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What They Least Expect

There's been an interesting discussion brewing on Twitter about the value of sentiment analysis and social chatter in relations to brand planning.

Readers will know that I'm a fan of social metrics and the tools that deliver a real-time picture of consumer impressions. But over the course of a conversation on the subject started by Len KendallBen Kunz and me this weekend, I surprised even myself with my level of skepticism.

My problem is not with the tools or what they reveal. I think these are becoming robust and important additions to our arsenal. My issue is what people do with these metrics. Because I think that what we are hearing people say, even in real-world conversation, is not always representative of how they are acting.

Take for instance direct mail. For year before the advent of the social media juggernaut, polls, focus groups and conversations with people on the street always showed that people hated mail and would prefer just about anything other than telemarketing as an alternative communication method. And yet, the response numbers told a different story. The real issues was untargeted mail and the mass mailings that played the numbers game. There's no doubt that the sentiment was real and that direct marketers needed to explore other options, but clearly a knee-jerk reaction based on sentiment alone would have been foolhardy.

For me this is a good reminder that what people say is not always what they do. Ben Kunz turned our conversation into an excellent blog post on the subject, so I won't try to recreate what he said so eloquently. But I do want to take this thing one step further and talk about needs.

The Expectation Rut

Ben talks a lot in his post about how sentiment needs to always be tempered with hard numbers representing actual behavior. I certainly agree with this assessment. But I also wonder whether sometime we get so caught up with with expressed consumer needs and desires as a whole that we hamper innovation and market creation.

Let me ask, who among you needed a smartphone 10 years ago? Who needed the Internet 20 years ago?

Consumer sentiment and consumer purchasing behavior is all well and good, but in many ways relying solely on these metrics is nothing more than a maintenance plan. It keeps cash flowing when times are good, and with a strong brand identity it may even spark some love and loyalty. But it's kind of like an employee-of-the-year award — this type of honor always seems to go to the person (in this case, brand) that gives us exactly what we expected.

When you invest your brand exclusively into the narrow box of consumer need you may reap acceptable rewards, but you also lock your brand into the unforgiving ruts of consumer expectations. And humans being human, they will only tolerate so much change before they rebel and your brand falls from their favor. You must give them what is expected or you are penalized.

That's why we have to leave room for vision when we analyze markets. 

Looking Beyond Need

Market creation is a risky proposition. It goes beyond expressed needs and looks at how life would be improved if this new product (or service) was introduced. It looks at how we want consumer behavior to change and mold itself around our brand, rather than the other way around. And it's a huge roll of the die that takes confidence, careful planning and a truly innovative offering.

Obviously you can fail big. But if you win, the result is a measure of loyalty that far exceeds the expected. People love to be surprised and delighted by unexpected new things. (As long as this new thing doesn't break what's already working for them, of course.) Innovation is an understanding of the consumer that's more than a reflection of their desires, but is prescient of what they never even knew they needed until they met you.

Such brands become beloved by their buyers. But more importantly, these brands afford themselves room to maneuver. Because innovation buys advocacy and ensures a certain amount of forgiveness. You aren't locked into the expected, so no one really has you pegged on solid expectations. And innovation breeds innovation, raising the stature of your brand over time.

I know we can't expect every product to be truly innovative. So the metrics of sentiment and real-world behavior are important to have at our disposal. But those who hold the keys to developing new consumer offerings would be best served by stepping out of these metrics on occasion to look not at what consumers want, but what they least expect.

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