Understanding consumer behavior is important. Whether you’re launching a new brand or reframing an existing one, knowing what drives your customers helps you keep your brand fans and gain news ones. Where do they get those important consumer insights? Data.
How can that little word can make a big impact on your business? Today, Ed sits down (virtually) with Dr. Denise Cumberland, an insight-driven marketer who focuses on gathering insights about consumers and using those insights to make informed decisions about products, services, and marketing strategies.
Let’s talk about consumer behavior and data. Ready to get started? Great! Join us!
ED: Understanding consumer behavior, your customers behavior, is a crucial part of launching a new brand, and it’s even important when you’re reframing part of your existing brand. Today, we’re going to learn how you take data and make it actionable, and how you take data and you apply it to how to improve your product, your brand, your customer experience. I’m so glad to be back with Dr. Denise Cumberland. We’re gonna talk about consumer insights and innovation and how you take data and make it work for your business. Denise is a former executive at KFC, she served as the Director of Pipeline Innovation. There she helped craft new product concepts that delivered brand strategy, resonated with consumers, and drove store sales growth. She has developed methodology as well as consumer testing platforms to gain insights on product, pricing, packaging, and brand positioning efforts. We’re going to discuss what she and I learned from working with large companies and apply it to how companies can take research insights and figure out not only what customers are saying, but what are they are not telling you.
DENISE: I teach at the University of Louisville, but I also try to help organizations understand the consumers and their employees better. I do a little consulting here and there mostly to help ensure organizations are meeting the needs of both those groups. I’m a big believer in giving back at this stage in my life. That’s kind of my role. Basically, I’m having some fun and trying to deal with the pandemic, and in a way that is smart. I think we’re all just trying to make smart decisions.
ED: Smarter decisions seemed a lot easier five months ago than they do today. The times are changing.
DENISE: Totally in terms of risk, and you have to weigh the pros and cons of everything you’re doing and bottom line, you just try to make the educated decisions based on what you know at the time. It’s going to change and every day you listen to the news, there’s something new. You just have to be adaptable. And I think that’s the word that all of us need not just entrepreneurs, but all of us as consumers, as employees, is we have to adapt. Situations are going to change and effective leaders are very strong at being adaptable to the external and internal environment.
ED: I would assume you’d agree with this, but I’ve seen that the size of an organization does not determine its ability or inability to adapt. It really is the leadership and the culture. Would you agree with that?
DENISE: 100%. And organizations are led by other folks who I think either have the skillset to be leaders or they’re led by people who are just at the helm, but maybe not leading.
ED: Right. You know, we have had many opportunities to talk about, participate, and collaborate on market research, consumer insights, etc. One of my takeaways from our years of knowing each other is the notion that everyone’s opinion is important, but not everyone’s opinion is relevant.
DENISE: Absolutely. I’m passionate about people listening to inside organizations. Listening to what’s going on. Whether it’s the top floor or the CEO and senior leadership team, really understanding what it’s like to be out in the field or on the ground floor. I do believe that we only base our knowledge on the view we have. So, we frame the world based on what we do. As marketers, we frame the entire world based on marketing. And guess what? Operators do that. Operators frame their world based on operations, efficiency, simplicity, and how to get things done. Finance people base their world based on the numbers and books and what’s going to create a profit. So, leaders have to look across the spectrum and understand that each person’s value is important. But again, it’s based on the way they view the world.
ED: And that applies to consumers as well. Consumers may actually be your least discriminating. Meaning that they may be comfortable with you. They want it just like it is. They may not be at the epicenter of innovation you need. Maybe that customer that just brought back your product because they didn’t like it, could give you more insight than $20,000 worth of research.
DENISE: Absolutely. And it depends too on who you’re trying to reach. Are you trying to broaden your audience and or are you really trying to stay with your heavy users and really make sure that you’re listening to those folks who you rely on? The one of the biggest issues I saw though, and I’ll share this with you is we sometimes get tired of the customers we have. I jokingly say we forget to appreciate the people who are walking in daily or weekly, who are heavy users. And we—and many times brands and companies—run to audiences they think are more attractive and they want that group, and I’m like, but your brand doesn’t fit that audience. I get frustrated with brands who don’t realize who their core customer is. I’m not saying don’t innovate, and I’m not saying don’t try to reach out and expand, but sometimes they just forget about their core customer. That person who made them wealthy or made them who they are. That’s frustrating, because I do think that brands can evolve and broaden, but I really feel like they don’t want to lose sight of their core audience.
