Given the challenges the pandemic presents businesses and brands worldwide, the lessons learned here seem well worth sharing. Better yet, emulating as we all address the next new normal...
Seems we all talk a great deal about “consumer-centricity”. Indeed, there’ve probably been more terabytes and ink spilled on consumer centricity than anything other than its elusive sister, innovation.
We have consumer centric theory and modeling. We have customer centric sales strategies. There’s consumer centric marketing and the “next generation” of consumer centric design. Heck, we’ve even got, my favorite, patient centric healthcare. Of course this is all to the good as far as intentions go, but as a monumental and meaningless word cloud with no effective follow through, it simply shows our continuing inadequacies.
A long, long time ago, in his classic, The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker said “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” and if there’s a more concise or compelling definition of the bedrock of consumer centricity I’ve yet to find it.
Still the well intentioned leaders and managers of companies, foundations, universities, you name it (perhaps even political parties?), can often lose their focus and their way. It seems in managing to their stated goals, whatever they may be, in directing the how and securing the what - granted amid an array of conflicting agendas and personalities - they somehow lose sight of the why. And by pursuing a laser like focus on the here and now, they can lose the way to their future…
I spent a good part of an entire year helping a corporation align behind a real-world, fact-based understanding and definition of consumer centricity; what it is corporately; what values and strategies support it; and how it’s made operational, both across the enterprise and within the individual disciplines and functions of a company.
In seeking and applying these insights, our team investigated and assessed the best practices among world-class consumer centric companies to understand the scope and depth of their focus and its implications on how they conduct themselves, both internally and externally. These best-in-class beliefs and behaviors, systems and processes, were then used to inform the roadmap and setting of priorities in the company’s continuing journey to becoming a more consumer centric organization.
My initial brief to the team noted that there weren’t a great many informed sources or hard and fast definitions regarding what we were about to pursue. Much less a workable rule book on how to apply what might work elsewhere within their own unique category, culture, and company. So we began by discussing a somewhat eclectic list of what I believe are truly great companies.
From these we sorted the essentials these companies have exemplified with success through my experience and observation. Now by defining characteristics I mean the most significant and the most commonly found. And of course there are clearly levels of degree; not everyone shines equally in each essential. But every one of these companies has a robust and proven consumer pedigree. Indeed, some simply scream consumer centricity in everything they do. While others my express their essential beliefs and credentials more simply.
But when you look under the hood they’re all there - and here are the twelve for your consideration:
1. As companies, they’re values based, with visibly active leadership, an overall orientation on people, and well-established measurement and feedback protocols in place.
2. Their corporate culture is limited to a few central themes, the bedrock of which is acknowledging the consumer comes first: that the company simply cannot succeed without them. Service is an acknowledged obsession as they work to create a long lasting, reciprocal relationship with their consumer, not just a series of transactions. As companies, they’re obsessed with the quality and delivery of their goods and services.
3. Consumer-centric companies are naturally good at caring for customers and innovating their offering but they’re also very good at responding to change at large as they’re vital and dynamic organizations; willing and able to shed old habits and practices in a continuous effort to improve.
4. In these companies consumer-centricity is embedded as a core ideology horizontally across the enterprise; not just dominant in a silo or function like marketing. Further, success does not depend on constantly encouraging lagging employees or relying entirely on the efforts of top performers – everyone is focused on the care and feeding of the consumer in a manner that informs and empowers each and every employee.
5. Interestingly, with some extraordinary exceptions - including Southwest, Virgin America, and Target - they are not typically the low cost providers.
6. All of these companies, in their various ways, are clearly explorers and pathfinders. In the main, they’re risk takers willing to experiment, not introverts paralyzed by analysis, uncertain or unwilling to act. At the same time, for the most part, somewhat paradoxically, they remain very focused on sticking close to the business they know even as they go about constantly reinventing it.
7. Importantly, they’re all driven by realism, understanding and accepting things as they are and addressing them directly. Accordingly, they embrace actual engagement with actual consumers. As such, they’re better listeners than most of their competitors. And by their very nature, they are and enjoy being, accessible, responsive, and ultimately empathetic organizations.
8. To varying degrees, based on their business model, these companies are all information rich, learning organizations. They want to be close to their consumer, learn from the people they serve, and rely on a continuous feedback loop to know where they stand and how they can do even better. They really do seem to care and test, learn, measure, and refine their understanding and initiatives to constantly improve their performance.
9. In each of these companies the consumer is well known, valued, and respected. Their functional and emotional needs are recognized as are their expectations. Many have evolved from consumer aware to consumer sensitive to consumer focused to truly consumer obsessed. As such they track and measure their consumers’ emotional and value drivers - not simply their satisfaction.
10. Many, but not all of these companies, have or have had famous transformative leaders, e.g., Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, J. Willard Marriott, who can be seen as evangelists in the promotion and protection of consumer-centricity. But each and every one of these companies has current leaders who express and exemplify the behavior as roles models; and perhaps even more importantly as active designers and managers of corporate purpose and shared values.
11. Most of these companies are the premier enterprise in their category, widely admired by their competitors, the business community, and the public at large. And it appears that the majority constantly seek to lead, to be the best, the very best, not just in their category, but in the world.
12. Finally, the majority of these companies are distinguished by pursuing something people want to be a part of; a great cause if you will. There’s a tangible intensity among the employees rooted in a simple, strongly held belief system. This propels the employee’s personal identification with the company and what it stands for, as well as consistent delivery to the consumer, as employees believe in what they’re doing and act on their beliefs.
So, where are you and your company on your journey to being a consumer-centric enterprise? Where are you headed now – and what have you learned along the way?
How does your corporate belief in consumer-centricity inform your business model? How you’re organized? How you hire and train your people? Design your manufacturing and supply chain processes? Manage your brand and product portfolio? Inform your approach to innovation? And drive your continuing pursuit of growth, revenues, and margin?
Big questions indeed; whose answers pay even more extraordinary dividends.
About the Author: As the Founder and Principal of Five Mile River Marketing, Lou helps companies from the Fortune 500 to venture backed start-ups look ahead, embrace change, and sustain success. A versatile business strategist, Lou’s expertise in marketing, branding, and innovation have made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and well-regarded brands, including: AT&T, Castrol, Citigroup, Fed Ex, Labatt, Nestlé, Nikon, P&G, Sara Lee, Schweppes, and UPS. Five Mile River Marketing offers services from defining the value proposition and go-to-market strategy to leadership facilitation and alignment; from business and integrated marketing planning to creating a dynamic brand positioning; and from how to become a truly consumer-centric organization to effective corporate, marketing, and employee communications.