Tag Archives: Market Research

Voice of the Customer: Real or Artificial?

Thanks to Six Sigma, most companies, large and small, embrace the importance of the Voice of the Customer. As a right-brainer, most of Six Sigma just plain drives me crazy because it just seems so obvious. And the Voice of the Customer as a “break-through” concept really annoyed me. Learning insights from customers is what I (and every other decent marketer) have done throughout my career.

The silver lining was that when I worked with Six Sigma companies that adhered to the process, at least I could be assured of having SOME research instead of being told, “no need to do research–we won’t learn anything from it”. Or, “we’ll just focus-group it”. It turns out that in far too many cases, the Voice of the Customer efforts are perfunctory, watered-down, cheap, and follow the old way of companies having their own agenda and pressing it on their customers.

I have been working with a major technology company that is famous, admired and outstanding in many ways. The work focuses simplifying and improving the brand experience of a very specific group of customers who, in aggregate, generate large amounts of revenue. The company (like many other business-to-business marketers) has created an advisory board that consists of a cross-section of these customers, and they consult with them frequently and regularly. They used the advisory board to re-structure this particular business offering.  This counts as the “voice of the customer”, right?

Wrong. When we reached out to these customers on behalf of the client, the results were astonishing. Despite all the efforts of the company to elicit their opinions, it just is not the same as having a conversation with an independent third party. Sample comments:

“The fact that they have hired you to ask these questions gives me hope that they really will make changes…”

“[Company] does take feedback and act on it, but most of us are too shy to speak up…”

“You’re not from [Company] are you? Ok, now I can tell you what I think…”

Many people disagree, of course. Including past clients of mine. They want to do the interviews themselves. Or they want to listen in on the calls, and participate in asking the questions. At the end of the day, though, when they provide their notes and conclusions, real insights are often lacking.

My only regret is that we only had time and budget for a handful of interviews to speak for more than 100,000 customers.

Another client of mine who believes in the importance of classic marketing allowed me to interview prospects for their reactions to his business proposition. Every one of the prospects took the call. One called me from his vacation in Aspen. Another spent 90 minutes on the phone with us, detailing how my client could improve his presentation.

This just does not happen when the people inside do the asking. It’s an artificial Voice of the Customer. Hearing the real thing makes a big difference.


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The End of Pontiac: A Cautionary Tale Of Brands That Were Loved Too Much

CNN just reported that Pontiac will end. This is further evidence of the frequently reported fact that that GM has”too many brands”. Which leads me to wonder how and why that could happen.

GM is a classic house of brands:

The GM brand portfolio

The GM brand portfolio

Today (prior to the demise of Pontiac), GM offers a total of 101 vehicles across a collection of 8 brands. Toyota, the world’s biggest car company, has 3 brands (Toyota, Lexus, Scion) and 75 vehicles, 59 of which are under the Toyota brand. Lexus is a fairly limited luxury brand, and Scion is a tiny niche brand, so the Toyota name stands out loud and clear. Is that a factor? Was it  sibling rivalry run amok, with no real parental control? 

I recently had the very good fortune to speak to a former GM senior marketing executive, and he provided support for my hypotheses and gave me additional background on how and why GM brands became a problem rather than an advantage.

GM was essentially formed as a holding company, which is the way that a house of brands is built. Historically, the individual car companies had a great deal of autonomy, which was balanced by strong central planning from the finance perspective. This worked quite well while the US was dominant in the auto industry. Over time, as the business became more competitive, GM adopted professional product management practices.

Branding at this point was at the the product line level (e.g., Camaro, LeSabre), not the general car company. With 50 or 60 different product brands clamoring for attention, it was confusing for the consumer and the sales people. Enter Toyota, and its simple message of quality.

Needless to say, the center could not hold, and the fragmented system of product managers ended. Focus then returned to the general car brands. And each car brand, of course, had its own advertising agency, which was fully invested in protecting its client no matter what the brand perceptions or sales data might suggest. Plus, each car company had its own system of brand tracking and success factors that probably obscured looming problems. That’s what I meant about sibling rivalry.

