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How Smart Marketers Gauge the Future to Shift Ahead of Consumer Needs

December 18, 2017

Shift ahead

Day after day, the headlines in the business news provide ample evidence that shifting markets, customers, competitors, and technology are leaving companies struggling to stay relevant. In business and branding, being relevant is absolutely essential to sustainable growth. It means that what you offer to your customers—and Wall Street—matters. That it’s useful or valuable, and will continue to be useful and valuable.

This said, the ability to know—before it’s too late—what will matter to your customers in the future is, perhaps, the most significant challenge facing marketers today. Seeing what’s in the road ahead enables an organization to make decisions that will allow it to shift strategies. Successfully shifting requires two skills: the ability to understand what’s happening right in front of you and the ability to translate it into effective decisions.

3 Lessons to guide you in shifting ahead

While there is no crystal ball, there are lessons that smart companies follow to align themselves with the drivers shaping the world to benefit them the most, while cushioning the worst. The first lesson, often overlooked, is about as obvious as can be.

Lesson 1: Get out of the bubble. Go to where the customer is—not in focus groups, but in a farther-reaching, real-world context. When we asked Mark Addicks, former CMO of General Mills, how a company as large and complex as General Mills keeps an eye on the rapidly changing road, he explained that the company actively leverages its very scale to take the pulse of customers.

“You will never get lost if you start with the customer first,” Addicks said. “We see our brand teams not as number crunchers looking at sales, which are lagging indicators, but as journalists and anthropologists. You get people on your team who are used to observing, looking at the culture outside, not as means to optimize performance, but to look for opportunities. It’s critical to see how people are actually engaging with your product, and with each other.”

A global perspective is the lifeline to the future. You must look at different cultures through different lenses to determine if you are relevant or cool on a broad scale. Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, made an observation that is a common barrier to companies being able to get a broad perspective on the future: “Find the desk farthest from the customer and, chances are, that’s where the person in charge sits.”

It is hard to see how the world is changing from sitting behind a desk.

Lesson 2: Look for the pain points. To stay relevant, companies must search for the pain points or gaps in the user experience. As Faith Popcorn, CEO of Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, a firm founded to determine which trends will become sustainable advantages for companies, told us, “You can’t directly ask a consumer what they want. If you asked someone back before it was invented if they wanted a smartphone, how would they possibly be able to answer that question? What I try to get at is ‘Where is the discontent?’ If you ask about discontent, then you can ask them how they’d fix it. When you do that you can visualize a concept, a company, a new product, a new medium, a new system.”

Lesson 3: Find the fringe. Gearing up for the future isn’t a matter of facilitating a brainstorming group with the “usual suspects,” the data and spreadsheet folks. Determining how to act on signals picked up from the road ahead requires putting together a team comprised of both creative types and number crunchers.

Said another way, you need to hear from people on the “fringe.” Amy Webb, author, futurist, and founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading forecasting and strategy firm, told us, “One of the things that impresses me about IBM is that it often partners with a variety of thinkers, from cartoonists to research scientists, journalists, doctors, and diplomats. That diverse group of thinkers helps the company overcome the paradox of the present and to develop much richer visions of the future. They’re not trying to find the answer, they are seeking the path to an answer, collaborating and sharing information along the way to the development of products and services. It’s a matter of ‘these are the places we should be paying attention to over the next year.’”

Seeing what’s in the road ahead and determining that it’s time to shift strategies is easier said than done. But companies can work to stay relevant and competitive by adhering to these three lessons and assessing not “what is,” but rather what very well “might be.”

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About The Author

Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel are co-authors of Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World (AMACOM, 2017). Allen Adamson is a branding expert, a Forbes.com columnist, and the author of three books including BrandSimple and BrandDigital. Joel Steckel is professor of marketing and vice dean of doctoral education at NYU Stern School of Business.

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