7 Lessons from the 2017 Yale Customer Insights Conference

May 18, 2017

“In the past four or five years, the fundamental themes in marketing: storytelling, digital media, and social media haven’t changed,” said Ravi Dhar, the Director of Yale’s Center for Customer Insights. What will change is how marketers employ those themes to strategic effect, and use them to give customers positive experiences of their brands.”

Today’s best marketing academics and strategists continue to innovate ways to navigate this brave new world, and presented some of the best new ideas at the 12th annual Customer Insights Conference, May 12-13, 2017. A few of the day’s takeaways:

Incorporating Photography into the Consumer Experience is Essential.

Since the advent of social media, it has become undeniable that “the way we think about life, overall, is that it is a series of experiences,” said Gal Zauberman, Professor of Marketing at SOM.  Whether it’s a stroll on a beach, a night out with friends, or attending a conference, in the past fifteen years or more, “all of these experiences have incorporated photography in them.”

“Hundreds of billions of photos being taken every day,” he said. “This is not a phenomenon that we can ignore. It is becoming an integral part of everything we do.”

How do you study the effect of photograph on the human experience? “You rent a bus,” Zauberman said. In a study asking tourists to take photos during a bus tour of Philadelphia, Zauberman examined if and how the act of taking photographs – specifically, photographs taken on mobile devices that most of us now carry with us all of the time – enhances or diminishes our enjoyment of experiences. Though many of us, he said, intuit that taking photographs can take us out of the moment and hurt how we enjoy life experiences, his research proved the opposite: “When we look at the visual world through a camera, we have to scan the environment more carefully,” and pay more attention, said Zauberman.

The take-away for marketers? “Encourage customers to take photos,” recommends Zauberman. “Facilitate photo-taking that does not interfere with the actual experience. Do not overload customers with too many sensory inputs, especially when the focal element is visual, because taking photos will diminish their memory.”

Agility is important in creating storytelling “moments” that will reach customers.

Consumers today live in moments,” said Ronalee Zarate-Bayani, Head of Global Integrated Marketing at The Hershey Company, “and these moments define their experiences, and shape their memories. These memories ultimately drive their behavior.”

Rather than to craft traditional marketing strategies and roll them out in a measured fashion, marketers today must learn to be agile, meet consumers where they are, and take advantage of unplanned moments that naturally occur in social media to drive recognition of their brands. As an example, she cited the case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Trees, a confection that was called out in social media for not appearing to be shaped like trees, but instead like something rather unsavory. “It got loud,” she said. Hershey seized the opportunity and created the “All Trees Are Beautiful” campaign, which went on to drive record sales, win marketing awards, and shape the following year’s marketing campaign.

Consumers today expect companies to have a sense of purpose.

An important part of a company’s storytelling has become conveying its purpose. CVS made headlines in 2014 when it announced the decision to stop selling tobacco in all of its stores. This precipitated a $2 billion loss in revenue, but “it was the right thing to do,” said Norman de Greve, Chief Marketing Officer of CVS Health. “When your purpose is helping people on their path to better health, how can you dispense life-saving medications in the pharmacy area, and cigarettes at the checkout counter?” Two years after their landmark decision, CVS remains the only national pharmacy chain to ban the sale of tobacco.

“There is a whole lot of talk these days about being a purpose-driven brand,” said de Greve. “Consumers come to expect it. It’s impossible to be a purpose-driven brand unless first and foremost, you are a purpose-driven company.”

Embrace digital media to enhance the customer experience.

Scott Harkins, Senior Vice President of Customer Channel Marketing at FedEx, described how his company is “embracing the disruption that is happening in the digital space.”

“Digital has been part of our DNA all along,” Harkins said, recalling a prophetic statement FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith YC ’66 made in 1978: “The information about a package is as important as the package itself.” Harkins recalled how FedEx, in the early days of the internet, provided one of the first online interactive experiences for customers: in 1994, online package tracking was available.

Since FedEx’s inception, “the expectation of customers has gone up. FedEx is really focused on the user experience.” Today, FedEx uses an “outside-in” approach to digital media ‘to offer a continuously connected, personalized customer experience that addresses each customer’s specific needs.

The best insights can come from customers themselves.

“Chief provocateur” and executive vice president of consumer and market insights at Unilever in London, Stan Sthanunathan, sat down for a conversation with Beth Storz, president of Ideas To Go.

A powerful insight at Unilever has been the realization that some of the best insights come from the customers themselves. Sthanunathan has spent days listening to calls in Unilever’s UK call center which, unlike at other companies, reports to the Insight department. “There are 13 million customers who call every year,” he said. “13 million free consumer insights being generated.” In response, Unilever changed its call center technology to better mine that information for insight. “No consumer survey could ever have told you these kinds of things,” he said.

A good customer experience means good business.

