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Understand your customers with colored pencils and cartoons

Some CEOs truly crave direct customer contact. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is well known for directly emailing and engaging with their customers, as was Apple’s Steve Jobs. I know a former CEO of a large beverage company who so loved direct consumer contact he couldn’t contain himself at focus groups. After watching behind the mirror for a spell, he’d burst into the room and start talking directly with the subjects, much to the chagrin of his market researchers.

Unfortunately, many CEOs have limited direct contact with their customers, and much of the feed­back they receive from customers isn’t very useful, for three reasons. First, too much of it feels like a massive game of telephone: it’s hard to know if the unfiltered truth is coming through. Sec­ond, consumer research often requires trading off depth for breadth. Do you trust the data from a snazzy, emotive, and authentic ethnographic video of a few specific consumers, or do you trust the power of aggregate data from thousands of customers, even if that data is one dimensional and at times difficult to interpret? Third, sometimes the data is so fragmented by the function where it came from (e.g., from marketing vs. R&D) that it is hard to get an integrated picture of what to do next.

We ask consumers the same kinds of questions that companies normally ask, but we use pictures.

One solution to this problem: help CEOs really hear their customers by using crayons, colored pencils, and cartoons. We refer to these as “psychological drawings.” We ask consumers the same kinds of questions that companies normally ask, but we use pictures. We give consumers simple instructions like, “Draw me a picture of a person, not you, but someone else who is having this specific problem or issue.” Or we will say, “Draw me a picture of Brand X. Imagine Brand X comes to life and is able to think and speak.” It’s amazing what consumers draw, even the ones who are self-conscious about their art skills. The results can jar our CEO clients and spur new thinking about strategy.

For example, a major pharmaceutical company discovered that consumers’ incredible loyalty to one of its OTC products had very little to do with its product efficacy or branding. The drawings revealed that its most loyal consumers didn’t believe the product really worked, but they were so desperate to solve their medical issue that they were afraid to stop using the medicine, despite these doubts. One consumer’s cartoon depicted the brand secretly thinking: “Yes my clinical results are tenuous, my commercials are overhyped, and my results are marginal. But you have no other option. Do not try to stop using me, or I will punish you.” This car­toonist had just spent two hours describing her loyalty to the brand in a focus group.

After senior managers recovered from shock, they quickly concluded that “hostage taker” was not the consumer strategy they wanted. They realized they had a better chance of defending the drug’s record as preventative, not curative, and that they should shift their focus toward proving its efficacy on a differ­ent part of the body. They shifted their clinical research, reformulated the drug for the new part of the body, and had much better results both from an economic and consumer loyalty standpoint.

Psychological drawings can be powerful because they represent raw consumer out­put. There’s no filtering. The drawings can be intense and personal, as they often contain raw feelings that consumers rarely articulate in traditional research techniques. The best examples of this work are vivid and arresting — they often leap out of a typical PowerPoint presentation filled with numbers and text.

I’ve seen psychological drawings help a major industrial company come to grips with a long-standing quality issue that they were in denial over. These cartoons have helped a company realize its pricing strategy was far too aggres­sive. This visual form of customer feedback has driven big shifts R&D priorities and budgets. In another case, customer drawings helped a CEO realize that a business unit he believed to be commoditized and near-death actually was deeply emotional for a sizable portion of con­sumers and had significant latent demand to unlock. In a few cases, I’ve seen psychological drawings find their way beyond the CEO and into board meetings. Psychological drawings are an example of how even the most elemen­tary art can have a big strategic impact.

When we ask consumers to create psychologi­cal drawings, we impose two requirements to increase the effectiveness. First, we confine this exercise to “super consumers,” people who fall into an elite group of extremely well-informed, very profitable, and very influential consumers. This limits the ability of senior management to dismiss disturbing news by questioning the value of a particular con­sumer’s views. Second, we make sure these projects are cross-functional by design, with participation from marketing, sales, R&D, and manufacturing. Having all the relevant functions represented is important, since the results of this work may lead to important strategy shifts.

For more articles like this one, download the Harvard Business Review report: Creating a customer-centered organization

*Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Insight Center.

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