chosen for workshops is important,” says Gehling. “You need an inspiring atmosphere, so shouldn’t go to the client’s locale nor a research place. You have to create an environment that enables both companies and consumers to trust their own creativity. (A museum is one idea.) And you have to give people lots of creative tools to ‘play’ with.”
Perwoll/Perlana’s group also did trend walks in areas for inspiration.
The second day workshop involved feedback, criticism (including both positive and negative), and reworking the assignment to develop a second concept.
The result in this case was 273 different ideas, 12 verbal concepts and several scribbles of potential products and packagings.
Much of today’s breakthrough innovation is based on challenging accepted beliefs of consumers. “People are built to see what they expect,” said Jochum Stienstra of Ferro MCO, The Netherlands. “And clients often fear change. It can mean the erosion of norms.”
Stienstra’s company worked with the Dutch Ministry of General Affairs to develop a Don’t Drink and Drive concept that involved storytelling. It had 188 different stories and used six research workshops to figure out how to interpret the stories. For example, should ‘Bob’, the designated driver, be a ‘hero’ or a ‘friend’? Should the drinker be a ‘daredevil’ or exhibitor of bad behavior? Should characters be ‘antisocial’ or ‘pathetic’?
Different views emerged from client workshops than from consumer workshops. But with the consumer input, in the successful campaign that followed, ‘Bob’ became, not a character ‘hero’ but ‘cool’ in his following of the Ministry’s rules.
Research has always involved asking consumers what they like and don’t like about a product. Now, companies are seeking their help in actually creating and bringing a product to life. Innovation is the successful implementation of
However, innovation isn’t an easy road, especially when companies want revenue growth. Innovation takes time and can be disruptive. And when a new product is developed, a company must believe in it and invest in it. A new brand generally can take two years to establish itself. It’s usually wise to test a new idea in low-risk situations and markets, and then expand the successful ones.
And, today, if consumers are involved in the innovation, chances are good that they will want the product.