Two Days, Many Insights

“May you live in interesting times.” Some attribute the proverb to Ancient China, others to the furled paper inside a fortune cookie.

May 20, 2014

Regardless of origin, this is how Ravi Dhar opened the ninth annual Yale Customer Insights Conference, convened May ninth and tenth at the Yale School of Management. He found his audience in strong agreement.

“I would say we live in the most interesting times,” said Carolyn Everson, VP of Global Marketing Solutions at Facebook, as she launched the first day with her keynote address. Today, there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes in the world, with one billion smartphones sold in the last year alone. Personalization is entering a new era. “Marketers can actually have a meaningful exchange with people,” she said. “If we as an industry aren’t thinking fundamentally differently because of this, then we’re doing something wrong.”

So what does it mean to think differently?

“We’re playing Moneyball now in marketing.”

These are the words of Pam Forbus, VP of Strategic Insights at PepsiCo-Frito-Lay. While analysts once toiled anonymously in back rooms, consensus at this year’s conference described analysts as rock stars of the marketing world. We live in a world of “Mathmen meets Madmen,” said Forbus.

Driving this transformation is the nearly effortless collection of vast amounts of personalized consumer data. “Data is becoming the world’s new natural resource,” according to IBM’s Director of Business Analytics & Decision Management Strategy, Erick Brethenoux. (Click here for an interview with Brethenoux on using data to be smart, not creepy.) Consumers have been inundated for too long with irrelevant marketing material; companies need to start listening closely and responding personally, given the tools at their disposal—social media in particular. The ultimate sign of putting data to good use will be anticipating needs and understanding what a customer is looking for even before he or she knows it.

But the steady collection of information is not by itself enough. As Dimitri Maex, President of OgilvyOne New York, put it: “For all of the data you have, it’s still what you do with the data.” So, what to do?

Use data to tell stories

“Much of this is about using data to uncover the emotions that make people act,” said Maex. Information about how consumers behave and what they want—collected with exceptionally fine granularity—must be connected to emotionally resonant stories. This is an area where marketing has tremendous room to grow. “Most of the time we think of data as for targeting,” said Ben Jones, a Creative Director at Google. “We haven’t made the imaginative leap to tell stories through this data.” (Click here for an interview with Jones in which he discusses the benefits of almost drowning.)

And, as is always the case, a good story is inherently about people. For marketers, this means refocusing energies from the creation of a brand to the connection with consumers who use the brand.

Put the consumer at the center

Companies need to recognize the shifting landscape of consumer decision-making—a process today that is less about loyalty and brand identification than it is about the influence of social networks and personal research. “We need to acknowledge the fact, embrace the fact that the power has shifted from brands to the people,” said Alex Craddock, Head of North American Marketing for Visa, Inc. In this new world, engagement results from storytelling that connects with the consumer. (Click here for an interview with Craddock about his vision of Omni-commerce.)

Stanford’s Itamar Simonson pushed this idea a bit further, questioning outright the role that marketers now fill given the universal accessibility of information. Reexamine the old mantras, he insisted: does branding possess the power it once did? Is loyalty as important as it was decades ago? What about notions of targeting and persuasion? How do marketers know if they’re having an effect in a noisy and information rich world? One suggestion came from Absolut’s VP Global Marketing, Jonas Tåhlin.

“Experiment, and experiment endlessly.”

Tåhlin hammered this point home in a mildly cautionary tale about Absolut Vodka—a brand that, for a time, failed to experiment endlessly. As a result, the company eventually wrung dry its iconic advertising campaign, which became “a bit like wallpaper,” as Tåhlin put it—unnoticed, in the background. Though Absolut dominated the U.S. market for decades, a failure to acknowledge changing trends spurred a decline. “You’re either embracing change, or you’re letting change happen to you,” said Tåhlin. “Every one of us should be in the iteration business.”

The marketing academics at the conference were particularly keen on the use of experimentation to understand causal effects of different ideas: what are the social effects of a purchase on people who are near you? Can online advertising boost the sales of your competition in any meaningful way? What is the actual value of a tweet? What about a retweet? All of these questions, and more, were raised and answered through presentation by researchers representing a broad range of institutions.

Move quickly

The marketing process is now an industrial process. That’s how Babson Professor Tom Davenport described it—something that must be done repeatedly at a rapid rate for millions of consumers at once. Digital ads, Davenport has noted, need to be placed on a publisher within about 15 milliseconds. IBM’s Brethenoux told the audience that five minutes is how long an average person expects to wait for a response once he or she has contacted a company through social media. Attention spans are decreasing as expectations are rising. Given this, the procurement and application of information must be as robust and timely as possible. The bottom line: companies today need to move at the speed of the Internet.


Finally, it is absolutely essential that companies integrate the customer experience across digital, social, and mobile platforms. People use all of these tools seamlessly, moving from tablets to laptops to phones—this last technology which they check upwards of one hundred times per day. With the world moving mobile, marketers must do the same; they must design experiences across the consumer journey, as a number of presenters put it. Most basically, if you aren’t with the consumer at the moment of truth—the moment when he or she is looking for you—then you’re losing to competition.

Georgetown’s Marlene Towns entered this conversation with the critical insight that not all social media are created equal: consumers use Twitter more than Facebook when venting about a bad experience, a division amplified among particular demographics. This in mind, marketers should be careful when using social media.

Over Friday and Saturday, a total of 22 speakers took the stage, advancing frontier perspectives from academia and professional experience, from global and national companies, from the joined but distinct realms of analysis and marketing. For a full list of speakers, see below. And please join us for next year’s conference, scheduled to take place in the spring of 2015.

Friday, 9 May 2014 - Photo Gallery

  1. Carolyn Everson, Vice President, Global Marketing Solutions, Facebook
  2. Alex Craddock, Head of North American Marketing, Visa, Inc
  3. Marlene Towns, Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business
  4. Juanjuan Zhang, Associate Professor of Marketing, MIT Sloan School of Management
  5. Ben Jones, Creative Director, Google
  6. Itamar Simonson, Professor of Marketing, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  7. Pam Forbus, Vice President, Strategic Insights, PepsiCo-Frito-Lay
  8. Dimitri Maex, President, OgilvyOne New York
  9. Tom Davenport, Professor of Information Technology & Management, Babson
  10. Erick Brethenoux, IBM, Director, Business Analytics & Decision Management Strategy
  11. Nicholas Horbaczewski, Chief Revenue Officer, Tough Mudder
  12. Kat Holmes, Principal Designer, Microsoft
  13. Mark Weinstein, VP, Hilton Worldwide Commercial Services Strategy, Loyalty Programs and Strategic Partnerships
  14. Jonas Tåhlin, VP Global Marketing, Absolut
  15. Shane Frederick, Professor of Marketing, Yale SOM

Saturday, 10 May 2014 - Photo Gallery

  1. Mitchell Lovett, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Simon Business School, University of Rochester
  2. Navdeep Sahni, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  3. Maria Ana Vitorino, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
  4. Pedro Gardete, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  5. Rebecca Hamilton, Associate Professor of Marketing, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
  6. Anastasiya Pocheptsova, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
  7. Scott Rick, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan