Several years ago, one of my clients enlisted their private online consumer community to rank a roster of potential celebrity endorsers for the brand’s weight loss product. But the feedback from this group of approximately 300 loyal, engaged consumers was overwhelming and not at all what our client was seeking or expecting. “Don’t do it,” these men and women advised. “Don’t dilute what you stand for and turn your brand into another ‘me-too’ product!” They were passionate and clear in saying that any celebrity spokesperson ran counter to the essential positioning of the brand as one that didn’t promise miracles but instead empathized and aligned itself with the real struggles of real people.

Alas, their voices weren’t heeded. The brand management invested significant spending in a highly visible campaign that flopped badly. Sales plummeted and recovered only a couple of years later when the brand re-embraced its original identity and promise. 

Unfortunately, this experience isn’t unique. At some point in our careers (more likely at many points), we’ve all keenly felt the pain of having a great insight that we’ve been unable to propagate throughout our organization or that of our client. We’ve seen bad decisions made when we should have – and did – know better.

Some of the fault lies with traditional marketing research practices. We can be too slow in getting answers and too pedantic in presenting them. We issue reports rather than tell stories. We sample consumers as respondents rather than engage with them as partners. But there are broader cultural and organizational dynamics at work as well. All too often, research is internally perceived as a cost of doing business rather than an investment in it, as providing validation or justification for business decisions more than as a strategic driver to make those decisions. 

So how can we elevate the role of researchers? What specific tactics are visionary consumer insights specialists using to infuse their companies with the consumer voice? And how are they persuading their colleagues that doing so will ultimately drive business growth? 

Why Consumer Insights Are a Strategic Business Asset

At our organization, we have seen that powerful connections can develop when customers and companies collaborate. But we needed evidence that the strength and quality of the customer-company relationship drives business growth – evidence that would equip consumer insights professionals to make the case that companies that are truly customer-centric, that infuse the customer voice into all they do, realize superior marketplace performance.

Our premise was that customer-centric companies should feel different to customers than those that are not. Companies that have done a good job of designing the customer into the organization should have better customer “intuition” than their competitors. Customers should feel that customer-centric companies really “get” them, listen to them, respect them and provide them with intangible, emotional benefits that better meet their needs.

To that end, we developed a Customer Quotient (CQ) survey that takes into account familiar measures of loyalty and experience but reframes them through the customer’s lens. Most customer satisfaction and customer experience measures frame questions in terms of what consumers will do for the company – “Will you recommend me? Will you purchase from me again? How was your experience with me? Are you satisfied with me?” But we tried instead to capture what “corporate empathy” might feel like from a customer’s point of view – “Do you really ‘get’ me (more than other companies)? Do you speak my language? Do you share my values? Do I feel smart and proud to be your customer?”

The CQ survey was designed to solicit consumers’ largely unaided evaluations. Rather than ask people to rate a prescribed list of companies or brands (that they may not be very familiar with), we asked them to think of a company that “really got them,” choosing from drop-down lists or writing in their own company or brand name. They then rated that company and brand on about 20 attributes as well as three loyalty statements that serve as outcome measures. After rating the company they chose as having good “intuition,” we asked them to think of a company that had terrible customer intuition and then go through the same rating process. So, all in all, each study participant rated two companies – one that had good intuition and one that did not.

We fielded this survey to 15,155 U.S. consumers. As expected, we found company CQ, customer satisfaction and customer experience are all positively and significantly related. The more striking finding is that companies scoring high on CQ tend to have stronger marketplace performance. There are clear and consistent links between high CQ and the four business metrics we studied. Indeed, CQ was more consistently related to business performance than either customer satisfaction or customer experience.

