Marketers are increasingly getting stuck in the trap of obsessing about the new, at the cost of obsessing about customers, says Gareth Kay. But, he argues, customer obsession can transform whole industries, as the success of Amazon and Netflix shows.

People who know me, know I’m very easily distracted. I’m a sucker for falling down a Twitter black hole at any given moment. And on one of these black hole expeditions last week, I discovered an interesting Q&A going on about the changing role of CMOs. The question posed: ‘Is the CMO role becoming largely tech-focused?’ A simple question, but, I feel, a rather alarming and misguided one.

It’s not unusual to hear agencies, and other creative companies that advise clients, being accused of having ‘shiny object syndrome’. Of chasing the latest, greatest new thing – the new tech, the new channel, the new technique – and not obsessing about the most effective solution to a problem. We’d happily claim to be the first to project a logo onto the dark side of the moon and not care less that no one on Earth was actually able to see it. But I think that, as deserved as this criticism can often be, clients tend to escape the same critique. And increasingly this looks rather unfair.

Marketers are increasingly getting stuck in the trap of obsessing about the new, and it looks like this comes at the cost of obsessing about customers. A recent piece of Forrester research looked at how companies drove their customer experience innovations. The responses were eye-opening. Companies were most likely to first look at what other companies were doing. They would then look at advances in technology. Finally, they would be inspired by deep customer empathy. So, a discipline that, in many ways, was built in order to help companies understand their customers better is less customer-obsessed than perhaps ever before. Marketers have become besotted with the narrative that what matters most is addressing change and ‘moving fast’. The discipline has become obsessed with new tools rather than tackling the very human nature of the underlying job to be done.

Yes, marketing needs to adapt to changing circumstances, but my fear is that the discipline has totally overcompensated for this and forgotten some of the basics that made marketing so valuable to companies through the creation and maintenance of those valuable, intangible things called brands. I think, to a degree, marketers have become a little bored with the slow-changing nature of the people we serve and distracted by the froth of the ever-changing tools and canvases at our disposal. We’ve come to believe that being customer-obsessed will tell us nothing new.

This desire to learn from, not just listen to, the customer is what drives customer-obsessed businesses like Amazon and Netflix that have transformed whole industries. When you adapt a learning mindset to your customer, interesting things begin to happen. You become problem-finders rather than problem-solvers. You begin to deliver on unanticipated future needs rather than simply understand their current wants. You don’t just create new products but create new businesses that set new expectations for others to follow. And, in so doing, you create larger margins that are more sustainable and defensible over time.

One example of the power of customer obsession can be seen in Netflix’s product experience. Its ability to organise around customer data and experiment relentlessly has changed what we choose to watch. It has moved from the expected norms of relying on stars to giving you a ‘percentage match’ that you’ll enjoy a movie or TV show, irrespective of star quality. Not only does this lead to happier customers but also to a better business outcome as it merchandises movies and shows that cost less to acquire than the latest blockbuster diet that Sky or HBO are forced to try to compete on.

But customer obsession lets us do more than build better customer experiences; it can reimagine whole businesses. Think about how Amazon has reinvented retail. By being customer-obsessed, it has created a new type of retail experience, powered by recommendations from other people who shop like you. It has reimagined a loyalty scheme that delivers value worth paying for rather than designing another costly attempt to buy loyalty and share. More fundamentally, its obsession has allowed it to enter and disrupt categories at will because its core competency isn’t category but an obsession with its customers and what they could possibly want.