Challenger Brands Are Shaking Up Product Marketing by Actually Listening to Consumer Needs

Forcing larger organizations to change their ways

Challengers are shaking up product marketing by—unsurprisingly—listening to what their consumers want. Illustration: Amber McAden, Source: iStock
Headshot of Leonid Sudakov

Twenty years ago, I attended professor Clayton Christensen’s business school class on innovation in which he talked about products being “hired” by consumers. Back then, I was surprised how his view bridged the two realms of products and services. This approach still resonates and is more relevant than ever.

Successful businesses create new categories by identifying problems in need of a solution, even if customers are happy with the workaround they found in the absence of such solutions, and then create products that deal with the underlying pain points. This growth philosophy is built on the fundamental understanding that their products are services for hire. And only when those products succeed in fulfilling that job can they move to adding layers of branding and engagement to drive customer acquisition.

For too many years, marketers have been working the other way around.

The fallacy that plays out again and again in the mindset of big corporations is thinking they’re better because they’re bigger.

Much of the focus in the marketing industry has been centered around selling a better story, finding a breakthrough expression of the big brand beliefs or simply going for the biggest number of laughs. However, in the past few years, with the advance of the so-called direct brand economy, we’ve seen a new wave of disruption led by a range of simpler, more functional propositions focused on consumer experience: what a product does for consumers, how it helps them, the problems it solves.

How does a business know if its product is doing the job consumers need and if it’s doing it right? It requires authentic obsession about two things: the minute detail as to how your product does the job and the reality of your customers’ lives.

All marketers nowadays need to be purposefully inquisitive, a unique combination of curiosity and courage that fuels non-stop questioning in pursuit of getting better. This culture allows companies the distance between their customers’ needs and solutions they can design to help them. If a product doesn’t offer a better alternative to the customer’s workaround, no snappy tagline, Oscar-worthy ad or Instagrammable stunt are going to make it a success.

This culture is not created overnight. Where do you start? A good place to begin is with a conversation with your customer by listening to what they have to say.

For many years, consumer businesses around the world benchmarked the number of customer complaints and incentivized their customer service teams to minimize that number every year. This used to be considered a critical indicator of improving quality. Think about it: The whole measurement philosophy was targeted on less contact with customers. Now contrast this to the new-generation consumer startups launching flawed first products and focusing on learning as much as possible from complaints from their first customers. These businesses’ survival is conditioned by their real proximity to their customers, not an abstract relationship with personality types that is facilitated by myriad research agencies in big corporations.

Establishing a direct line of communication with your customers gives you an advantage of time and insight and informs the culture of curiosity and courage to continuously respond to what you’re learning. It provokes you to keep answering the same simple question: How well is our product performing the job the customer needs it to do?

The fallacy that plays out again and again in the mindset of big corporations is thinking they’re better because they’re bigger. Serving millions of customers today doesn’t guarantee you will be serving even a thousand tomorrow, and learning to appreciate the individual customer truth is probably the most fundamental mind shift leaders and marketers alike need to make.

The power of understanding individual customer experience, getting it all under your skin—the complaints and the celebrations—is what’s required to develop products capable of doing the jobs consumers might not even imagine or tell you about today. In today’s world, time is the most precious commodity.

And with the increasing pressure of time, consumers value simplicity and an authentic desire to help. Two forces of disruption are at play. Amazon has made the customer experience part of their purpose. On the other side, multiple new categories are created by products that deliver empirical value directly to consumers.

This latest wave of disruption will force businesses to refocus on the functional truth of their products, so long overshadowed by the genius of Mad Men-era creativity—or else.


Leonid Sudakov is president at Kinship.
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