Customer insight: Simon Lidington, The Market Research Society [ADD IMAGE]

Insight is marketings secret weapon. In a corporate environment where marketing is in danger of becoming marginalised, insight can help it reclaim its place at the strategic core of business. By Simon Lidington


Simon Lidington The Market Research Society Chairman
2006 Chairman, The Market Research Society
2005 Chief exchanger, The Insight Exchange
2004 CEO and RI Group board member, Research International UK (part of WPP)
1989 Joint managing partner, Quadrangle Consulting
1985 Co-founder, The Business Research Unit
1983 Associate director, BJM Research Partners 

Get back to basics

Marketing ain’t what it used to be. Today’s person on the street is exposed to an array of marketing techniques and highly-sophisticated messages which were unimaginable ten years ago. Marketing, and market research, help shape our society by influencing the products we buy, the trends we follow and the attitudes we adopt.

With the emphasis on innovation, new revenue streams and new business, you’d think that market research would be the first port of call for chief executives and operational directors looking for consumer insight to identify opportunities, minimise risks, improve the customer experience and ensure business retention.

But too often the reverse is true. With increased marketing sophistication has come greater marginalisation. Marketing teams run the risk of overindulging in impenetrable jargon, complex techniques and brand strategising, and effectively being relegated to specialists within the very organisations they should be helping to drive forward. Marketing directors too rarely sit on the board, and chief execs frequently admit to little understanding of what their marketing teams do. By being left to their own functional designs, they are too often disconnected from the operational departments that most need customer and consumer insight.

Decades spent developing more complex consumer insight tools have left the marketers consigned to marcoms, and rarely at the heart of strategy or operations. Board directors and frontline staff are seldom involved in the application of customer insight. Marketing has become so preoccupied with how a product or brand is perceived in the market that it has lost touch with the operational, finance and HR teams that are so crucial for delivery.

Consequently, this increasing specialisation has left many market research teams isolated and disconnected. Traditionally, they have reported through marketing, and if marketing becomes marginalised, so do they.

Supply efficiencies
How often is customer satisfaction research used by training and development to improve capabilities, by IT to develop processes, by finance to consider the value chain, by operations to tackle supply efficiencies, by frontline staff for personal development? How often do engineering, product design and manufacturing teams find customer insight a source of inspiration and guidance? Do organisations use insight to drive their corporate social responsibility policies? Linking insight with what goes on in organisations is far closer to management research than market research, and is where it could bring the biggest unrealised gains.

We seem to have lost our way. Marketing was once strategic as well as functional, providing both communications and operational advice on all elements of brand exposure, based on market research. From developing a new product or service and influencing its constituent parts to getting it to market, marketers had the customer insight to advise on the best approach. The marketing team was at the heart of things, helping to drive strategy, operations and marketing communications precisely because it knew exactly what the customer wanted.

Ironically, marketing’s growing sophistication and resultant marginalisation have meant a gradual shift away from this pivotal role at a time when it is needed more than ever before. Today marketing is about specialist consumer segmentation, complex positioning studies and state-of-the-art communications. Marketers know more about their target customers now than they ever did – but this insight is used only by the marketing team, rather than by those developing the product, managing the supply chain, or recruiting and training the customer facing staff.

Strategic action
Researchers have an opportunity to turn this around. Insight can provide a link between customers and those on the bridge or in the boiler room. The ability to bring the customer into the direction and management of an organisation is crucial to being customer-driven. Marketing could be a major beneficiary of market research’s growing proficiency in using insight to connect market understanding with strategic and operational action.

Market research may not have shouted loudly enough in the past – providing the marketing director with cutting-edge insight to inform their campaigns but failing to demonstrate its real value to other parts of the business. Now researchers are no longer keeping quiet about the value of insight and its role in business success. They are also breaking the mould – stepping away from traditional research techniques and finding more innovative means of tapping into the customer mindset.

But insight cannot possibly fulfil its own potential unless every part of the business is aware of what drives customers and is aligned to live and breathe the brand values trumpeted in the marketing campaign. If care for the environment is important to customers, shouldn’t the supply chain and purchasing directors know that sourcing raw materials from non-sustainable sources on the other side of the globe might not be the best idea commercially?

Take the drinks company Innocent, for example. The product is good but the customers don’t just buy the drink, they buy the whole package. An Innocent smoothie contains more than mere fruit, it comes with an ethical purchasing policy, a carbon friendly supply chain, care for the environment and, critically, a sense of joie de vivre embodied in all the people that work there. The market insight obtained by the research and marketing teams is absorbed throughout the company and the resulting product and the people behind it tap into the zeitgeist.

Or take Audi that has developed a customer feedback system as a business improvement tool. Its dealers get verbatim comments from customers that transform their understanding of what it takes to delight them. Insight is used by both customer-facing teams, and those setting and delivering brand strategy.

Brand success
The secret of true brand success is insight. Together, marketers and researchers need to get back to the core of the business world – to reinvent ourselves as the nexus which informs and influences every element of the customer experience, not merely the way a product is perceived.

To do this, we need to get buy-in from those board directors who are not concerned with segmentation and brand positioning, but who may begin to sit up and take notice if we start speaking their language, and proving that we know exactly what their customers need. 

Simon Lidington
15 Northburgh Street, London EC1V 0JR
T: 020 7490 4911
F: 020 7490 0608

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