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Is the customer always right?

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Seymourpowell design director Ed Hebblethwaite questions the role of the consumer insight in the design and innovation process.

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Is the customer always right?

  1. 1. Is the customeralways right?
  2. 2. Is the customer always right? Ed Hebblethwaite Director of Strategy at SeymourpowellIn a word – no. But ultimately, yes. That might sound like passing the credentials test, a subsequent brief and our response to it, then a presentation.confusing political hedging, so let me explain our point What became obvious at the presentation phaseof view. Is the customer always right? Well it depends on was a fundamental and irreconcilable differencethe question you ask them, and when as well as how in our approach to innovation compared to theirs. And this, we have noted in recent months, is notyou ask it. If you ask them to imagine what they might an isolated incident. It is becoming standardlike or need in the future, their answer may be interesting practice in many FMCG brand innovation projects. Our brewery friends looked at us aghast and saidand creative,but it will generally be ill-informed. “You can’t innovate without a consumer insight!” Well actually you can…and really you should.Consumers won’t have studied what is they don’t see a real need or benefit from the Innovation isn’t a clean, linear process fromtechnically possible in your industry. They don’t product they simply won’t be prepared to pay consumer insight through technical feasibility toknow what is commercially viable and where for it. That means the customer can be both an prototype, business model and launch. It wouldthe world is moving in legislation, economics or initial irrelevance and the sole arbiter of truth in be a lot easier if it was that logical, but it isn’t!demographics. So their answers are often the innovation process. Ultimately we need to find the consumer benefit; the insight into why they find something logical,interesting, occasionally brilliant but often irrelevant. The key to this conundrum of consumer lovely, irresistible or just plain better. But ordinarilyHowever, if you ask the customer (or even better sovereignty is when and how to raise the we can’t just look or ask for the consumershow a new product or let them try a new service) question. Recently Seymourpowell was insight. Instead we need to tease it out fromyou will be able to learn how they perceive it, asked to pitch on some innovation work many different angles. Why? Because for an international brewery company. The consumers don’t necessarily know what isuse it and even value it. In that sense the pitch process took a familiar routine: a nice possible and what will be lovely until they seecustomer is ultimately always right, because if phone call out of the blue, an invitation to pitch, it, touch it, experience it for themselves. AsConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  3. 3. and providing us with insights as to how to improve product and service experience. But it isn’t the only path to innovation. And if all you base your innovation strategy on is consumer insights or responses to logical questions, your pipeline is not going to be as robust as it should be. To quote an old adage ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’. So what’s the answer - how should you innovate? Brands need to explore various paths before finding key routes to a differentiated, better and commercially viable solution. It’s not just about opportunities, it’s also about restrictions – perversely, these too can be fundamental to innovation. Another old adage, ‘War is the mother of invention’ is also quite apt. Invention or innovation can often be spawned from adversity or restriction. Just look at the proliferation of Japanese low-malt beers like Suntory Pilsner. These were not born of a consumer insight ‘I would really like less malt in my beer’ or ‘my current beer doesn’t satisfy me anymore’ or even the economic insight that ‘people want to paythe classic Steve Jobs quote goes, ‘It isn’t test) for potential appeal. We try to prove a less for beer’. Instead the real trigger was quitethe consumer’s job to know what they want.’ concept by asking a lot of rational questions to a mundane financial fact: Japan has a tax on human beings (who are fundamentally irrational) malt and malt content. Companies trying to findSometimes you need to show people what the a loophole to pay less tax decided to try producing and then, unsurprisingly, a lot of these ideas fail.future might look, smell, feel, taste and sound a cheaper beer (that delivers more profit) whichlike so they can give a more natural and realistic Subsequently a lot of people on the client side was a commercial success, resulting in a wholeresponse. The ‘Holy Grail of the Consumer change roles internally and their senior directors new beer category.Insight’ seems to have overshadowed all other question why they never seem to get any break-paths to innovation. It has become a panacea through innovations: ‘Where’s my iPod, my If you’re going to start an innovation projectfor all innovation ills and we believe it’s time for Nespresso, my Actimel?’ The answer is those you should be considering all of these paths:a different, more flexible and informed approach kinds of innovations often don’t come from 1. CONSUMER INSIGHTSto be taken. customer insights. Consumers might not even Do some ethnographic research into what have known they wanted them until the productsThe standard methodology these days appears people actually do, not just what they say they were gleaming on shelf.to be to do some consumer observation, co- do. How are people really using your productcreation, some trends and a workshop to Don’t get me wrong, we love consumer insight or service? Where are there points of pain anddevelop some ‘innovation platforms’. These and we believe in it totally. We have a fantastic, pleasure in the purchase experience, openingplatforms are then distilled down into two-line world-class ethnography team who are and closing the product, right through toconcept territories and screened (on-line quant dedicated to observing real consumer behaviour disposing of empty packaging? Base thisConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  4. 4. ‘If youron observed behaviour, not memory of a predicted direction back, where do we need torationalised behaviour. (Don’t do groups be moving? What is your plan B?yet, they won’t help you see a future, justunderstand the present or past) only tool is 7. TECHNICAL AUDIT What new formats, innovations and a hammer1. TRENDS manufacturing techniques can your R&D andWhat are the key social, lifestyle, technological production teams deliver today? What’s on theand demographic trends that are relevant to horizon? What are the technical constraints andyour brand? How should or could your brandtake advantage of these? What is the designlanguage that will stay true to your brand, and ...every payback profile? What is in scope and what will require a slightly different business model?move it forward relevantly? problem 8. BRAND What does your brand mean currently? Where looks like3. COMPETITOR ACTIVITY does it need to move to maintain or improveAnalyse what the competitive landscape looks saliency, and what can we do to ensure thatlike; what are the different games the competition our brand reality or experience is true to ourare playing and why? How does this affect youstrategically? Have you got some clear space forcredible, profitable differentiation? Do you want a nail!’ brand promise? What’s more, you need to look down all these paths at the same time and bring home all theto be a fast-follower? nuggets of truth and opportunity that you can4. STAKEHOLDER PERSPECTIVES find. The spark of brilliance that eventually leadsWho is funding this project, and what does to your Next Big Thing™ might come from anysuccess look like? What has worked and one of them. You then need to share these withwhat hasn’t worked in the past - and why? other people from inside and outside yourCustomers and suppliers are stakeholders too: business who can also look at your brandwhat do they want, what can they contribute? and the opportunities from different angles. You need to share the opportunities and5. SUSTAINABILITY restrictions and build some hypotheticalWe all know we need to get more from less, solutions that buyers can respond to. You needbut what does sustainability really mean in your to get real: quickly build prototypes, wire frames,sector and region? Look at adjacencies, who service scenarios and interfaces so potentialis doing it well? Sustainability can be a positive buyers can experience what you’re offering aspoint of difference, not just corporate governance realistically as possible when you test it. Youcompliance. But it definitely makes most impact need consumers to respond in as natural awhen woven in at the start of the innovation way as possible to give you the confidence toprocess, rather than tagged on at the end as proceed and the directions to improve. Andan after-thought! yes, this takes time, effort and budget…and no this probably isn’t achievable in a two-line6. LEGISLATIVE summary on an internet-based quant screener.What can or can’t you do? What opportunitiesdoes a shifting regulatory environment Some of these innovation paths will be moreprovide? Look laterally; work from the fruitful and important to you than others so noConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  5. 5. two companies or projects are the same. So if The route to successful brand innovation has Ed Hebblethwaitean innovation company comes to you and says many paths and consumer insights certainly Director of Strategy at Seymourpowell‘It’s all about consumer insight or consumer play their part. Consumers and their insights Ed is a highly experienced planner, having worked in the industry for over 20 years, including stints ascentric design or business modelling or may or may not be the most crucial trigger to planning director at Interbrand, Fitch, Identica andtechnology’ at least you know they’ve got launching a new service or product. But let’s VCCP. His projects range across a broad spectrumpart of the answer. But equally you know you’ll not limit ourselves into thinking a positive brand of disciplines – advertising, direct marketing, graphic design, retail, corporate and product design – and hisneed to look elsewhere for the rest of the shift and a healthy profit increase always has drive is to use new ideas and stimuli to unlock thequestions, the answers and even ultimately, to start from the same place. potential of brands. Think...the agency he foundedthe real blessed consumer insight. in 2003, was sold to Seymourpowell’s (then) parent To find out more please contact: company Loewy in 2006. He is a vboard director at Tim Duncan – tim.duncan@seymourpowell.com Seymourpowell, heading up Seymourpowell Strategy, the consultancy’s trends, ethnography and strategy unit.Confidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.