Dis-intermediating Understanding of Customer Experience: Why the future of Advertising is Good for Business and Buyers

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Danielle Sachs wrote a great piece in December (’10) for Fast Company that got picked up by NY Times. She titled her piece, “The Future of Advertising”. She quotes Brad Jakeman, ex-advertising head for CitiGoup and Macys, saying “the death of mass marketing (NY Times title for her piece) brings on the end of laziness.” In other words, you can no longer advertise to faceless groups since it is now clearly individuals who are listening via the new media. It really always was, but this shift makes it hard to ignore.

The challenge as I see it is how to change a way of thinking of “buyers as segments“ (sounds more appropriate to grapefruit or TV series) and shift to seeing them as people who’s lives we might bring something to. The Internet disintermediation has invited us into a new world, which is not only foreign to marketing and advertising, but to the entire business world. The reason the change in marketing and advertising matters is less about overcoming laziness than it is about overcoming a lack of caring. Which also contribute to a lack of innovation and meaningful offerings to buyers. The challenge is to build that capability back into business and the conversations. I say “back in”, because it is similar to the craftsman era, when every silversmith knew the “buyer” of his jewelry. It is not as difficult as it may seem initially, but it will look different than most executive conference rooms do now.

Will Lynn, the President of Kingsford’s Charcoal, a Clorox company based in Oakland, California, liked to barbecue. He was a good host and loved being outdoors in the California sunshine, serving friends good food and good conversation. But when he became the leader of the business in the late 1980s, with a focus on improving charcoal, he became aware of how much more time he spent fussing with his grill than being with his guests. He took pride in being able to cook to order, serving burgers and steaks at precisely the right level of doneness, but the grill and the charcoal just wouldn’t cooperate. So when he began Kingsford’s strategy, market and advertising planning, he was already standing in his customer’s shoes.

Will also knew that he had to get his vice presidents to also stand in those shoes. Nothing fundamentally different was going to get created if they stayed locked into their marketing, manufacturing, and R&D mind-sets, all of which were driving toward mass market promotions. As part of the rethinking this business, Will organized a company picnic with the Kingsford senior team cooking and serving, a sort of living laboratory for enacting and observing the barbecue experience. They set up a line of grills at a regional park near Sacramento and invited operators and their families from the nearby Elk Grove manufacturing facility.

This was more than just an in-house focus group. Will’s vice presidents were carefully prepped to observe the living dynamics of the barbecue experience. They were asked to watch closely and at two levels: (1) “What is actually happening as I prepare, cook, serve, clean up?” and (2) “What is my own and others’ experience as I work?” Understanding would come from reflection the next day.

By carefully observing at these two levels, the management team was able to note how different people managed transactions between the food and the grill and the guests. They observed themselves trying to deliver a qualitative experience of family, outdoor living, and camaraderie that went far beyond serving good burgers. And they couldn’t fail to notice that Kingsford’s products were making it difficult to live up to that experience.

Through engaging in this rigorous experiential exercise, Will’s vice presidents were able to bring a conscious awareness to the experience as it was unfolding. Afterward, when they came together to work on strategy, the group was able to generate a shared image of the totality of the experience, including both its inward and outward dimensions. From the moment they started planning the event to the moment they finished cleaning up, their observations included the work flow, emotional responses, challenges, and payoff involved in creating a family picnic. This was a process of an entirely different nature than product testing, which would have been about observing the charcoal. It is different that reviewing, digesting and planning with market research on user demographics. Without the intermediation of data and collapse of focus onto their product, it put the group in possession of a new level of understanding and caring that could never have been generated through market research or focus groups, both prominent tools of the mass media approach. That understanding, along with the awakened consciousness that developed it, forever changed the working of Kingsford. It put them in touch with real caring for their customer.

Caring is not a frequent strategic topic in business, but it should be. Caring means that we have a connection to people and know that our actions affect their lives and we want to be thoughtful and useful in the effects we engender.

A similar opportunity for caring opened up in Seventh Generation. Because they were a consumer products company, it was easily to fall into the old model of market research as the base for strategy and marketing design. The same for product and advertising teams. But like Kingsford, we introduced a different way of connecting to the real lives of customers, to reconnect them with real people. For keeping clear and to remind everyone of the new mindset, we stopped working with market segments and instead thought about market nodes. Market segments tends to be aggregated by demographics into different clusters. Market nodes asked what values cause people to coalesce around different ideas, into a particular node, and what are they caring about. It is not age, ethnicity or religion that matter. The connection is to “caring” about real lives, which helps connect to how people live and make choices. It lead Seventh Generation into changing many qualitative characteristics of cleaning products that represented different values even with the same market demographics and improved brand awareness. Since the company mission is sustainability at the intersection of health of planet and home, it always incorporate both.

Working with value nodes, leads a company to start with real people you know who use a product and envision their lives and values. In a consumer products company, they are people known to us easily, including ourselves. It is possible to take this all the way down to the level of individuals and in many industries we do. This is happening in the high tech world, but not always putting back in the caring. But when we connect with real lives, then it is possible to engage in product and service design around a value that is experienced- as the charcoaling process produced. The real work, just as it was with Will Lynn’s backyard barbarcue, is to get everyone in the business really caring about the people they are making products and inventing services for as people with lives and values. Disintermediation is no only the new advertising mode, but the new business mode.

Originally published at carolsanford.com on December 6, 2010.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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