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Clearworks Conversations: Developing Customer Centric Strategies

Our Clearworks Conversations Blog Series features interviews with leaders who we feel have a unique perspective to share. In this blog post, Clearworks’ Noël Adams interviews Katie Tamony, Chief Communications Officer, Social Interest Solutions about using research to develop customer centric strategies.

Noël: As a CMO and Communications Officer where does customer research fit into your thinking?

Katie: I think of customer research as a foundation tool.  It is data that keeps you honest and as unbiased as possible about your brand’s point of differentiation, your offering and its relevance.  It is not the only tool, but to me customer research helps you understand your market beyond the rational logical things and really gets at the emotional needs – which is how people really make decisions.  They back them up with logic but they really operate on an emotional level and it is hard to understand those emotional needs without customer research.  Customer research gives you empathy, which is so valuable in marketing.  Really good marketing today is about empathy.

I would say the other thing about why it is so important is that consumers or buyers – and really everybody is a consumer even if they are in B2B – are expecting that brands know them and that this will be reflected in all of the touch points that they have with the brand.  Competition, with all the tools available and all of the ways that you can touch people, has never been tighter. The brands that are strongest really know their customer the best and you cannot know your customer without research.

Noël: Tell me about how you have used research to inform strategy.  You can either pick a specific example or just keep it generic, but how have you specifically used it for strategy?

Katie: I have done several brand and transformation projects in the past ten years for really different companies and organizations – consumer, B2B, private industry, government, lifestyle products, technology…  Even though they are so wildly different, the way that we use customer research to inform the strategy was actually very parallel among all of them. That is as a foundation tool to test your theory. For example, we think this is our point of differentiation but let’s go out and test that and maybe before we even know what our point of differentiation is, we need to ask questions of the market that we are trying to reach. Then we can kind of back into what our new offering could be or how to become more relevant.

I have also used research to make a case internally to get other internal stakeholders or the management team on board.  Because with transformation of brand, usually there is a business reason behind it, right?  You need to grow your market, you need to make more money or you are dealing with some new business development that you’ve got to address. How I have used customer research is to really ground the brand in an external knowledge. So it is not just coming from what we think we know or what we want to be but that we are also using external more objective data to test that idea.  That is why it comes at the beginning of a process for me,  we need to start with what do people think of us now and if we want to get them to think about us in this other way, what is it going to take to do that. In all of the projects that I have done it is really about that- it is assessing here is where we are starting from — here is Point A and we want to get to Point B.  What do people need to see or believe about us to get to Point B… and that is how it informs the strategy.

Noël: When you have done that work tell me about some surprises that you have uncovered, the aha’s that made you think about your strategy differently.

Katie: One aha moment, as an example, I will take from the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.  We were really surprised by two things. One, how intimidated people were by modern and contemporary art and how if you could create different touch points for them depending on what made them intimidated or what made them get over that obstacle, you could really get a much larger audience to get in the door.

Talking to people about why they come to a museum and what they get out of it actually broadened the way the museum thought of itself beyond representing artists and art and more as a place where people could go to feel inspired and to feel more creative and to interact with that part of themselves…not just see the artist but to really feel creative, too and in all the ways the museum could do that, whether it is the museum gift shop or the app on the phone or visitor experience.  So I think that aha moment of, the museum could actually be a kind of meeting place of creativity came through in the consumer research that we did.  So it was a surprise to think of the museum that way.  Especially, again, among internal stakeholders — they didn’t really see it that way themselves.  It was one of these, okay we think people are coming because they appreciate and respect these painters or this sculptor, but really it is to get in touch with a part of themselves, so that was an aha moment.

Another one was with Monrovia, through walking around nurseries with people and assessing how they shopped for plants and how they perceived the information on the label, what they trusted or questioned surprised us. It really made us think about changing our label and thinking we need to get both simpler with our information but also more local and that was an aha.  Some of those things that we cared about deeply didn’t mean anything.  That was a surprise.  That was a revelation.  Now whether or not you are willing to take that insight and act on it is another question, but that was a surprise.

Noël: So, clearly you used customer research and it has informed your strategy.  What would you say to someone in your position who is trying to figure out is it worth it, should we do it because it is time and money.  What would you say to them?

Katie: I think there are not that many other ways for you to get outside your own biases.  I go back to the idea that customer research is so important because it is the most objective you can be about what you offer and whether you are relevant. Because you tend to get a little myopic and a little… I’m trying to think of another word besides biased, but you get in your own head a lot and it is hard for you to understand your brand from the point of view of the consumer unless you talk to them, unless you ask them.

I am a huge believer in user experience and human centered design as well and design thinking and all that really also supports this idea of customer research. It is such a useful tool in getting at what is really valuable to people, because otherwise it is just very subjective.  You go for a marketing slogan that sounds nice or you decide you think you know best based on your own personal approach to a product or a choice.  Really talking to a variety of people about how they encounter your brand is going to be so much more valuable to making a strategy that is grounded in reality.

Noël: Wrapping up, what are your tips for someone who is going to start using customer research to inform their strategy?  Is there anything you would advise them as they embark?

Katie: I think I would explore different methodologies to get at the question that you’re trying to answer.  To understand that sometimes quantitative data can be useful, sometimes qualitative, sometimes it’s a combination.  I would say really working with a thought partner that can help you think through the merits of each given the problem you’re trying to answer or the hypothesis you’re trying to test is important.  So I think the first tip is to be open to different methodologies.  That is key.

Number two, this is an opportunity to ask questions, to ask the hard questions, the tough things — to question the sacred cows.  Don’t be afraid to test the thing that would make you the most nervous.


We love chatting about what we do. Reach out if you want to chat about how you could use customer research to inform your strategies!

Sara Dougherty


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