Mark Ritson: New Bond film Spectre is a triumph of customer focus

Marketers can learn from the approach of Spectre director Sam Mendes –  make time for the market, don’t rely on quant data and experience what your customers experience.

Ritson award winner

Spectre, the 24th Bond movie, is great. Its box office takings are setting records and are already heading into the stratosphere. But the interesting part is just how market-oriented Spectre’s director, Sam Mendes, proved to be in the creation of his latest Bond instalment.

The director himself appeared genuinely relieved by his film’s reception during last week’s media launch. Mendes is unusual in that he does not read any of the reviews of his movies. Challenged by BBC Radio 5 legends Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode about his apparent inability to gauge a movie’s success without sneaking a look at the critical reaction, Mendes was quick to set them straight.

“It’s the audience really,” he explained last week. “You have to sit with an audience or two. We did two previews and that’s when you really know. The first preview is always the most terrifying of any play and it’s the same with a movie. You know whether the jokes are landing. You can tell whether they’re engaged. You hopefully can feel whether it’s too long.”

For Mendes, the visceral experience of ethnography (though it’s unlikely he would use such a word for his previews) as he sits with an audience and encounters the product with them provides the initial insights. He then follows that up with group interviews immediately after the preview in which he sits and chats with groups of 10 viewers over lunch and asks them very direct, but open questions. “I felt they were very clear on a number of points and I made some changes, significant changes, after that,” he explains.

It’s clear that Mendes loves qualitative research and sees it as far more useful than the traditional quantitative approach infamously used in Hollywood test screenings. “I much prefer it to the whole LA-style National Research Group when they fill in the charts and the forms and it’s all aggregated at the end,” Mendes admits. “It becomes a bunch of stats. That’s really tricky, I think.”

While great quant data will always prove invaluable for building segmentation or testing pricing, the best approach for product development is invariably qualitative in nature. Too often that can be a complete stranger robotically responding to arcane questions in the acontextual world of focus groups. The lived world of the consumer grasped through participant observation and ethnographic interview usually proves to be both cheaper and more illuminating than the sterilised world of the focus group.

Irrespective of method, this then is the essence of market orientation. First, the ability to find time in what is an incredibly pressured development process to seek out customer feedback. Second, the ability to listen to Joe Public and exhibit the humility of marketing and listen to your audience as they critique your product in front of you. Third, the courage to then take those insights and adapt and alter the finished product based on the feedback.

That last paragraph might look bloody obvious but trust me, more often than not companies simply do not take the time to do a Mendes and add market orientation to their product development process. They are too busy. Too frightened. Too ignorant. Or simply devoid of the humility of marketing that demands producers listen to consumers when it comes to product design. The fact Mendes, an Oscar-winning director, still seeks the views of regular moviegoers in his final cut speaks volumes about the man and his approach,

It’s all too easy with any product, especially artistic ones like movies, to gravitate too much towards creativity (and risk making an unadulterated mess like Quantum of Solace) or err too much on the side of consumer focus (and make clichéd, redundant fare like GoldenEye). Somehow Mendes has married creativity with consumer focus. Like any true artist Mendes made the film his way but resorted to research to ultimately refine and tweak his creation.

I’ve seen something similar at successful luxury brands. The creative process itself, upstream, is sacrosanct and devoid of any direct customer data. But once the product has been designed and is in downstream production the marketing team refines the product for usability and to address the all-important issues of pricing, distribution and communication.

If one of this country’s greatest film directors can do it, so can you. Make time for the market in your product development and don’t fall in love with too much quantitative data. Get your ass out of the office and spend time in the places and spaces where your customers exist. The fundamental premise of marketing is not digital hoo-ha or brand strategy – it’s understanding the consumer and then bringing that to bear on the products and services being produced.