Like any parent, it was virtually impossible for GM to tell one of its offspring that it was loved less than the others, so despite increasing evidence that there were too many brands, senior management held on. Yes, I know that it was much more complex than this–dealership pressure, union issues, manufacturing and R&D commitments, etc. And from what I hear, the shut down of the Oldsmobile brand was painful in the extreme.

Is there a moral to this story? Let me suggest the following:

  • Companies with different brands that compete against each other owe it to themselves to establish a single, consistent approach to brand metrics. Diageo, for example, is famed for this.
  • Don’t let tradition and emotion and years of promises to sell more product get in the way of business decisions. Just like in certain families, an intervention is sometimes called for.
  • An architecture built on a master brand can offer real power and efficiency, despite the protestations of your ad agency or brand identity firm. And you can have a house of brands that breaks into master branded product portfolios.

I’m sad about the end of Pontiac. I was sad about the end of Oldsmobile. As an American of a certain age, I still had a sense of these brands standing for different things. It would be good to see GM move through this painful process as quickly as possible. Let’s get past it, and then find a way to celebrate and share the word about the resurgence of value and quality from GM and all the Detroit automakers.

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Oh Brave New World (of neurological focus groups)!

I like Martin Lindstrom. He’s an out there kind of guy, which is clearly demonstrated in his newish book, Buy.ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Maybe it’s because he shares my skepticism about traditional market research techniques, especially focus groups. Maybe because he understands how to build a good case for what is essentially scientific mind-reading. ( Lindstrom is a pioneer in the development of a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain in reaction to a stimulus, gathered through means of a sensory transmitter that looks like a swimming cap. It’s not what you SAY, he believes, but WHAT YOUR NEURONS DO that matters. 

In brief, Lindstrom’s thesis is that when it comes to brands and marketing:

  1. Emotion is stronger than logic. Yup, proven time and again
  2. Consumers, consciously or un-consciously, mis-state their opinions in market research studies. Uh huh. 8 out of 10 new products fail. See my post on Tropicana. 
  3. The way forward is to focus on what does or does not light up consumers’ prefrontal cortex.  Hmmmm.

Although he fears that the reader might connect all this to an Orwellian world of mind control, my fertile brain went straight to Aldous Huxley, specifically Brave New World. Follow me on this one. In Brave New World, humans spend a lot of time blissed out on a legal substance known as soma. Lindstrom paves a logical and thought-provoking path to the importance of somatic markers. Somatic markers are “a…bookmark or shortcut in our brain [that] shepherd us toward a decision that we know will yield the best, least painful outcome.”

If you follow Lindstrom’s thesis, then branding and related marketing activities are about triggering the most “blissful” response (or at least not a negative one) in the mind of the consumer, thus leading to purchase and preference. I personally buy into this. How many of us, through endless focus groups or one on one interviews or blindness inducing quantitative data analysis, are trying to find the holy grail of the ultimate brand “delighter” or “preference driver”? 

There is much, much more in buy.ology that I don’t have time or patience to cover in this post. Lindstrom can be a little grandiose, and in a few instances seemingly self-contradictory, but mostly he had me in general agreement with his concepts.   And lest you think this neurology stuff is all theory, apparently Frito-Lay is a believer–they have developed an ad campaign and snack food repackaging based on validation from neurological testing.

I question, though, whether brain scans will become so very commonplace. It’s great if you are a mass marketer with the budget and patience to develop prototype ads as stimuli. It’s a lot harder at the brand strategy or product innovation level when you are dealing in abstract concepts or the unknown. 

For someone like me, who is so lopsidedly right brained, it’s always sweet to see proof of the power of emotion and intuition over formula and algorithm. And until there is a real-world soma, then I’m happy to be blissed out by brands.


Filed under Brand strategy, Market Research