The life expectancy of humans is increasing year after year, yet that of brands and companies is declining at an ever-inclining rate. It is clear that the new reality, characterized by a shift from linearity, craftmanship and scarcity to one defined by acceleration (e.g. of decision-making), automation (e.g. of services) and abundance(e.g. of data) is pressuring brands and marketers to do things differently.
The days are over when brands filled the bulk of consumers’ needs. Based on their personal value system, consumers are willing to pay a premium price for certain products while at the same time wanting to pay less for others. The traditional bell curve has gained a barbell shape; brands and marketers need to explore the edges as growth opportunity has shifted to these extremes rather than to the mainstream mass. The era of averages is over; the time has come for marketing (research) to (re)discover the edges, by envisioning, digesting, gluing and ultimately earning their place in the market and amongst consumers.
While these fluctuating times drive instant decision-making, marketers and brands should never stop envisioning the bigger picture to create sustainable relevance. Although it is essential to keep track of what is changing around us, it is important not to become obsessed. Marketing professionals have grown the wrong habit of jumping on any trend bandwagon (e.g. Pokémon Go craze). It may feel a bit counter-intuitive, yet in this era of volatility, part of envisioning the future is to understand what will resist the ravages of time. In other words, it is equally important to be concerned about what is not changing!
The solution resides in bypassing our temptation to jump from one trend bandwagon onto another. We need to go back to the deeper human truths and insights that are more eternal and bigger than superficial everyday changes. A great example is how Volkswagen launched its Beetle on the US market in the fifties. The company lifted on a deeper long-lasting human truth: the fact that people want to be different and want to stand out from others.
Taking a long-term perspective does however not conflict with being flexible and agile. This need for an underlying insight is also essential in marketing research, where the pressure on the now often leads to an ad-hoc focus. Research often falls in the trap of time, delivering on short-term needs, leaving out any long-term-perspective thinking. Yet it is essential to envision what your research should add up to, in line with a brand’s bigger purpose.
We are living in a world of too much data and too few insights. In order to make sense of it all, digestibility is key, among others by dealing with different, smaller, bite-size challenges and embracing iterative and consecutive learning. Instead of thinking big campaigns, large innovation funnels or extensive brand planning, it is about incorporating a more adaptive and experimental approach. In marketing research, this means moving away from a plan-set-optimize-launch-learn research approach to a more ongoing do-learnmentality, by working on a series of short iterative cycles and incorporating instant feedback. Organizing change through small strokes, surfing the river of tiny insights, gives brands and marketers the opportunity to follow the pace of the business and digest and incorporate the direct result of their actions.
A big part of the future will be about gluing things and people together. After all, most distinctions have lost their meaning and relevance anyway. Think about the word digital, where we are witnessing digital outdoor billboards, digital-first companies like Amazon opening classic bookstores and people listening to digital radio. Whether something is digital or non-digital is hard to tell and has become meaningless. The simple reality is that over time new mixes have been created and these often come with an increased value. This type of and-thinking rather than or-thinking is something Steve Jobs understood very well with the launch of the iPhone a decade ago.
In the past, primary research formed the core source of consumer and market insights, yet today it is just the tip of the iceberg and a minor part of the data mix surrounding us. Only by connecting the dots between the diverse data streams can marketing (research) reach the augmented view essential for future-proof decision-making. We should thus leverage the data abundance (e.g. behavioral and social data) surrounding us. Researchers and marketers should become smart connectors that uncover better and stronger insights by linking different data streams (e.g. survey or research data, social media data, behavioral data) and connecting the dots.
Traditional marketing was all about buying media and buying attention. Yet today, consumers are bombarded with commercial messages, of which only a small minority gets absorbed. The days when brands could yell for attention are over; today, you have to earn it. We must (re)consider the lifetime value of consumers (and research participants!). We need to earn their attention.
People are forced to make continuous trade-offs on how to spend their time. The new generation has grown up using visual and ephemeral communication, resulting in different expectations as to how and when they wish to connect with brands. One of the best guarantees to earn consumer relevance is to step into their shoes, which is something the lingerie brand Van de Velde took literally. The company wanted all its male employees to experience the pains large-breasted women go through and introduced the International E-Cup Day for Men. During this initiative, male employees hauled around an extra 6.6 pounds on their chest to fully comprehend their target group and hence best understand how to bring relevance.
So the time has come to say goodbye to the era of averages and bring back the edge marketing (research) deserves, by envisioning the longer term, rather than focusing on superficial short-term change, digesting knowledge and learnings through iterative thinking, gluing things together, driving consumer benefits from integration and bundling and lastly by earning real attention from your consumers by stepping into their shoes, feeling the same pains and enjoying the same aspirations.