Are You Consumer Fluent? Here’s Why You Should Be…

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Wil PirkeyBy Will Pirkey,  iModerate 

Being consumer fluent is crucial in today’s evolving marketplace. Today’s environment is such that brands can’t push their talk track and rest on the perceived power of their message. Quite the opposite – it’s consumers who own the brand story. Their experiences with, and perceptions of, brands are shared with ease, making them the ultimate brand storytellers and messengers. As marketers, it’s our job to understand the story being told and participate in a thoughtful way. That takes knowing audiences inside and out.

Chances are when you hear the word fluent, you think about it in the context of language. Being fluent in a foreign language means you can do more than ask for directions or order dinner. Rather, you can interact using that language with ease without even thinking about it. It flows (the Latin root of the word fluent), and you can understand idioms, figures of speech and even speak in a way that conveys your personality.

Going Beyond Surface-Level
How do we use the definition of fluency that we associate with language and apply it to becoming fluent with customers?  It’s not simply about having a snapshot of demographic characteristics – no matter how specific these might get. It’s not just knowing their purchase patterns/habits, or what they thought about one ad or product. If we keep the example of language going, then knowing these attributes are akin to knowing how to ask directions and order food on your vacation – perhaps it’s enough to get by, but you’re never really in lockstep.

Ultimately, consumer fluency equates to truly knowing your customers and being able to engage them and deliver on their wants and needs with relative ease. It’s the ability to see the world through their eyes to better engage, innovate and ward off problems.

Fluency Ignites Innovation
The companies that commit to understanding their audiences at this deep level reap the rewards. Take Origins, the skincare company that spent two years engaging hundreds of millennials to better see things from their point of view. By all accounts, it was the brand’s biggest consumer research project to date. This endeavor unearthed a problem – that millennials feel their skin is losing its radiance – and led to innovation, a new serum called Original Skin. Moreover, Origins learned to speak the language, and was able to develop successful messaging and campaigns around the idea of #QuarterLifeCrisis.

Unfortunately, many organizations still try to get by with research and engagements that occur once every so often with niche objectives in mind. Fluency is not a static phenomenon. It takes a long-term commitment to both learning and unlearning. That’s why we implore clients to keep the conversation going, and take a more longitudinal look at their consumers.

Here are three ways organizations can benefit from an investment in an ongoing, fluid research approach to consumer fluency.

1)     It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen
On a basic level, becoming fluent (in whatever fashion) doesn’t come easy or cheap. As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows, there are no shortcuts. Cultural anthropologists spend years immersed with a group in order to learn their culture. Brands need to do the same for success. Consider that Origins took two years to learn enough from its research to confidently launch a campaign that would resonate with millennials. Consumer fluency requires a sizeable investment that includes conducting research over a long period of time and a team dedicated to seeing it through. The rewards are commiserate with the effort involved, because companies that commit wholeheartedly can gain the empathy and understanding to better connect with consumers than their competitors.

2)     You’ll find what you weren’t looking for
Since the first step to developing fluency is to drop any pre-conceived biases and assumptions about a group, the research should start in an exploratory and emergent way. This requires embracing your role as a naïve outsider, so you can see the big picture and let the data tell you what you need to know about your audience and what’s important to them. Some of the most impactful innovations and branding strategies of all time have come from these types of unexpected customer insights. Remember the Dove Real Beauty campaign? It was conceived after market research revealed that only 2 percent of women consider themselves beautiful – a percentage that most wouldn’t have suspected being so low going into the research. You don’t know exactly what fascinating learnings will emerge, what new doors will open or what new, unexpected pathways will be illuminated.

3)     Your brand will be able to keep up – and get ahead
Even after you have become fluent, the world doesn’t freeze in place. Companies must continue to research and learn even after they feel fluent. A lot can happen that changes the entire playing field in a matter of days or weeks. Who knows what new social media platform millennials or Generation Z will flock to next. Or how changing economic conditions will change consumers’ purchasing behaviors or attitudes. It’s imperative to continue to keep your finger on the pulse. This will allow you to anticipate, rather than react to, unexpected game changers. And if you can react faster than the next brand, you’ll be 10 steps ahead.

Achieving consumer fluency is a marathon, not a sprint, and while it may not come cheap, the investment will pay off in brand dividends. The sooner you can start speaking the language, the sooner you’ll start seeing it translated into business results you couldn’t achieve otherwise.

 About the Author: Will Pirkey is a research manager for iModerate, a leading consumer insights firm, where he manages both qualitative and quantitative research projects. 

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