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Democratising the Voice of Consumers, Part One


What can you do to make everyone as consumer-obsessed as you are? It is a matter of culture and technology, suggests founder of The Ninety-Niners, Si Goodall

Democratising the Voice of Consumers, Part One

There isn’t much marketers seem to agree on these days. But there’s one thing even the staunchest contrarian will not argue with. We should all listen to consumers. Understanding what consumers or customers feel, the challenges they face and why they make the choices they make, should be at the heart of every business. 

73% say their company is good or very good at listening to customers

Only 37% say they are good at leveraging insights across different departments

In our recent survey of CMOs and Marketing Directors, the gap between listening to customers and sharing insights was stark. It suggests that listening to consumers is still treated as a departmental responsibility, rather than a company-wide value. It is someone’s job to do the listening. But in the most progressive businesses, getting close to consumers is everyone’s responsibility. In these businesses, the voice of consumer is everywhere and influences everything.

“If you really want to have a consumer-focused organisation, it cannot just be delegated to marketing” — Julia Godin, CMO Lego

Broadly, it take two things to democratise the voice of the consumer like this: culture and technology. In the next post, we will dive into technology and the ongoing digital transformation of insights. But even the most sophisticated tech solution is doomed to fail without the right culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — Peter Drucker

Culture is the set of values, attitudes and norms that shape the behaviour of people in an organisation.

It comes from the top but lives in the day-to-day. Many leaders are good at articulating a vision of consumer-centricity (according to our survey, 4 in 5 leaders advocate for it), but most culture is unwritten and learnt through social interactions and observation of others. Norms trump vision - or as Peter Drucker famously said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

80% of senior marketers believe their leaders are advocates for greater customer-centricity, and willing to invest in it

We are social apes and we learn through imitation. So culture is both driven by and influences behaviour. To democratise the voice of the consumer, companies need to democratise the behaviours that help their people listen to and discuss consumers’ needs. Here are a few initiatives and approaches we have used over the years to empower everyone to get closer to consumers.


Encourage everyone to listen into customer service or sales calls. Sit at a bar and hear the conversations that happen before the drinks are ordered. If you work in a service industry, go out and serve some customers. Get out of your bubble and into the lives of real people.

Empathetic research

Any opportunity to see real consumers is great. But traditional focus groups, interviews and surveys create an artificial environment for consumers. And as many studies have suggested, people are not good at articulating what they want or why they do the things they do.

Getting closer to real consumers means taking a more empathetic approach to consumer research. One where we listen more and attempt to experience some of the same things our consumers do.

One tool we use at The Ninety-Niners is Consumer Safaris. In Consumer Safaris you spend real time with real people in the real world. Go to people’s homes, go shopping together, hang out or go for a drink. Engage in a conversation not an interview. Try to avoid analysing and questioning, and instead listen and participate. I have sat in many consumer homes with eager young brand marketers who’s first question is “so why don’t you buy my brand?!”.  Not a great way to build empathy.

It is important to go into Consumer Safaris with solid understanding of who your customers are and of how your unconscious biases impact your perceptions. This kind of research is not intended to replace traditional quant and qual, or data-driven insight. But it does provide richness that you simply cannot get from a research report or from behind two-way glass.

Empathy Passport

Walk in the shoes of your consumers and experience what they experience. By taking on a persona and heading out to complete a task, participants are encouraged to see the world through the eyes of real consumers. With the right structure and facilitation, this kind of exercise can reveal so much about the challenges and compromises people face every day. At The Ninety-Niners, our half-day Empathy Passport Workshop includes role-playing real world or digital experiences and understanding how unconscious bias makes empathy hard.

Consumer collaboration

Building a go-to group of consumers for insight is not a new idea. But shifting the emphasis from research and validation, to exploration and co-creation creates more opportunities for genuine listening.

Recruiting a consumer panel can be a powerful way to quickly understand issues and get input into new innovations. These can be as simple as a start-up wine brand hosting quarterly tastings, or as sophisticated as Lego’s long term commitment to community building and creative collaboration with customers. Less formal consumer communities can also be a great place to listen, whether it’s forums that you host, social media fan groups. or feeds on Reddit, there are many places to dip in and hear the voice of consumers.

Huel is brand with a really strong community of ‘Hueligans’. Their forum is a treasure trove of insights that impact everything from website experience to product innovation. And the marketing team are empowered to listen, respond and learn from the conversations.

Read your reviews

The first thing I do with any new client is check their reviews. A quick look through Amazon usually reveals the major benefits and barriers for consumers, expressed in their own words. Of course, scaling this up with technology and analytics is great. But simply reading what people have bothered to write about you is an easy, free and universally available tool.

Get real consumers in the room

There is nothing quite as powerful as bringing real consumers into meetings. It can be tempting to focus on recruitment of new customers, but we like to bring the most loyal customers into workshops and hear them articulate what they like and don’t like about the brand and product.

In a recent workshop with Marloe Watch Company, we heard their most loyal customers reveal the importance of the personal connection to the founders and the community of other owners. These insights helped inform a more authentic articulation of the brand closely aligned to the endeavour of the founders.

The imaginary consumer

If you can’t get real consumers, represent them in the room. Jeff Bezos famously leaves an empty chair at important meetings to represent the customer and remind everyone of the most important person in their company. A former of client of mine, a Marketing Director of a UK supermarket, would frequently judge creative work by pointing out of the office window at the council houses behind, saying “would they get that?”. Find a ritual that works for you for getting the imaginary consumer in the room.

Whether you’re a consultant, a creative, client or technologist, usually the smartest thing you can say is “what do our real consumers think?”

These are just a few practical suggestions to start empowering your people to be more consumer-centric. These behaviours can build and maintain a culture in which everyone is encouraged to listen for the voice of the consumer.

In part 2, we will look at how the digital transformation of everything is both generating more consumer data than ever and enabling progressive organisations to make sense of it at scale.

And why we should all beware of tech evangelists who promise insights out of the box.

Simon Goodall is a founder of The Ninety-Niners; a customer experience consultancy on the side of the 99% of real consumers who experience brands, not the 1% who create them.

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The Ninety-Niners, Thu, 25 Mar 2021 17:22:24 GMT