I recently went to Shanghai to do some work for Mars and met a truly inspirational guy called Carlos Peon, who runs the dog care business for China. He is the best example I have seen of BEING the consumer. Not just understanding the consumer. Being one yourself. The only company I have seen come close to what Carlos is doing in China is Nike, who I posted about here.
Beyond consumer understanding to consumer empathy
Carlos has a simple but very powerful belief: if you are going to work on Pedigree, you should be a dog owner. The brand's manifesto says "We're for dogs" and that the team seek to "make a strong connection with dog lovers". In his view, you can't do this properly if you aren't a dog lover yourself.
Sounds common sense? Well, look at the people in your company you work in, or the clients you help. I've seen beer brand mangers who only drink wine, car marketers who dislike driving and cooking sauce teams who never cook. They leave the real "them" behind when they come to work.
"But wait!" you may protest. "We have research to help us understand our consumers!" But to get an emotional, visceral, intuitive connection with the consumer you need more. You ideally need to be a consumer yourself, or at the least get a lot closer to being one. Its what we call "consumer empathy".
Who let the dogs in?
People working on Pedigree in China are now encouraged to bring their dogs to work. There are play pens where they can go, but Carlos also lets his dog Apolo comes to meetings if he wants to! When they realized a carpeted floor was a pain to clean, after the inevitable doggy-do-do accidents happened, they changed the floor. And there are now a series of benefits and incentives for employees who own dogs. Carlos even held out on recruiting for a key post until he found a person who was a dog owner.
And check out Carlos' business card. Isn't that cool? He doesn't need to talk about being a dog lover. He IS a dog lover.
Bottom line benefits
One benefit of consumer empathy is of course better marketing, and ideas that truly connect. But another big benefit is internal engagement. The dog owners approach is a key factor in a big rise in internal engagement with the team in China, which is now one of the best in the Mars world. And we know that higher engagement and pride in what you do means a more effective and productive team.
So, what if you work on a category you don't use, and maybe even don't like, as I was asked recently when doing a conference. Tough question, eh?! You can have 3 choices:
1. Easy way out: carry on being an analytical marketer who relies on research. Lots of people do this
2. Get into the category more. You may actually find out you like it! People joining the Pampers team all have to change nappies on real babies in their first couple of weeks on the job. Not as good as being a parent, but its a start
3. Change job. Hard in the short term, but much more fulfilling longer term