MetLife has been known in recent years as the company of Snoopy, a mascot choice that positioned MetLife as “a friendly, approachable company,” said Chief Customer Officer Claire Burns ‘96. But the loveable beagle’s time at MetLife has come to an end: “Snoopy comes across as frivolous and dated. It was a door opener, but it really has nothing to do with our brand.”

What is more important than an appearance of friendliness, said Burns, was “to be our customer’s trusted partner.” To accomplish that, MetLife spearheaded a major effort to place the customer at the center of their business, rather than treat them, as they had in the past, as an “inconvenient truth.” That meant making their operations customer-centric, beginning with improving the comprehensibility of their common forms, making it easier to file claims, and demoting the fax machine as the primary way policy holders could communicate with the company.

For the Boston Red Sox, since their early days storytelling has long been on their side. “We’ve been a soap opera of a franchise,” said the ball club’s Chief Marketing Officer, Adam Grossman, during a conversation with Yale School of Management marketing professor Shane Frederick. “Even from trading Babe Ruth, there have been these narratives that have stood the test of time.”

The challenge is to continually grow new generations of fans, which, for the Red Sox, means creating memorable ballpark experiences for young children and their parents. In addition to setting aside free tickets for young fans at every game, the team followed the advice of a parenting blogger in setting up a clubhouse for kids, an “escape route” for young children and parents who need a break from the game. “For us, leaving the game is a killer,” said Grossman. “The experience is not going to be what they want if they are leaving early.”

Needless to say, “if we win, the marketing gets a lot better,” Grossman said. “We are all smarter if the team plays well.” Still, the historic ballpark they call home remains a constant draw, regardless of the number in the W column. “In lean years, we draw on the Fenway experience.”

Some consumers are “harbingers of failure”

With the new digital age in marketing come entirely new ways to collect and interpret the data that companies are able to collect about their customer’s purchasing habits. Looking at these habits, Duncan Simester, Professor of Marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management asked, “Are there some customers who systematically buy the products that fail? The answer is a resounding yes.”

Using data provided by a large CPG retailer, Simester was able to identify “harbingers of failure,” a niche group of consumers whose preferences do not line up with those of the vast majority of people.  “Some customers have unusual preferences,” he said. “Some people like yellow nail polish. Some people like watermelon Oreo cookies. Not very many. If these harbingers like the product, it’s a signal the mass market won’t like them.”

What’s more, Simester discovered, “The people that like the yellow nail polish also like the watermelon Oreos.” These unusual preferences crossed retailers, as well as product categories, and were evident across a remarkable range: harbingers donated more frequently to failed election campaigns, and saw their houses fail to maintain their value.

Simester was also able to cluster these consumers in certain zip codes. “Harbinger zip codes tend to move to other harbinger zip codes,” he said. “This is all about people bringing their preferences with them rather than learning them when they get there.”

In the future, Simester says, it is possible that these unfortunate zip codes, with clusters of poor taste, may be published, leaving everyone assembled to wonder whether they themselves may be harbingers themselves.

Over Friday and Saturday, a total of 16 speakers and 2 interviewers took the stage, advancing frontier perspectives from academia and professional experience, from global and national companies. For a full list of speakers, see below. And please join us for next year’s conference, scheduled for May 11-12, 2018.

Friday, May 12th 

  • Gal Zauberman, Professor of Marketing at YALE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
  • Norman de Greve, Chief Marketing Officer at CVS HEALTH
  • Scott Harkins, SVP of Customer Channel Marketing at FEDEX
  • Stan Sthuanunathan, EVP of Consumer & Market Insights at UNILEVER
  • Beth Storz, President of IDEAS TO GO (interviewing Stan Sthanunathan)
  • Claire Burns, Chief Customer Officer at METLIFE
  • Ronalee Zarate-Bayani, Head of Global Integrated Marketing at THE HERSHEY COMPANY
  • Adam Grossman, Chief Marketing Officer of THE BOSTON RED SOX
  • Shane Frederick, Professor of Marketing at YALE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT (interviewing Adam Grossman)
  • Duncan Simester, Professor of Marketing at MIT-SLOAN SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT

Saturday, May 13th 

  • Randy Bucklin, Professor of Marketing at UCLA ANDERSON SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
  • Song Yao, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NORTHWESTERN’S KELLOGG SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
  • Michel Tuan Pham, Professor of Business at COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL
  • David Reibstein, Professor of Marketing at UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA’S WHARTON SCHOOL
  • Ryan Hamilton, Associate Professor of Marketing at EMORY’S GOIZUETA BUSINESS SCHOOL
  • Shelle Santana, Assistant Professor at HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
  • Xiao Liu, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU STERN SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
  • David Schweidel, Associate Professor of Marketing at EMORY’S GOIZUETA BUSINESS SCHOOL

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