Marketing earned a leading role in 2020 and 2021, with 75% of senior executives saying it had more influence in setting strategy than before the pandemic. Stefan Tornquist, SVP for Research and Learning, Econsultancy, shares new research and argues that marketing can keep its place by building a culture of insights.

When we were all driven online two years ago, businesses in every sector grew desperate to understand their newly digital customers, and marketing was their interpreter.

In fact, in new research, 75% of senior executives reported that marketing had more influence for setting corporate strategy in 2021 than before the pandemic.

Marketers had a wealth of data to share about what was happening across channels, and leadership listened. Organisations acted with unprecedented speed to realign for a homebound world.

But as the world haltingly reopens, customers have more choices and new motivations. Having quick reflexes won’t be enough.

To stay at the head table, marketing will need a robust approach to customer insights that goes beyond reacting to what customers are doing today, one that investigates their motivations and inspires innovation to meet emerging needs.

Put another way, what can only tell us how to respond and iterate, why is the question that transforms companies for the future.

Time for a culture of insights

In business (especially the business advice business) we like some phrases so much that their meaning gets eroded by overuse.  To suggest building a “culture” of something is a trope as smooth as a beach rock.

We like the expression because it gets at one of the trickiest goals in business or any human enterprise that involves more than one human; to change shared assumptions and traditions. Call it group mindset work.

But if there was ever a moment to reimagine how to approach customer insight, this is it. Most sectors have experienced at least a decade’s worth of digital adoption in 24 months and senior leadership expects the pace of change in customer behavior to continue.

More importantly, many businesses have had the realisation that being “customer centric” really is the path to growth and not just a pleasant-sounding phrase for their ‘About Us’ section.

Companies are ready to invest. “Data & insights” ranks as senior executives’ top priority for technology investment in 2022.

But a culture of insight is less about measurement technology or data than the way that business thinks about customers and its own processes. There will be information gaps and the need for different tools, but the real challenge is aligning expectations and instilling new habits of communication and collaboration.

Democratic insights

Businesses like to think of themselves as data driven, but day-to-day decision making happens in the tumble of workflow that keeps moving forward whether or not insights and data are at hand.

What does it look like when a marketer has a question? Do they have to schedule a meeting (or a series of meetings) or is there a repository of performance data and other KPIs? Does everyone get the training they need to feel comfortable with basic analytics concepts, data definitions and using the tools? If they need an analyst’s help, can they get it in hours or days or weeks?

Companies in the research identified as “leaders” by their success in customer experience maturity and business performance have a stark advantage over their competitors; two-thirds rank as ‘strong/very strong’ in providing access to insights across the marketing organisation compared to only one in four companies in the mainstream.

The payoffs are significant and repeatable. Front-line marketers base their decision making on hard numbers that can be benchmarked and improved upon. Managers build experiments with the knowledge that they’re comparing like-for-like. Analysts and data scientists who aren’t mired in minutiae and reporting are free to tackle big, important questions. Executives have the ammunition to create and influence strategy based in real understanding.

Speed to what

We’ve internalised how quickly market dynamics can shift, even in industries previously resistant to digital innovation where the inertia of old business lines slowed or at least masked the upheaval.

Yet most companies still have processes that take weeks to harvest information and turn it into a useful insight. Workflow issues plague the practice of discovery and experimentation, ranking as the top barrier to customer experience.

The opportunity today isn't the volume of data, but the speed in which we can take advantage of it. Those that are ‘strong’ in speed to insight were nearly 43% more likely to have outperformed their sector in 2020 than their competitors for whom it’s not an area of strength.

They’re also significantly more likely to have enjoyed increases in their marketing budgets, because they were able to quickly learn, experiment and prove the value of their investments. 

Slow why

The easiest mistake to make in 2022 is to rely too heavily on digital inputs for the truth about customers. Some questions can’t be digitised or hurried.

To best understand people and their motivations you must observe them in their habitat, and it won’t always be in the digital captivity of our sites and the preserves of Facebook and Google. 

In the years following the financial crisis of 2008, one of the world’s largest paint manufacturers was in a funk. Their message of “reliable quality” had been highly successful, contributing to a top-three market share, but growth had flattened.

A new marketing executive was tasked with answering: “What do our consumers want that we aren’t giving them?” Her team poured over sales data, promotional history, and satisfaction surveys, but those could only confirm that their marketing was working less efficiently.

The data was rich in what customers said they wanted but the company was already balancing price, quality, and choice better than competitors who were growing. The data couldn’t answer the question of why customers were turning to other brands.

She engaged an ethnographer to interview consumers and spend time with them as they engaged in painting projects. Over the course of several months and hundreds of hours, an insight took shape.

Paint, they discovered, is about change. A new apartment, a child, a better job or simply a desire to refresh the familiar.

That understanding led to a top-down rethinking of the consumer brand and marketing messaging, and ultimately a revitalised growth curve. It also had a profound effect on how people who’d been in the business for decades viewed their own products.

The first steps to a culture of insights

To change a culture means getting everyone involved and sharing a mindset about how things get done.

It starts with education and an emphasis on individual agency. Anyone on the marketing team should have basic data skills and a knowledge of the systems at hand. They should have the opportunity to learn as they go and learn for their future.

We can’t predict everything that’s around the corner for our customers and markets. The winners are going to be the companies that relentlessly pursue insights, that move quickly when they can and slowly when they should.