Being consumer fluent is crucial in today’s evolving marketplace. As previously mentioned on our blog, today’s environment is one where brands can’t push their talk track and rest on the perceived power of their message. In fact, today’s consumers really own the brand story. Their experiences with, and perceptions of, brands are shared with ease, and as such, they are now the brand storytellers and messengers. What marketers can do is understand the story being told, participate in a thoughtful way, and prioritize marketing strategies to create the most positive and relevant experiences. That takes knowing audiences inside and out, and engaging them when appropriate.
Chances are when you hear the word fluent, you think about it in the context of language. Being fluent in a foreign language goes beyond simply knowing or being proficient. With that level of understanding you can probably ask for directions, order dinner, and maybe even hold a conversation. However, when you’re fluent, you can interact using that language with ease; you don’t need to think about it, it comes naturally; it flows (the Latin root of the word fluent). You not only understand words, sentences, and paragraphs, but also idioms, figures of speech, metaphors, and so on. To become fluent in a foreign language takes time, work and most of all, lots of interaction with native speakers.
If we take this definition of fluency as we commonly think about it with regards to language, then what does it mean to become fluent with your customers? It is not just simply having a snapshot of demographic characteristics – no matter how specific these might get. It is not just knowing their purchase patterns/habits, or what they thought of that one ad or product. If we keep the example of language going, then knowing these attributes are kind of like knowing how to ask directions and order food on your vacation – perhaps it’s enough to get by, but you’re never really in lockstep.
Ultimately, consumer fluency equates to truly knowing your customers and being able to engage them and deliver on their wants and needs with relative ease. It’s the ability to take a walk in their shoes, see the world through their eyes, speak their language, and build connections.
The companies that commit to understanding their audiences at this deep level reap the rewards. Take Origins, the skincare company that spent two years engaging hundreds of millennials in order to see things from their point of view. The endeavor unearthed a problem – that millennials felt their skin was losing its radiance – and led to innovation, a new serum called Original Skin. Moreover, Origins learned to speak the language, and was able to develop successful messaging and campaigns around the idea of #QuarterLifeCrisis.
Unfortunately, many organizations still try to get by with research and engagements that occur once every so often with niche objectives in mind. Fluency is not a static phenomenon. It takes a long-term commitment to both learning and unlearning. That’s why we implore clients to keep the conversation going, and take a more longitudinal look at their consumers.
Here are three ways organizations will benefit from an investment in an ongoing, fluid research approach in order to achieve fluency:
- A deeper investment means better consumer connections and better results. On a basic level you can’t become fluent (in whatever fashion) quickly. As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows, it is hard work. Cultural anthropologists spend years immersed with a group in order to learn their culture. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to gaining that true depth of understanding that you need to attain fluency. However, the rewards of committing the time and energy are worth it in the long run because you will gain the empathy and understanding to truly connect with consumers.
- You’ll find what you weren’t looking for. Because the first step to developing fluency is to drop any pre-conceived biases and assumptions about a group or what you know about a group, the research should start in an exploratory and emergent way. Your first step is to embrace your role as a naïve outsider. This will allow you to see the big picture and watch for what is important to your audience as it bubbles up to the surface. Some of the most impactful innovations and branding strategies of all time have come from these types of unexpected customer insights. You don’t know exactly what you are going to learn, or what fascinating aspects will emerge, what new doors will open, and what new, exciting pathways will be illuminated.
- Your brand will be able to keep up – and get ahead. Even after you have become fluent, the world isn’t frozen in place at that exact moment. This is why you need to continue your engagement after you feel you are fluent. A lot can happen that changes the entire playing field in the matter of days or weeks. Who knows what new social media platform Millennials or Generation Z will flock to? Or how changing economic conditions affect people’s purchasing behaviors or attitudes? It is a must to continue to stay connected and keep your finger on the pulse. This will allow you to anticipate rather than react to new and, many-times, unexpected game changers.
If you want to become fluent, you will need to invest in long-term and longitudinal engagements. The key word here is investment. This takes resources – time, budget, and energy – but it will pay for itself and then some. You will build closer connections and be in communication with your target audiences in deeper and more meaningful ways than ever before.