I spent last week at The Market Research Event (TMRE) in Las Vegas, talking to Insights and Innovation professionals about the challenges they’re facing and the strategies they’re using to make their companies more customer-centric. Given the range of roles, industries, and levels of experience that were represented at the event, I was somewhat surprised by how common some of the challenges were. In particular, many people I spoke with struggled to get others in the organization to engage deeply with their research and use the detailed findings in their innovation efforts. Others noted that while their organizations have gotten better at understanding their customers, they still have difficulty getting the execution right — things such as designing social media ads that stand out from the clutter or developing marketing materials that really resonate.
While many of the challenges were similar, three big companies — KFC, 7-Eleven, and Coca-Cola — stood out in how they addressed those problems. In order to help others learn from the industry leaders, I’ve consolidated their learnings into three essential takeaways for fueling innovation.
Simplify your offerings and your messaging. Almost every company I work with has some sort of complexity problem. They have too many products in the portfolio or too many growth areas to focus on. They have endless amounts of data but little insight into what’s crucial. Their products have a lot of features, but consumers only care about a few. Their messaging and website are overly complicated. Regardless of how the problem manifests, most companies would be well served by spending some time thinking about how they can simplify — both to reduce costs and to ensure a better connection with consumers.
KFC is no exception. If you look at old versions of their in-store menu boards, you’ll likely be a little confused and a little overwhelmed. There were dozens of options that weren’t organized in the ways consumers think about food. Moreover, there were different ways to build essentially the same combo meals with little clarity around how they differed or which would offer the best value. The team realized there was a problem, and they decided to win through simplification. Using conjoint analysis, KFC walked customers through 12 virtual permutations of the menu to understand which menu items were the most valued and which were least valued. Using those results, they launched a much simpler menu. As you might expect, KFC noticed faster order times, which meant an improved customer experience. More interestingly, however, the simplified menu actually resulted in higher average check sizes, as customers were able to quickly home in on the items they wanted rather than just going with a simple combo that was easy to order.
It’s also worth noting that simplification can be a useful strategy for getting internal buy-in. One of the more common complaints I hear from Insights teams is that others in the business aren’t excited by the details. By spending some upfront time learning about others’ business objectives, framing succinct answers to their key questions, and demonstrating that there’s substantial research beyond your simple framing of the answer, you can often generate far more interest in the details than if you try to showcase the breadth of your research from the outset.
Find incremental ways to build customer empathy. As research budgets shrink, companies have been getting more conservative with their research plans. Rather than mapping specific research techniques to individual objectives, many organizations will simply rely on remote in-depth interviews (IDIs) as a “good enough” solution. In some cases, that might be the right answer. In others, though, IDIs may not give you enough information about in-the-moment decision-making or the context in which decisions are being made. Particularly when many stakeholders get involved and want their precise business questions answered, Insights teams may be forced to get overly focused in their discussions, missing the broader view.
7-Eleven uses narrative therapy — adapted from the realm of psychology, where it is used to view people separately from their problems — to ensure that it has sufficient early-stage learnings about its customer base before it gets into the research about the specific challenges it’s trying to solve. As Chris Wardlaw, a Senior Manager on the Insights team described it, 7-Eleven needed to understand why people visited its stores, how they perceived them, and what their overall context was for making decisions before it tried to get customers to buy into a new delivery solution. If they had no need for the hot dogs, they weren’t going to get the hot dogs delivered.
Depending on the objectives, Chris and his team do brand personifications and obituaries, “tree of life” research exercises, and comparative collage exercises to better understand how the company’s objectives and questions fit into the context of consumers’ overall lives. These kinds of exercises let the company understand the emotional factors that drive consumers, which ultimately lets the organization develop products, services, and marketing materials that are differentiated in the industry.
Beyond thinking about how to build empathy with consumers, it’s worth thinking about how to translate those emotional learnings for stakeholders. With executives’ busy schedules today, I’ve found that podcasts, short video montages, and empathy-building workshops can all play in a role in driving interest that can’t be captured via a traditional PowerPoint presentation.
Integrate real contexts and emotions into your social media strategy. I’ve worked with a lot of companies on their social media strategies, and I’ve also done extensive research in the space on behalf of social media companies and those in the advertising space. One thing I’ve consistently found is that everyone thinks they’re behind the eight ball. And while many companies may be behind, it should at least be comforting to know that even the giants don’t have it all figured out. In a presentation by Lawren Barnett, a Strategy and Insights Director at Coca-Cola, it was revealed that even Coke’s process for pushing out social media content is still being improved. Until recently, there simply wasn’t time to pre-test all of the creative generated for social. Their old process wasn’t scientific, it wasn’t objective, and it wasn’t customer-focused. The team made educated guesses about what had been working in the past and what they thought seemed appealing in the moment. To put it another way, they had a good amount of data about what had worked in the past, but they lacked the formula for figuring out what would work in the future.
Now, however, Coca-Cola has begun the process of getting detailed about what works for each of the social media platforms, starting first with Facebook and Twitter. While the answers differ depending on the platform, there is certainly some overlap, and Lawren was able to share some best practices that can work for other companies as well. Some of the takeaways were fairly intuitive, such as starting with a strong opening hook for videos or making ads simple so that consumers don’t have to do a lot of work to understand your message. Some were quite tactical, such as showing the brand early and often or making the brand the star of the ad (as opposed to more of a product placement style). Perhaps most interesting, however, was the finding that ads perform best when companies (1) show the product in use, and (2) create relevant occasions that the consumer can relate to. Tying back to my earlier point, it’s essential to understand your target customers deeply and on an emotional level, and it’s equally important to convey back to the customer that you have that understanding. You need to know the different contexts in which your products or services will be used, the factors that drive consumers to choose a specific offering within that context, and the criteria by which they will judge new offerings that could satisfy the same needs / jobs to be done.
The messages from KFC, 7-Eleven, and Coca-Cola reflect two broader themes that companies of all sizes and industries can leverage. The first is simplicity. Find ways to reduce the complexity of your offerings and to make the messaging around your offerings clear and succinct. The second is empathy. Make sure that you have a deep understanding of your customers and that you’re finding the most effective ways to share that understanding with others in the organization. By developing simple messages that show your customers that you’re responding to the needs and contexts that matter most to them, you’ll be well on your way to the next successful innovation.
Dave Farber is a strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth. He is a co-author of the award-winning book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.