Chrtistine Barton sits on the advisory board of BCG’s Center for Consumer Insight. She is an expert on growth, insight-driven turnaround, and innovation.
Tell us about the role that consumer insight plays in strategy and business decisions?
For many companies I work with closely—in the retail, fashion and consumer packaged goods sectors—consumer insight is a critical capability for differentiation and advantage. They apply it broadly: to organic growth, innovation, product development, marketing approaches, pricing and promotions, channel strategy, portfolio management, and acquisition strategy.
In our view, insight is science and art, the left and right brain in balance. It gives confidence in management decisions, but it is not the decision itself. It is one tool to be applied together with financial and economic data, market structure and competitive position, trends, internal capabilities and capacity, to inform the most important strategic decisions facing our clients.
What are the toughest challenges for most companies in getting close to the consumer?
Typically we observe at least three types of companies, each with its own set of challenges. First are those that have not even embraced the role of consumer insight and the centricity of the consumer. These companies need to incorporate the perspective, build or fill in the capability, and leverage best practices.
Second are those that have mechanistic consumer insight capabilities, but are not realizing the potential value to the business. These companies must push to improve quality, and at the same time translate their data more directly into business implications and management actions.
Third are those few that are hitting on all insight cylinders today. Surprisingly, these companies are not resting on their laurels, but rather they are pushing to evolve and transform the capability and further cement their company performance and share leadership.
How would you describe “best practice” when it comes to consumer insight?
Best-practice companies tend to stand out on a few dimensions. In most cases, senior management has elevated the consumer insight function’s status in the organization and placed consumer needs at the center of business decisions.
Meanwhile, the insight team strikes the right balance: across science and art, across quantitative and qualitative studies, across strategic (innovation, foundational research, segmentation) and tactical (marketing habits, campaign preference, promotional response) work. Their approach is iterative and transparent, not a “black box.” They always connect their insight back to the business, drafting recommendations that are grounded in company and category economics, starting position, and strategy.
Tell us about some new trends in consumer and market research in the United States today.
New trends come and go. One example is using digital media to listen to feedback and user reviews. Another example is hosting focus groups online. Another is the deep analytical mining of a company’s point-of-sale or loyalty data. These can be helpful, complementary techniques.
Certainly, the ability to field an Internet survey in most developed countries has improved the quality of insight, as well as the speed with which consumer insight can be incorporated into timely decisions. However, our experience is that to realize the full benefit of insight, companies must not push any one tool, lens, or approach out of balance with others.