Relationships between CQ, Customer Satisfaction, Customer Experience and Business Performance†


CQ Score

Customer Satisfaction

Customer Experience

Return on Assets

0.42** (n = 50)

0.22 (n = 46)

 0.35* (n = 41)

Return on Assets,
relative to industry

0.24* (n = 50)

0.08 (n = 46)

0.26* (n = 41)

3-year Average Revenue Growth

0.28* (n = 50)

0.13 (n = 46)

0.09 (n = 41)

3-year Average Revenue Growth, relative to industry

0.25* (n = 50)

0.10 (n = 46)

0.19 (n = 41)

*= p < .05
** = p < .01
† = for all companies with 100+ mentions

The consistent, favorable findings for CQ are encouraging. They offer some compelling evidence that delivering against customer-defined criteria – some quite “off the beaten track” for traditional outcome measures like the extent to which companies share their values or provide emotional benefits – can serve as a roadmap for companies striving to be more authentically customer-centric. By focusing on what matters to customers, as defined by customers, companies can create competitive advantage.

So You Have the Evidence. Now What?

A few years ago, BCG did a sobering study of the perceived effectiveness of insights professionals. The gray columns show how consumer insight professionals view their success with driving results; the red columns show how the lines of business perceive insight teams’ effectiveness. The results were sobering.

As you can see, the gaps are significant. As an industry, we have overestimated how we are doing in at least three areas: how well we understand the business issues, our ability to say “so what?” based on the data and our effectiveness at making clear recommendations to executives. Clearly, we need to identify the barriers to impact so that we can confront and conquer them.

To that end, over the past year, we conducted interviews with over 50 current and past clients, largely Directors, Vice Presidents, and Senior Vice Presidents drawn from the ranks of client companies that are outperforming their competitors. Eight clear themes emerged from these interviews, representing barriers to impact and strategies for overcoming them. 

Synthesize what you know. It used to be that data collection was time-consuming and costly. And the balance of our time and resources was spent on that. Now, data is plentiful…too plentiful. “If we only knew what we knew,” one client said. Another echoed that sentiment, noting that, “We are more likely to spend forty thousand dollars on research than we are to spend forty thousand dollars on a person to interpret the research.” 

We need to shift that balance to spend more time and resources synthesizing what we know. Our value lies in being able to interpret findings and motivate the business to act on insights. That suggests that we should be investing not just in accruing more data, but in the technology and people that will enable us to look across data sets and sources. More importantly, it requires us to re-allocate resources to spend equal amounts of time (or even more time) synthesizing, interpreting and marketing insights.

Collaborate. Actionable insights are co-created, not simply found. Sometime in your career (hopefully more than once), you’ve experienced the “aha” that comes from connecting the dots between findings. When this happens, you “own” the insight because it is something you created yourself. In our interviews, we found that clients used words like “fashion,” “harvest,” “craft” and “create” when talking about insight generation and actually engaged their business partners in creating insights with them, taking an inherently individual and internal event and making it social and interpersonal. By doing so, they instilled a sense of creation and ownership in the very people they needed to influence in order to achieve impact.

So involve your business partners in this way. Invite people with a diversity of perspectives, expertise and functional accountability to collaborate and co-discover insights. By doing so, you’ll ensure that the insights they fashion, themselves, will be relevant to their business.

Inspire through immersion. How can you help stakeholders generate and own insights? One way is to immerse your internal clients and their clients in rich consumer data that engages them and helps them make new connections. 

For example, one hospitality client of ours was looking to expand their business into mainland China. It was critical that the brand resonate with Chinese parents, but Western executives based in the U.S. did not really get the plight of Chinese parents whose children’s lives are scheduled and booked solid every hour of the day. Our client took advantage of quarterly Steering Committee meetings to immerse executive stakeholders using the insights from two online communities of mainland China consumers. Together, we hung “clotheslines” of images around the meeting room, showing member faces and a few stats about them. We passed out member “time capsule” letters they had written to their children 20 years in the future, and had select executives read them out loud. We posted members’ visual diaries of their children’s daily activities, which really emphasized how overscheduled children are and how little “free time” exists for play. Immersing executives by sharing consumers’ lives with them in a humanistic and holistic way helped them recognize their knowledge gap, and it led to more customer-centric decisions about the business in mainland China. 

