LONDON: Companies such as Unilever and AstraZeneca are placing a specific emphasis on consumer insights as they seek to engage with customers in the UK.

The onset of the recession has resulted in the adoption of a wide range of new behaviours and habits across almost all demographics, meaning businesses have been forced to adapt to challenging trading conditions.

“If any brand is to have a very sharp point of view on the world, there has to be clarity over its consumer target,” said Helen Lewis, consumer insight and marketing strategy director at Unilever.

“You have to make an effort to make sure that everybody is thinking about the consumer all the time.”

While emerging channels like social media are providing real-time data into popular preferences and opinions, they should not replace traditional forms of research, she added.

Unilever has developed a programme called “consumer passport”, which requires staff to spend a set number of hours visiting shoppers in person in order to ensure they remain in tune with their core audience.

“The best way to do this is to go to people's homes,” Lewis said.

AstraZeneca, the healthcare giant, has attempted to model its activity in this area on that of leading corporations in other industries, like Unilever, that have had established ground-breaking techniques.

"What differentiates world-class companies is a genuine culture of insightfulness," said Tim Bailey, director of marketing strategy, global marketing.

"Our change of strategy is about bringing the customer into the organisation on a scale far beyond that which we've previously done and taking really powerful brand ideas from that," he said.

The need to regularly refresh its portfolio, a necessity given the decline in sales that generally follows on from the expiration of patents on particular products, meant this shift was essential.

"Unilever's Helen Lewis told us that marketers want to work on a powerful brand idea and then they are much more likely to execute it in a way that is consistent," said Bailey.

"We hadn't worked with that clarity of branding before. It was an entirely new concept that we took from the consumer goods world."

Looking more broadly, Nick Fell, the group marketing director at SAB Miller, the brewer, argued that modifying an approach to suit individual nations can be an unappealing prospect, but is a vital one.

"Given a choice between a brand that is global but is executed in 15 different ways in 15 different markets and growing at 20% in all of them, and one that is executed the same way everywhere and is standing still, you'd have to be a dummy not to go for the first case," he said.

"But it is the natural traction of global marketers to go for the commonality everywhere so they can say, 'I did that'. There's vanity in all managers - maybe in marketing people more than most - and that's one of their downfalls."

Tim Hawley, global marketing director of Bacardi, also suggested that effectively combining research, planning and implementation in the only way to achieve success.

"Great marketing is about getting the overall strategy right, being ruthlessly focused on the consumer and making money at the end of it," he said.

Data sourced from Marketing Week; additional content by Warc staff