The quest for consumer insights

About 18 years ago, I graduated as an agricultural engineer. The logical evolution would have been to pursue a technical career, wearing a white coat, using all the wisdom I gathered about pesticides, optimal food composition to stimulate the milk production of cows and the baking quality of Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). Things turned out somewhat different!
The fascinating part of my career evolution is that none of it could have been predicted. The first ten years I worked as an R&D product researcher at P&G. While the job initially was technically oriented, I became more and more interested in connecting with consumers to really understand their habits, practices, needs and desires within a specific category. Curiosity pushed me this way, as well as the exciting ability to transform consumer understanding into insights, providing the foundation of innovative product and/or communication development.
The cows, wheat and food chemistry disappeared from the radar. Instead, I was privileged to gain complementary knowledge on how to connect with consumers. Right from the start, the focus was right. After all, I was working in a company firmly believing that ‘the consumer is boss’. We did not just do consumer research to find insights; instead, insights were the outcome of spending time with consumers. This was still the pre-digital era, so our main gateway to connect with consumers was through face-to-face connections.
Back then, I spent a lot of time behind a one-way mirror of traditional Focus Group discussions, I found myself in the home of consumers in countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan and I regularly met up with 50 housewives a day during central location product tests. From my practical experience of running these numerous innovation and consumer immersion projects, both at P&G and with global FMCG brands when I moved on to the market research industry, I believe that ‘smart companies‘ need to focus on two particular areas in order to generate insights as the basis for winning innovation.

Insight activation takes time

Let me start by sharing a personal example. I was still young and foolish back then, so I can use that as an excuse. A bit of context first: at P&G R&D, all consumer interactions and research we did was focused on defining the Desired Consumer Experience, or DCE. This is the ideal experience related to a specific task, e.g. doing the dishes or cleaning the floor, both from an emotional and functional level. Once we nailed this, we could assess the gaps between reality and desire.
Kazakhstan, 1998. I got budget to conduct 10 in-home visits with housewives in Kazakhstan. Key objective was to learn everything and more about their behaviour related to dishwashing, as the basis for defining the right dishwashing product to launch in Kazakhstan. I only had 10 consumer interactions, scheduled over 2 days and each lasting for about 1.5 hours, so things had to go fast. I still get goose-bumps thinking back to the question I asked one of the participants: “Please tell me: what is your Desired Consumer Experience?”. Obviously, we never got far with her answer.
The point is that, back then, we/I had/-ve neither the tools nor the experience to truly engage consumers in the innovation process. Things have changed since then. Detailed category behaviour understanding obviously remains the basis for relevant and actionable marketing and innovation decisions. But, and this is important, the digital evolution has enabled us to develop tools to allow structural collaboration with consumers. Consumers now can help us (i) interpreting the observations, (ii) shaping and discovering the insights and (iii) judging the quality of the insights. This requires an integrated and step-wise innovation process, with workshops and consumer interactions along the way, facilitated by virtual connection technologies such as consumer communities (or Consumer Consulting Boards as we call them at InSites Consulting). The framework of our innovation process can be consulted below.

Insight activation requires structural collaboration with the consumer

Is generating insights simple? Is developing an innovation strategy based on these insights straightforward? Can a ‘so-so’ job of understanding the needs of consumers or customers lead to success? Triple no.
A good innovation process requires consumer understanding on a deep level. Only too often, we miss out on the opportunity of engaging consumers in this process. Think again about my in-home visits in Kazakhstan. During one of the visits, I was standing next to a woman aged about 50, asking her to do the dishes in front of me. I remember her asking me: “Sir, is it correct, what I’m doing?”. Obviously I hadn’t a clue and I could only detect patterns that were in line with or deviating from my personal habits. A Belgian guy of 25 vs. a Kazakh housewife aged about 50. So far for observing real behaviour, of course.
I often read and hear the remark that it is hard, or even impossible, for consumers to project into the future. Hence, it’s our job as market researchers, R&D specialists, innovation experts… to do this for them. Although I learned it the hard way, I am now convinced that this is only partially true. I believe in the complementary power of structural collaboration with consumers / customers throughout the innovation process. Consumers are by far the best consultants one could hire. They live, breathe and consume brands every day over a very long time. These brands and products are part of their daily life, making them the true experts to involve in the innovation process.
Today’s challenging economic climate and the increased importance of emerging markets make this even more important. Insufficiently involving the consumer or relying on gut feeling only increases the risk of launching products or services that do not strongly appeal to any particular market segment. At InSites Consulting, we have embedded consumer connections as a key part of the entire innovation process: consumers are meeting each other on the immersion community; they help us to ask the right questions through co-moderation; interpretation of the observation is done via crowd interpretation and reflective probing; consumers help us in assessing the strength of the insights, etc.

Where does all this lead to?

The consumer is boss‘ remains the most powerful argument to maximise consumer connections throughout the innovation process. At InSites Consulting we have developed an integrated consumer insight activation process, with the consumer at the core and complemented with research and validation.

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