ED: Well, you know, and we have worked on some projects directly and indirectly, that really speak to that. I remember some coffee and frozen projects we worked on, where there was a lot of beverage exploration. And all of a sudden, these large international brands are having 30 beverage items on their menu. How do you figure out how to operationalize 30 beverage menu items through a drive thru in less than 60 seconds?
DENISE: Exactly. So you clog up the system and operators begin to load the product developers and, and the marketers are caught in between trying to push products that frankly, the operators would rather not have in the restaurants. I call it “chasing whatever is the on the horizon.” Whoever had a win, everybody runs to mimic that person, instead of actually having the confidence to innovate elsewhere or to find their own space. Instead, it’s kind of a herd mentality. They chase whatever’s hot. Let’s talk about salads. There were people chasing the healthy market when their brand does not even stand for health. Be true to your brand. At some point because people will always tell you they’re going to eat healthy, we all believe and in our hearts we’re going to do better. I believe I’m not going to eat those Cheetos that I love so much at lunch with my sandwich, but they’re sitting in my closet. So, what am I going to do? I don’t want it to get waste. So of course, I’m going to eat them with my sandwich.
ED: Exactly. Well, we’re still gonna write that book one day, Everything we learned, we learned from chickens. We have a common poultry background, two different brands. But I remember back in my days at Chick-Fil-A. It was late 80s–early 90s that Chick-Fil-A rolled out Chicken Lights or Chicken Delights or something like that. But it was basically grilled chicken on a skewer. Makes total sense, right? I mean, this was while Chick-Fil-A was not known for the healthiest food. Now it is known as a healthier fast food. Customers said the Grilled Chicken Sandwich was working well. They wanted something without bread. I think it was early 90s. The problem is the product dried out in four minutes and had no flavor. And I remember walking Expo West, the all-natural foods expo and thinking, all this healthy stuff is great, logically, but it all tastes like crap. And the reality is I come back to the belief that no matter what the intention of the product is, if it doesn’t taste good, people are not going to buy it.
DENISE: Absolutely, and when you walk into a restaurant, even if in the parking lot, your intent was there, right? You’re still going to walk in with the smells and the sound, if you’re still going to restaurants which I know right now it’s a little different. You’re thinking, “hmm, I only have so much money, don’t I want to get something I already love than risk it on something else.” I know that you and I are big believers in execution being so important. Companies can execute on what they do well. When they branch out, my confidence level as a consumer decreases. If they’re not a salad place, why would I think they’re going to make a fantastic salad? It’s going to be some greens and a couple of tomatoes. I’m going to be a little risk averse because that’s not their core strength. Now, I’m not saying you don’t order a salad from fast food restaurant, of course people do. But the reality is, I think that the health craze got ahead of itself because people started believing everything consumers said. And what we say and what we intend, may be what we thought at the moment. Our actions are going to be based on that intent, and my actual behavior is going to change based on the circumstances. I had a tough day, Ed, I deserve that extra crispy or whatever it is, right?
ED: I’m gonna eat my feelings.
DENISE: Exactly. So I do believe that we have to remember consumers will always tell us what they think they’re going to do. But then what they do, might be something different.
ED: No doubt. So, we both have this big company experience. What I’d like to do is take a couple minutes and share two or three things that kind of have been your takeaways from that, that you’ve been able to share, inspire, apply with your clients, your students, big company, small. I’m gonna go first based on our just our last conversation. One of my takeaways is that if you’re your product, whether it’s new or existing, is that it needs to be sellable and it has to be craveable. Meaning you have to have the ability—no matter what your enterprise is—to get it to market the way you intended. So, if we go back to food, if it’s a caramel mocha latte frozen drink, but it doesn’t taste like caramel, it doesn’t matter how many customers want it, it’s not executing on it. If you can’t create it in 300 locations or three locations, or if you’ve got a team of 1500 employees and they can’t learn how to assemble your product in the warehouse. It doesn’t matter. So it has to be sellable. But then from the consumer standpoint, it has to be craveable. It is amazing how risk averse someone can be with $6 or $7. No matter what their spending capabilities. Would you agree with that?
DENISE: I agree.
ED: Knowing the risk averse, that if the first time they taste the product, it doesn’t cause them to crave it again, why roll it out because you’re having to get a new customer every single time. So one of my takeaways from the big world of poultry was for a product or brand to be successful, you have to be sellable and craveable. What’s one or two of the learnings that you’ve had from your big world?
DENISE: Sure. I think craveable is critical because within a restaurant category, people come in to be satiated, satisfied.
ED: But, wouldn’t you say that most brands, even beyond restaurant, the customers want to be satiated. Maybe not their taste buds, but you want to have that fulfillment. Like when the Amazon box comes, and you open it. It’s like the same feeling of digging into ice cream sundae. It’s like, “yes, I’m glad I bought that.”
