News & Articles


Who Is at the Center of the Universe?

by Ernan Roman
As seen in Point, a DMA Publication, May 2010

To answer the question “Is it still think global/act local?” we must first acknowledge that, thanks to advances in technology, global is now often essentially identical with local. The connections we can now make in the virtual world create new kinds of communities – communities that transcend geography.

In today’s astonishingly connected environment, the center of our world as marketers is now, inescapably, the individual customer. And thanks to the customer’s access to cell phones, the Internet, and social media, expectations for an empowered, engaged relationship with the marketer are getting stronger by the day.

Four hundred years ago this year, there unfolded an event of profound importance to marketers who must make this transition.

In 1610, the astronomer Galileo shocked the authorities with carefully documented findings that proved it was not the earth that was at the center of the universe, as the most knowledgeable experts of the time supposed, but in fact, the sun. It took many years for this finding to become accepted as fact.

Marketers have been in a similar state of denial regarding who is at the center of their own universe. They have long insisted that they are at the center. Marketers have not been particularly quick to realize that over the past 50 years a revolution has occurred, one that has forever changed the balance of power between seller and buyer.

This revolution has its roots in 1960s “power to the people” social activism, and has manifested itself in the largest demonstration of grass roots empowerment in American history – the National Do Not Call Registry. Over 76 percent of Americans have expressed their control over the marketing process by listing over 191 million numbers on the Do Not Call Registry. That’s pretty remarkable, considering that only about 50 percent of eligible voters normally cast a ballot for president of the United States!

The Internet and social media are only the latest tools of the now-unstoppable revolution, by which consumers claim their rightful place as masters of the universe, and the sun around which marketers must revolve.

Yet, for most marketers, the recognition of the shift in power is still taking place. One need only view recent ads from the Super Bowl, or the majority of websites, to see how “me, the marketer”- focused, as opposed to “you, the customer”- focused the messages remain.

Universal Expectations

Our consultancy has conducted over 95 Voice of Customer Relationship research efforts to help clients such as Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NBC, and a variety of younger high-growth companies, gain a better understanding of the expectations of customers and prospects for higher quality relationships.

Many of these Voice of Customer research efforts involve interviews with decision-makers around the world. Based on these findings, it has become clear to us that, regardless of geography, today’s decision-makers have very consistent expectations of marketers.

Consumers worldwide have four emerging expectations of marketers:

  1. Insatiable Hunger for Information – This represents an opportunity both terrifying and appealing for marketers. Consumers who used to get into information overload because most of it was being “pushed” by marketers, and was therefore of limited relevance, are now inclined to keep searching for additional information they consider interesting and useful. This curiosity, unsettling though it may be at first, is actually a wonderful development. It enables us to engage in ongoing conversations with customers and prospects in ways that will educate them as to what they want or demand – in the real-time world of social media.
  2. Voice of Customer Driven Relationships – where the will and wisdom of customers drives the communications, offers, and customer experience across all points of customer contact.
  3. Reciprocity of Value – Recognition on the part of customers that in order to receive or access increasingly relevant information, they must share increasing amounts of information regarding their preferences.

    Assuming that they trust the marketer and see a useful value proposition, decision-makers (in both the business-to-business and business-to-consumer worlds) are increasingly willing to opt-in, self-profile, and share significant amounts of personal and business information.

    This is a wonderful example of the growing Reciprocity of Value: marketers offer to provide value based on increasingly relevant information and offers. If consumers trust and value that marketer, they will share detailed preference information. This is a true win/win. However, woe to the marketer who creates this expectation and then fails to deliver!
  4. Three-Dimensional Website Experiences – Websites must now provide a three-dimensional experience that engages the customer, and abandon the current one-dimensional corporate “me”-oriented Web experience pushed by marketers. The three dimensions of experience which have been articulated in our Voice of Customer research efforts include, in order of importance:
    • Provide access to peers, for the most trusted information
    • Provide access to relevant industry and consumer experts
    • Provide easier and faster access to the corporation

New Global Perspectives

Let’s look at some points of view from experts in different companies and countries.

Professor Barrett Hazeltine, the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Brown University, shares this view of the global market place:
I was in Kisumu, a medium-sized city in western Kenya, and my hostess needed some groceries, so she took me to a local supermarket. It was huge, with a soaring glass dome, and chrome and neon trim – certainly twice the size of my local Whole Foods – and glitzier.

I did not get a chance to check out all the shelves, but am fairly confident what I would have found: corn meal flour to make the ugali, the staple dish in East Africa – also burritos, lasagna, egg rolls, vegetarian samosas, breakfast sausages, bananas, and so on.

Two things seem to be happening; supermarkets across the world are homogenizing and the products diversifying. The buying experience, at least for middle-class people, is becoming more and more the same everywhere, but the range of food available is becoming wider.

What to make of all this? My take is that customers everywhere want the same basics: convenience, cleanliness, a cheerful venue. Just as important is that customers are willing to experiment with unfamiliar goods.

Information technology – cell phones in the third world – have greatly reduced the sense of being constrained by place or heritage. Marketing people are known for their imagination. Such will be needed in recognizing what customers everywhere feel is basic, and what, out of a very diverse set of offerings, is desirable.

Ole Stangerup, Relationship Marketing Officer with Express A/S in Denmark, shares these thoughts:
In my daily interactions with companies who want to enhance their marketing, communications, and relevance to consumers, I often hear the following: “We want to manage communication and dialogue centrally but let each country or regional office choose activities and then execute them within the agreed framework.”

That’s easy to understand, but it contains a built-in dilemma. It΄s not a problem technologically to set up automated workflows throughout the customer life cycle, which takes account of an event-based dialogue. The challenge is that consumers now choose how, how much, when, and through what channels the interaction with the business will take place.

It is therefore important to start with customer-focused points of contact and capture of data, rather than simply focusing on execution. You must address these three questions:

  1. How do I collect information locally and globally about my prospects and customers?
  2. How do I ensure appropriate communication based on this customer knowledge?
  3. How do I execute the dialogue in real time?

Garry Dawson, Advertising and Direct Marketing Manager at Hewlett-Packard, Americas, offers this view:
Global brands struggle each day to be relevant to customers and profitable. The Marketing Team faces mounting pressure to deliver more results at a far lower cost structure than before. What are the best campaign strategies to be relevant and stay within our cost models?

At a macro level, communication fundamentals (the who, what, where, why, how) are consistent across geographies. However, at a customer level in a specific geography, they are different. Where buyers go for information, who they trust, how they buy, and other aspects of the buying process are different.

How does a marketer navigate through all the variations, be effective, and also manage costs? Global companies understand they are not able to be profitable in local markets if the marketing cost structure is too high or local teams can’t market what is needed. Here are a few strategies for delivering value locally while maintaining or growing a profitable business.

First, use the voice of your customer and sales teams to drive your campaigns. What offers, value proposition, and messages work best in your local markets for those local customers?

Second, provide your local markets with an efficient and flexible demand generation engine to drive their business. Creating campaigns from scratch at a country level is not cost-effective. Sure, it may be effective, but the cost structure is too high. Global brands can’t afford it. Instead, create a model where you can develop your campaigns once and deploy many times. Caution… do this based on voice-of-customer guidance from local customers and your local sales teams. Otherwise, your campaigns won’t be relevant.

Wisdom of the Customer Has No Geographic Boundaries

In the end, technology is only a threat to marketers who are reluctant to change. To the rest, technology is an enabler of engagement with an informed consumer who is both the best teacher and best customer. The focus on the wisdom of the customer has no geographic boundaries. To the contrary, it is the sun around which the successful enterprises of the twenty-first century will all revolve.

New Book Release: Voice Of The Customer Marketing
"This is the definitive playbook for this new customer-driven era."
—Frank Eliason
Senior Director, National Customer Operations, Comcast
"Thank you, Ernan, for tuning us in to the inner voice of our customers! A deep understanding of our customers' needs and preferences is essential for our future growth."
—Karen Galley
President, Patient News Publishing