I was an Assistant Brand Manager at P&G, fresh out of Anderson School, and looking to impress the leaders on the Sunny Delight business. My very first project was to lead a team in launching a new SKU for the club channel, where we were at risk of losing distribution.
There were a lot of wins on that first assignment — great cross-functional cooperation, record time-to-market, increased points of distribution at launch, and an appealing package that pioneered new capabilities.
There was just one problem. It didn’t sell. Turns out that most households don’t need two gallons of fake orange juice. Who knew?
I didn’t know, but I should have. I came away from that project with new insight on the role I played as a marketing leader on the business. It was my job to find out what the consumers of my brand needed and advocate for changes that met those needs. I let them down. I allowed myself to get focused on a deadline and a deliverable rather than on meeting the needs of my consumers.
I led a team to deliver great execution in service of a non-existent problem.
Yes, I was accountable to my general manager — and ultimately the shareholders — to profitably grow the business. But I learned that the foundation of sustainable growth had to be built upon a strong understanding of the needs of my brand’s consumers.
A.G. Lafley, P&G’s then-CEO (and now again-CEO!) expressed this simple truth when he met with brand leaders to review their annual marketing plans. While we were eager to share our shiny new 30-second TV spots, his first priority was making sure we had a solid understanding of our consumers. His message was simple and direct: “We are not going to have any conversations about the ‘HOW’ until we are clear on the ‘WHO.'” Once we had gotten specific about the consumer segments we were serving — and the needs we were meeting — we could continue with conversations about product improvements, distribution channels, promotional plans, and pricing strategies. But not before.
Years later in my career, I witnessed Scott Cook, Intuit’s founder, remind the business’s leaders of this same truth. Microsoft was launching a new offering to directly compete with QuickBooks in the small business finance category. As leaders gathered to discuss plans for addressing this significant competitive threat, Scott clarified how we were going to compete against our much larger, better resourced rival. Paraphrasing to the best of my recollection, “We are going to win because we will do a better job of understanding and meeting the needs of our small business consumers.”
It was no surprise to Intuit veterans that Scott — himself a former P&G brand manager — would identify this consumer-centric approach as the linchpin of the QuickBooks strategy; it was the same way he had built Intuit.
It’s easy to pay lip service to the importance of understanding consumer needs. It’s much more difficult to make consumer understanding a priority. With the pressures of day-to-day deliverables, I feel the pressure to skip the things that are important and spend all my time addressing things that are urgent.
Do your consumers — and ultimately your shareholders — a favor. Spend time with your consumers on their turf. Ask about their needs. Do market research to understand their motivations. Get data on their behavior. Make yourself the go-to expert on your business for understanding the needs of your consumers.