DENISE: Yeah, you want the experience whether it’s a service you’re getting—like a facial or a massage—that the service was so great that your face feels wonderful. You want it to feel like, “yeah, that’s worth it.” So there’s aworth factor, right? I think value is very important to people. When they are satisfied, they feel they got their money’s worth. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is people have to feel they got a good value for whatever it was. And then I will say, differentiation is important for brands, but you said it earlier and maybe sellable is the word, but I’m gonna go with executable. Because if you can’t execute it correctly, if you don’t have enough space for all those SKU’s, or your you can’t train your team members to deliver on it, then it’s gonna flop. I’ve seen so many products that were great in test market, are great when they were in their their infancy. But once they were rolled out, they bombed because they couldn’t be executed to the degree that customers would find it a craveable value experience. Something they would come back and do again. That’s very frustrating for brands, but that’s part of the issue, it’s holistic.
ED: Well, with fast food, one of the reasons why fast food brands historically have had to spend so much money on paid advertising is they have to re-crave their brand, because it doesn’t do it by itself. So that limited time only, that LTO, is the enticement not necessarily the previous experience, would you agree with that?
DENISE: Yes. And the competition is so healthy in that category. It’s just so overrun, that there’s also that inability to stand out. Advertising becomes a way to remind people. Then we constantly have to have new and different, new and different. Obviously, times have changed. I think organizations are realizing that their footprints are limited, the bandwidth of their employees is limited. Sometimes you need to be great at what you do, and keep it within a spectrum rather than trying to be all things to all people. If you’re a great product and you have own this category, or you have a real good share of it, can you really expand without lots of money, resources, those types of things.
ED: No doubt. So, as we wrap up this conversation, we’re in the midst of significant shifts in our entire world. Aare any like hints you’re seeing in consumer behavior, right now, that could be super relevant to our audience?
DENISE: Sure. I think people are more judicious. Obviously making more decisions based on their confidence level. I think confidence is always key, we know consumer confidence is a driver of spending, right? So when people are spending, they are probably going with places they know. To get them to try new things is going to be harder. I think service is critical. I recently found where I ordered something online and the way they made, when you went to pick it up, the experience was so seamless that it brought extra value to the party, right? So, I felt confident in the way they were doing it. I think organizations have to figure out how to provide that extra service. Now I’m not telling them anything they don’t know, but organizations have figured that they know consumers are worried. They know they’re being tighter with their wallets and purses, so they have to make sure the value is there. And part of that is the service experience, not just in the old days of value, but now it’s almost a value, not just of money, but that I’m going to be safe, right? That whatever product I’m buying isn’t going to cause me a problem. You’re hearing it in the advertising. Hands-free or however they’re marketing it. They’re trying to convince you and making you feel safe. And that’s a value to people these days.
ED: It is a value. One of the things that I worry about is that I sure hope each business owner has taken a long-term look at all these safety protocols that they have instituted out of necessity, out of fear, out of vision, out of the right thing, whatever because, I don’t think any brands can be a roll back in three or six months and say, “hey, we’re gonna stop sanitizing this X now.” These protocols are now a cost, right? Whereas it was a little more of a variable cost in the past.
DENISE: Absolutely. Even the things we’ve seen with the plexiglass going up and the different things you feel, you’re more confident even just during cold seasons. We forget that some of these things probably should have already been out there. But they’ve been accelerated now because of COVID. So, I do think that there’s going to be, like you said, “a long-range impact on consumer behavior.”
ED: But I think also, it’s going to be an opportunity for brands to truly prove their authenticity. It was either response, or it was a decision. And customers are going to know.
DENISE: Yeah, that’s correct. I think organizations—back to the word we said at the beginning—being adaptable. You’re gonna have to keep adapting. Because the environment is going to keep shifting dramatically, not just a little bit, but a lot. That’s gonna keep happening probably because until we know what’s going on, we have to just keep adapting.
ED: Adapting. And the other thing is that, it’s so funny, you are one of the most innovative people and brains I know, but you have such a healthy regard for risk. And I know in several situations you have effectively balanced “let’s be innovative, but we better measure the risk before we get too far down the road.”
DENISE: Absolutely. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, you just kind of have to figure out your pain tolerance. How can you do it in a smart way, back to that other word? So even when I teach, I always tell my students,”we’re going to pilot this because I’m going to try something different.” I do this every time I teach, otherwise, I get bored. I try to pace myself. I understand if it flops, I can fix it, or I can eliminate it. So it’s kind of calculated risk.
ED: Adaptable, calculated risk. Love it. Thanks for the visit Denise.
DENISE: Absolutely, Ed. Take care.