By Kantar Vermeer, Unilever
Operational skill once conferred competitive advantage; now it’s table stakes. The new source of advantage is customer centricity: deeply understanding your customers’ needs and fulfilling them better than anyone else.
A study involving more than 10,000 practitioners examined the strategies, structures, and capabilities that distinguish high- performing, customer-centric companies. Having an independent insights and analytics function that participates fully in business planning and strategy is key.
Unilever’s CMI group embodies the so-called insights engine through its expertise in synthesizing data, close collaboration with other functions, innovative use of new technologies and programs, and whole-brain mindset that balances creative and analytical thinking.
In today’s highly dynamic business landscape, customer centricity has become the key competitive advantage. In this case, customer centricity refers to the deep understanding of your customers’ needs and being able to fulfill them better than anyone else. In order to achieve a high level of customer centricity, firms like Unilever have realized that they must turn their customer data into insights. In this article, the ability to turn data into insights, and insights into a strategy, is referred to as the “insights engine”. The findings from Kantar Vermeer’s Insights2020 study, have highlighted the factors that were found to drive customer centric growth; none mattered more than a firm’s insights engine. The article describes 10 characteristics of a successful insights engine, driving examples from Unilever’s own path to customer centricity and highlights of the I2020 study. The 10 characteristics are divided into two groups: operational characteristics and people characteristics.
10 Characteristics of Superior Insights Engine
– Data synthesis refers to a firm’s ability to not only collect large amounts of data, but being able to connect the dots between each data set and creating a “full picture”.
Unilever has taken this on by implementing a global marketing-information system that is accessible to any employee. This system is integrates all of Unilever’s customer data and presents it in consistent formats.
Over-performers = 67%
Underperformers = 34%
– There needs to be a direct relationship between the team and the C-suite. At Unilever, Stan reports to a member of the executive board, co-author Keith, who leads who leads marketing, communications, and sustainable business functions. This reporting structure makes CMI a fully independent function with direct lines to the CEO allowing CMI to be objective, collaborate on an equal footing, and set the direction of functional and organizational projects and strategy.
Over-performers = 29%
Underperformers = 12%
– In order for a firm’s insights engine to prosper, they must be included in every aspect of the business and brand planning cycle, ensuring that resources are properly allocated from the beginning. Activities must be aligned during the planning cycle with those of strategic planning, marketing, finance, sales, and other functions. At Unilever, CMI uses a software tool called Growth Scout, which mines millions of data points on consumer demand across demographics, regions, and countries to quantify the potential value of deeper category or brand penetration.
Over-performers = 61%
Underperformers = 46%
– Unilever’s CMI team recently collaborated with IT to create “smart” information sharing platforms, like PeopleWorld, that anyone at Unilever can use. Similarly, CMI’s organizational structure includes teams that focus on personal care, home care, foods, and refreshments, and the team leaders are collocated with the presidents of the same product categories in the broader organization.
Over-performers = 69%
Underperformers = 52%
– Unilever has formalized experimentation in a variety of ways, most visibly in its 2014 launch of the Foundry. Originally a marketing-technology start-up incubator, the Foundry has since expanded to include hackathons, a collaboration platform for addressing sustainability issues, another platform that sources and gives prizes for creative marketing concepts, and a mentoring program that connects start-ups with Unilever experts who advise on product and brand development and marketing strategy.
Over-performers = 40%
Underperformers = 13%
– Though over- performers currently aren’t far ahead of underperformers, the I2020 research suggests that the gap is widening, and we expect the trend to continue. At Unilever, CMI has used a custom tool to analyze hair-related Google searches; the program identifies styling trends and rapidly creates how-to videos featuring Unilever products on a YouTube channel called All Things Hair. There visitors can browse by hair type and buy relevant Unilever products.
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Over-performers = 32%
Underperformers = 28%
– The most influential insights functions focus as much on strategy as on data. At Unilever, CMI pointed out the large “size of the prize” that Unilever stood to gain by expanding the markets it operated in. Company leaders acknowledged this as the firm’s biggest growth opportunity. CMI helped break the challenge into three parts— generating more product users, more usage, and more benefits for users—and then helped identify ways to attack those challenges.
Over-performers = 79%
Underperformers = 47%
Whole-brain mindset – High-performing organizations are particularly adept at integrating the two types of approaches of right and left brain. At Unilever, CMI runs “Upping Your Elvis” workshops. The energetic and interactive training pushes people out of their default thinking styles and gets them to engage in creative problem solving with colleagues they might not normally connect with.
Over-performers = 71%
Underperformers = 42%
– Unilever uses energetic and interactive training to push people out of their default thinking styles and get them to engage in creative problem solving with colleagues they might not normally connect with. To reinforce the connection between insights and growth, staff bonuses are linked to the wider business unit performance. This creates shared accountability with other functions, encourages CMI teams to take responsibility for growth, and motivates them to go the extra mile.
Over-performers = 75%
Underperformers = 50%
– The I2020 research imparts a final lesson about what makes for a strong insights engine: good storytelling through engaging narratives. At Unilever, CMI has embraced storytelling. Although data has its place, CMI has moved away from charts and tables and toward provocative storytelling, embracing an ethos of “Show, don’t tell.” Increasingly, CMI is making its points with memorable TED-style talks and other experiential approaches.
Over-performers = 61%
Underperformers = 37%
Frank van den Driest (Chief Customer Officer, Kantar Vermeer)
Stan Sthanunathan (EVP – Consumer & Marketing Insights, Unilever)
Keith Weed (Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Unilever)
This article was first published in Harvard Business Review, online (9th August 2016) and in print (August 16th 2016, September issue, pages 64-74)