The “Why Imperative” for Brands: Focusing on Consumption Amid Perpetual Disruption

Electronic payments. Insurance. Ecommerce. Healthcare. Hospitality. Transportation. Name an industry and you can bet “we” are “disrupting” it. And by “we” I do not mean some prototypical millennial wunderkind sitting in an open plan shared office with standing desks, ping pong tables and free craft beer somewhere in Sunnyvale. It is “we”. The consumer.

For years those of us in the marketing world have espoused that consumers own our brands and that every touch point must be carefully considered, curated and choreographed to deliver “on-brand experiences.” And there is a great deal of truth to this thinking in the practice of market research and brand management. However, in a well-intentioned effort to become increasingly consumer-centric, many brand owners may have missed the forest for the trees. Consumers own something much more fundamental than the brands with which they engage; they own the very consumption model itself and established brands are finding themselves sidelined, or increasingly relegated to fast followers of upstarts and innovators.

The “why imperative” is not just about updating systems, processes, and touch points to reflect the brand, it’s about gaining a revolutionary understanding of human decision making to reimagine business models and brand engagement from the ground up. To do this it is essential to know the driving values and motivating benefits at every decision-step in the customer journey and experience with the brand.

This all may appear obvious at first blush, but you do not have to look far to see examples of brands in mature categories loosing ground and relevancy. Take for example major hotel brands with the copious customer information they hold in the forms of transactional data, omni-channel booking platforms, loyalty mechanisms and more. Yet this wealth of insights is largely used to update point schemes, amenities or interiors—all while new entrants like AirBnB and HotelsByDay shake up the industry’s foundation. Meanwhile booking aggregators like HotelTonight threaten the role of brand value among selection criteria. The same can be said for the payments industry as peer-to-peer and mobile payments like Venmo and Apple Pay put yet another screen between the consumer, the payment card brand and the issuing bank brand. Spotify. Netflix. Aereo. Medify. Uber. Buycott. Threadless. I could go on.

On the surface, putting consumer decision-making at the center of both brand and business strategy would appear a relatively common and straightforward undertaking. Between longstanding market research practices and the nascence of “big data” and all that it promises in the form of behavioral analytics, predictive modeling, and contextual marketing, the abundance of information about consumers is ever-increasing. But is there an inherent complacency in limiting our consumer understanding to funnel metrics and traditional KPI’s? Are we not exponentially served by understanding the underlying values and broader context of product or service consumption itself?

Take in to consideration this statistic from a 2014 study completed by Altimeter Group: 88% of executives and digital strategists stated that their organization was undergoing a formal digital transformation; yet 42% claimed to have not officially researched the customer journey at all. While this may not be a surprising statistic to some, it underpins a broader implication for brands: passive data sources are important for maintaining and optimizing brand touch points by looking at customer engagement as it is today and to incrementally improve interactions in the future—but they are not a proxy for truly shaping a sustainable brand experience in today’s disruptive environment. By limiting exploration of the “why” and leveraging patchwork data to shape their stakeholders’ experience, organizations risk missing out on larger, more strategic opportunities to remain relevant amid disruption and take a position of leadership in the minds of customers.

Through our work with brands in diverse industries from tourism to financial services, we find time and again that when we understand the individual and societal values and motivating benefits that influence purchase decisions, our clients can positively impact brand metrics and successfully reimagine the brand experience to create value for both customers and the bottom line. As brand marketers drink from the fire-hose of all that consumer data, we should go beyond the basic recognition that consumers own our brands, and challenge ourselves to actually engage our consumers to understand why they consume in the first place and how their values may be the key to maintaining relevancy and defining the very experiences they expect from the category.