Get closer to the business. Many of the clients we spoke with prefaced the interview by explaining that they weren’t “real” marketing researchers. Instead, they had been on the brand side, had come from an agency, and many had not been formally trained in research. But this meant that they were close to the business. That may sound obvious, but it’s telling that this theme came up over and over again. Impact is not possible without it.

That may require on-the-job training. Formal schooling in research focuses on methodology and statistics; it does not necessarily equip students to be amazing communicators and marketers of their findings. And deep knowledge of business comes from actually being in business and being accountable for business results. We have to provide this kind of experience on the job to develop this knowledge and skill set.

But we also have to be selective about what projects we take on. If the business need was not clear, our most successful clients saw it as their role as consultants to push back and get that clarity rather than invest in obtaining and reporting an answer with no actual implications. 

Evoke .... We often think of power in terms of data, of quantitative findings and statistics. But in many ways, qualitative information is far more powerful. When your goal is to create a reaction in another person – to get them to feel something, see a different point of view, take the consumer’s perspective – you need to make that other reality viscerally real and immediate. 

That requires us to evoke the insights that arouse both curiosity and empathy. For example, when a health and beauty client was working on a sub-line extension of one of their major brands, they wanted to focus on unique fragrance options. So we explored the evocative qualities of scent in a broad way through multiple methods in communities. We had people provide video and pictures, which they wrote stories about; we had them create mobile ethnography to capture intriguing or favorite scents in the moment; and we also had them free associate via mind-mapping. Bringing people’s experience of scents to life in this way enabled our client to think outside the category and ideate rapidly. 

… Then provoke through powerful storytelling. I know, the term “storytelling” is painfully overused these days. So let’s be specific and prescriptive. Every good insight story needs to have three components:

Data...but data shown in a way that is accessible to laypeople. Insights must be grounded in data and they must be clearly explained.

Emotional resonance. You have to make the data and insights human and real for the audience to actually move people to action. After all, it’s the human connection, not the numbers, that really inspires action and impact. And humanizing the data is especially crucial when you think people will question a finding, when your insight is bucking an established point of view or when you need to convey the severity of the issue or opportunity.

Business relevance. You have to relate findings to industry trends or company objectives throughout the story, using language that’s colloquial and meaningful to your business partners and offering recommendations that speak directly to pressing business challenges or opportunities.

Match your approach to your audience. “We think, well, we presented it, so we’re done,” observed one of the clients we interviewed. “We couldn’t be more wrong.” The PowerPoint presentation, whether delivered live or via email, is generally not sufficient to move people to action. 

Our most successful clients employ a number of strategies to more actively engage their internal stakeholders in interpreting and acting on insights. They workshop results in person and create immersive experiences. They employ a range of social and digital technologies, whether by using internal messaging systems to bring customer quotes front and center or using data visualization technologies to draw people in. Those that still live in PowerPoint cultures are disciplined about keeping their communication concise and targeted. And – because it’s worth being redundant on this point – they devote as much time and money to internally marketing them as to generating them.

Be less confident and move faster. “Insights are perishable,” one of our clients told us. By the time you net it out, the business has moved on to a new problem.” She was implicitly saying that timely insights are often more important today than statistical significance. Indeed, another client flat-out told us, “We need to move decisively with ‘good enough’ information.” The language of uncertainty and probability is actually more accurate than “yes/no” insights. We shouldn’t act rashly, of course, but we do need to feel comfortable with a more agile approach, moving quickly, incrementally, and with a willingness to “fail faster.” 

Moving from insight to impact requires marketing researchers to revisit some sacrosanct beliefs in the face of a much faster-paced and more dynamic environment. It demands that we think about not just the facts. but also the narrative that will help our stakeholders internalize them. It calls for a range of skillsets and a willingness to experiment. But as our CQ data shows, strong relationships fuel customer-inspired growth. As marketing researchers, if we relentlessly infuse their organizations with the customers’ perspective and voice, our impact will be enormous.