Marketing is conversation

Mike Stevens, managing director at Vision Critical, explains why market research and brand building need not be mutually exclusive.

Sponsored by Vision Critical


Marketing communications (talking) and market research (listening) are typically separate functions in an organisation. This always made sense. The skills required are very different, but it’s a structure built for an analogue age and 
it needs to evolve.

Some organisations are evolving faster than others. They recognise that engaging their
 best customers in two-way dialogue, bringing talking and listening together, gives significant advantage. Social channels are one part of this conversation, insight communities are another.

In an insight community, hundreds or thousands of customers are invited by the brand to join. They take part in two or three activities each month to provide insight into their needs, help co-create new products and services
 or improve brand communications.

The Debenhams Design Team

For Debenhams this approach has helped drive sales and margin in very tangible ways. In 2008 the retailer launched the Debenhams Design Team, its proprietary insight community of 15,000 shoppers. From trends and needs analysis
 to new channels and store layout, the Design Team has been integral to Debenhams’ strategic and tactical decision-making.

Co-creating smartphone apps

Keeping up to date with changing trends is vital, especially in the fast paced world of retail. The use of mobile apps is increasing significantly 
and it was critical for Debenhams to understand mobile usage and develop its own app as part of a complete multichannel strategy. Using its insight community, it identified shoppers who were particularly technology-literate. Each shopper trialled a variety of retail apps and was then asked to give feedback to influence the development of the Debenhams iPhone app. Within the first five months of launching, the iPhone app was responsible for bringing in £1m in sales.

Developing a new brochure

When exploring customers’ purchasing habits within homeware, it became apparent that brochures were a key part of the shopping journey, with 80 per cent of key furniture-purchasing decisions being made using a brochure. As a result, Debenhams invested in its own brochure. Now in its third season, it is integral to the homewares division and the business as a whole.

Reducing out-of-stock frustration

Now in its third season, Debenhams’ brochure plays an integral part in the retailer’s success

In 2011, Debenhams wanted to explore customers’ key frustrations when shopping in-store. Out-of-stock items topped the list and the strategy team was tasked with finding the most effective resolution. After speaking to members of the Design Team again, Debenhams used data from its insight community to build a case for trialling in-store kiosks where customers could order out-of-stock items for home delivery. These are now on every floor in every store and are a fundamental part of store strategy.

Relaunching a brand

In 2010, after rescuing Principles from administration, Debenhams was keen to relaunch the brand, Principles by Ben de Lisi, as an exclusive range. The Design Team gave it access to customers who previously shopped in Principles and enabled the retailer to find out what they loved and missed about the brand. A new buyer regularly engaged with these shoppers to ensure that the brand delivered the ranges customers were looking for following the relaunch. Principles by Ben de Lisi is now in the majority of Debenhams stores and
 is proving successful.

Enhancing store layout

While clothing design is vital to the retailer’s success, store atmospherics also play an integral part. Debenhams, which has more than 160 stores, frequently uses the Design Team to provide customer input into its store modification programme. The Design Team has been used to identify customers who live near stores that
 are due to be improved and find out their key frustrations with the store. Insights into lighting, location and services are then shared with the planning team who formulate a modification strategy. Without the Design Team, recruiting and speaking to these isolated and specific customers would be particularly difficult and costly.

Feeding back

Design Team members participate because they care about the brand and want to feel involved. They receive newsletters and online portal updates to keep them informed, knowing that their input is actively listened to and that it drives decision-making. This dialogue is fundamental to the success of any insight community and has been particularly important for the Design Team.

According to Kate Parkinson, senior strategy manager at Debenhams: “Two-thirds of members say they feel more positive about Debenhams since joining the insight community. It’s great 
to know that our customers feel more engaged 
in the business and more enthusiastic about what we are doing as a result of the Design Team.”

For many market researchers this makes uncomfortable reading. The implicit bias in talking to highly engaged customers is risky
– but as Debenhams can testify, getting into real dialogue with these shoppers brings enormous benefits. Building solutions around the most involved, most demanding customers works for the wider base as well.

Mike Stevens 

Vision Critical 

17 Hatfields
2nd Floor

T: 020 7633 2900



The ticking timebomb that is native advertising

Ronan Shields

As we come to the close of the year, we journalists often turn our minds to drafting pieces on ‘the year that was’ and ‘what will be hot in the next 12 months’ and I’d say that native advertising fits in both slots. And it won’t necessarily be all good news stories. 


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