The intermingling of B2B and B2C business models that has resulted in the growing emergence of B2B2C models also is having a profound impact on the market research and consumer insights space. As specialists in both B2B and B2C research, Martec has seen this trend for some time.  However, over the past few years we’ve seen a significant increase in our core B2B clients seeking to better understand their end-consumers and to engage more directly either with direct-to-consumer products or more typically with targeted communication to help pull demand through the channel. 

Historically, traditional B2B companies have relied on their value chains – distributors, dealers, installers, franchisees – for feedback and knowledge about their customers. This indirect approach often was the only choice for manufacturers and OEMs across a wide array of verticals.  Today, the game has changed, and insights teams can and should get closer to their ultimate end-users to stay competitive.  Let’s start by exploring why B2B companies need to gather insights regarding end consumers and then we’ll turn our attention to a few examples of how this benefits suppliers.

One of the most prominent examples can be seen on your TV screen quite frequently these days.  In the past, big pharma companies exclusively pushed their new drugs through reps that spent a great deal of time knocking on physicians’ doors and “pushing” their solutions (OK – not a great word choice for this market).  Today, you don’t have to watch for very long to see an ad touting the latest and greatest medicines.  The pharmaceutical suppliers have done a wonderful job of not only developing these new medicines, but for our purposes today, developing the appropriate messaging, claims and branding to motivate end consumers to “ask your doctor for more information”.   You still need the “value chain” (doctors) to execute the prescription, but now you as a consumer are actively pulling that demand through the channel.

Understanding end consumers’ needs and pain points is essential for myriad business initiatives.  Two of the most common projects Martec executes these days are to help our B2B and B2B2C clients in educating customers about important industry-wide issues and to utilize direct end-consumer input in product and or ingredient development.

With the abundance of information at our fingertips these days it can be hard to believe that there can be a lack of awareness or education regarding important issues facing an industry.  But as consumers are bombarded with often times conflicting opinions and facts it becomes the responsibility of manufacturers and suppliers to take ownership of shaping consumer sentiment toward their products and creating tailored solutions for today’s well-informed consumers

For example, the food and beverage industry is in the midst of perhaps its most revolutionary changes ever. Consumer education has increased dramatically, resulting in the need for greater transparency, fresher products and cleaner labels from food and beverage manufacturers as well as their ingredient suppliers. Among the more controversial issues within the industry is the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) in the production of consumer food products.

According to a recent survey from GMO Answers, nearly 70% of US adults don’t understand what GMOs are and only one-third are comfortable having GMOs in their food. This despite the fact that the majority (60-70%) of processed grocery store products contain some GM ingredients.

Adequate consumer education appears to be the missing puzzle piece. The same survey found that a majority of consumers want to know more about the impact of GMOs on health and food safety. But what is the food industry – growers, suppliers, processors and retailers – to do about this? Consumer education comes at a high cost, and not all supply chain members in the food industry have the resources to fund a wide-spread educational campaign. At first glance, it appears the use of product labeling specifically for GMOs is the answer. However, many consumers already are confused by the variety of labels currently on the food they purchase, making it difficult for families to make decisions at the grocery store.

When it comes to GMOs, the genie is out of the bottle…GMOs are mentioned in nearly all of the food-related projects Martec conducts today, whether the context is positive or negative depends on the audience. GMO products are not going away any time soon, nor is the issue becoming any simpler. Until consumers have a full understanding of the long-term impact of GMOs, they will continue to question these products. It is the responsibility of food growers, manufacturers, processors and retailers to provide the information required so consumers can make the best possible food choices for themselves and their families.  Consumer research is essential to understanding how consumers “feel” about such topics and to develop the appropriate messaging, education campaigns and coordinated marketing with other elements of the value chain.

The other primary initiative we see quite often with our B2B and B2B2C clients is obtaining direct consumer feedback when developing next-generation solutions.  In the healthcare space, patients are increasingly taking control of their care wherever possible. This can be extremely positive for the patient but complicates the job for medical product and device marketers and communicators. The latter now have to consider direct-to-consumer channels as they consider product launch, positioning, and communications.

For example, Martec has completed numerous studies over the past several years within the market for ostomy products, peritoneal dialysis products and other medical devices that are increasingly being used at home by patients.  While technology has made it more and more simple for patients to use these devices at home, they are still purchased at a hospital or healthcare provider where consumers must be given proper education and training so they can use the devices safely and effectively.  As such, device manufacturers need to speak with their end consumers (as well as the providers) in order to understand the features, benefits and communications that will differentiate their solutions from competitors.  Voice of customer, ethnographic and usability studies are essential to achieving this goal.

In terms of how B2B companies can gather these “closer to the consumer” insights, the good news is that there are multiple tailwinds making it easier than ever for B2B and B2B2C clients to engage directly with customers. Here are a few of the ways you can get closer to your end consumer:

  • Leverage your value chain partners.  In particular, channel partners that deal with consumers directly such as franchisees, e-commerce sites, retailers, dealers and even some distributors (omnichannel) are already gathering vast quantities of consumer insights on their own. There is always an opportunity to coordinate efforts and/or conduct joint exercises around understanding your collective customer base.  We frequently coordinate local-market analyses for B2B clients to include their channel partners as either co-sponsors/designers of the research or at minimum observers.  This results in stronger collaborative outcomes from the research, alignment of the value chain’s collective efforts as well as the added benefit of demonstrating your investment in the value chain.
  • Utilize available sources such as e-commerce data, IoT data, social media, customer service records, warranty records, etc.  There is abundant information that holds valuable customer data and very frequently “voice of customer” data.  Today’s NLP (natural language processing) and QDA (qualitative data analytics) tools make it easier and faster than ever to mine insights from these data streams.  Anywhere that you can find people talking (text) is a fertile field for using AI-driven tools to extract meaning and context for your teams.
  • Engage with, and in, your value chain.  Beyond just attending events, plan ways of capturing feedback from end consumers.  One of the largest shows we attend each year is the annual SEMA/AAPEX conference held by the automotive industry.  This event is a great opportunity for our B2B and B2B2C clients to network, meet with channel partners, showcase their newest innovations.  It is also a target-rich environment for research.  There are 10s of thousands of end consumers also walking those conference centers and capturing their opinions can be done affordably and quickly.  Likewise, suppliers need to engage with related higher education channels, such as vocational/technical education schools.  They need to publish thought leadership.  Engage with and support industry consultants.  All of these are productive bidirectional information channels that will help you stay abreast of your end consumers attitudes, beliefs and needs.

These are just a few examples of why and how B2B and B2B2C companies need to get closer to their end consumers. It’s never been easier to do so, and the need has never been greater. To learn more about these trends please join Martec at the upcoming CRC event as we host a panel of B2B clients to discuss these issues and to share some of their real-world examples.

Par for the course … Tips, Tricks, Tools, & Challenges for B2B Researchers

Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 4:00 - 4:25 p.m. EDT