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Letter to the Customer Insight

Dear Customer Insight!

I finally want to thank you.

We have been knowing each other for more than 35 years. Today, everybody is acquainted with you. If I google you, I get more than 200 billion hits. They say you are essential for good promotion and strong messages. Product innovations that don’t care about you will fail. They even use you to formulate ground-breaking business models and strategies. Everybody seems to know you, but no one actually knows precisely who you are. Wikipedia provides woolly definitions and speaks of the magical connection between customer and product.

It happened in the 70s. I was ten years old, my parents owned an advertising agency, people fled musty Central Europe and dreamt of the South, the sun and the sea. That’s when we met for the first time. I admired you on posters with huge fennels, mouth-watering oranges and juicy tomatoes. The message read: From Italy. Just these two words. And people were buying. I didn’t know your name then. Neither did I hear it during my management studies at HSG St. Gallen. Nor did any professor or any of those clever books or scientific articles mention your name.

Only 15 years later in New York, during my internship at Grey International, one of the leading advertising agencies back then, I heard about you. The creatives and the account executives quoted you when they tried to sell their campaigns for window or drain cleaners. Quite naturally they elaborated on the enlightening customer insight – i.e. you – they found and transformed into an outstanding advertising message.

In the 90s, when I was a marketing executive at Procter & Gamble, we became close friends. Almost every day I was looking for you and together we convinced the customers. Oh yes, we did! Parents who understood that pampers babies are happier, play more and learn faster, guaranteeing them a brighter future. Women wanting to look like top models to win the heart of the fairy prince, we came along and Cover Girl cosmetics promised them that it was possible. It was no longer only about sparkling clean kitchens (Mr. Proper), but about the Saturday morning off with Swiffer. The housewife who wanted to be loved and had a bad conscience because the clothes itched, Lenor helped. When I tell these stories a lot of people laugh, they mock you or are even appalled by you. These people underestimate your power because you really do work.

Meticulously we uncovered the hidden motives, needs, worries and wishes of the consumers, assessed their relevance for the entire market and used you mercilessly in advertising and product innovation. Nobody could escape you, dear Customer Insight, surely not the product developers realizing ground-breaking product ideas with your help. You know yourself how the story continued. At McKinsey, we lost sight of each other, but you were always on my mind. Nike assuming market leadership not only thanks to the Air technology but primarily by successfully giving consumers the reassuring feeling that everybody can make it. Just do it. Dell had a nice business model, but thanks to you they realized that companies need state-of-the-art computers when unpacking them, not the second latest technology. That makes sense, but Dell was first to make it a reality. eBay, that tingling feeling during the last seconds, 3…2…1… mine! Not only in advertising but within the product itself. And last but not least, all those start-ups at the end of the 90s that didn’t find you – the deep, surprising insight into the mind of the customer – and therefore had to quit the game.

After McKinsey, we renewed our friendship. This time we didn’t confine ourselves to all-day products such as diapers, washing powder or cosmetics. We reached for just about everything being sold on this planet. Investment goods, medical supplies, financial services and high tech. Everyone got to benefit from you. We built arguments that stimulated sales. We sharpened the value propositions of existing products. We developed product innovations and concepts that customers truly want.

Thanks to you, around the year 2000, an online service provider became aware that a nice looking website was of little interest to his customers and that they were more interested in generating a higher turnover. A chemical company, the global market leader in their segment, producing a powder identical to others made in China, could sell their product at double the price – also thanks to you! A small but distinguished private bank learned that wealthy pensioners want to make their own decisions on how to invest their money and are not keen on whiling away their time on the golf course. A global power plant provider suddenly realized that they have to react really fast in case of a plant breakdown. A technology provider tried by hook or by crook to connect internet and TV like Google, despite you warning that it was impossible.

I’m convinced of your power to create new products, strong messages and innovative business models. But tell me, why are you so hard to find? Why do we need expensive instruments for customer surveillance, Freudian psychoanalysis to probe unknown regions of the customer’s mind, fanciful creativity techniques as an inspiration? I am convinced that the consistent application of the job-to-be-done logic does the job more than well enough. Customers don’t buy a drill, but a hole in the wall or the possibility to hang up a picture. Here we are! We’ve got a new perspective for everyone to find you with a minimum of effort.

Consumers don’t want cleaning products, they want to enjoy a free Saturday. They don’t long for better quality in music but want to take along their collection and quickly find their songs. They don’t want more megapixels in a camera but share their memories with friends and family.

I believe the jobs-to-be-done approach works perfectly if someone wants to find you. It helps to find the root of the customer’s problem without being distracted. Two things are nonetheless important: First, someone who wants to work with you must be prepared to dig really deep! And second, he or she has to assess whether you are important to the customer. What’s the use, if one customer thinks you make the difference, but the market doesn’t care? Only that way you become an instrument to develop the right products, formulate differentiating value promises and pursue a promising market strategy. Customers will thank you, be it the wealthy pensioners, the power plant operator or the parents of a happy baby.

Sincerely yours,

Beat Walther

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