FEATURE15 October 2013

Consumers on board?


As an IBM study of C-suite executives demonstrates the growing importance of involving consumers in strategic decision-making, Kristof De Wulf of InSites Consulting shares his thoughts on how to ride the wave of consumer empowerment.


“The marketing power of consumers is growing exponentially,” says Kristof De Wulf, CEO of research agency InSites Consulting and co-author (with colleague Tom De Ruyck) of new book,The Consumer Consulting Board: Consumers Shaping Your Business.

“We’re all digitally connected as consumers, and we’re embracing new social media at an accelerating pace,” De Wulf says. “This means that through our day-to-day conversations we can have a huge influence on the success of brands – in both a positive or negative way. That’s a huge tsunami coming at brands, and they have to decide whether to surf that wave, or risk being flooded by it.”

De Wulf is not the only CEO to recognise the growing importance of consumer empowerment. According to the results of a report released last week by IBM – which interviewed over 4,000 CEOs, CMOs, CFOs and other ‘C-suite executives’ – senior leaders see customers as coming second only to their C-suite colleagues with regard to the amount of strategic influence they wield.

Not only that, but the areas in which customers hold sway is moving beyond merely developing new products and services: 60% of the CEOs surveyed by IBM expect to see customer influence grow most in ‘business strategy development’ over the next three to five years.

Kristof De Wulf

Kristof De Wulf

In an attempt to harness the power of this wave of consumer empowerment, De Wulf and De Ruyck have championed the use of consumer consulting boards: panels of roughly 150 consumers, or ‘board members’, all bound by some degree of social glue – such as common interests, age or socio-demographic status – to encourage engagement.

These boards are consulted on an on-going basis using techniques ranging from ethnography to online surveys – flexibility is key – having first been given a strong briefing on the background of, and future plans for, the brand in question. This, according to the Belgian duo, ensures an “environment of trust”, meaning consumers feel that they are being consulted as human beings as opposed to merely faceless respondents.

Strategic fit

So how can this collaboration fit into strategic planning? De Wulf and De Ruyck believe that there are three key ways of driving impact from collaboration with consumers: knowledge leverage, internal leverage, and external leverage.

Knowledge leverage represents the traditional role of market research: driving deeper knowledge and insights through collaboration with consumers. Internal leverage refers to the idea that organisations should adapt their culture to make everyone working within it more consumer-centric. Or as De Wulf puts it, ensuring that they “carry the consumer in their hearts, minds and actions”.

“Consumers can have a huge impact on strategic decisions if we use them in the right way. But to ask them to directly formulate one is a step too far”

External leverage is relatively new, and most closely tied to the digital revolution that De Wulf and De Ruyck see as one of the main factors of consumers’ new-found power status. It describes the situation in which the act of collaborating closely with consumers can actually cross the boundary from market research into marketing.

“They [consumers] have a unique opportunity to really get close to the brand’s owners – to get to talk directly with them in a dialogue, not a monologue. This drives a lot of enthusiasm for the brand owner; a kind of ambassadorship that naturally evolves over time,” De Wulf explains.

“What we are doing for a few clients is that we allow board members to share the content that they have co-created with their peers. This equates to a ripple effect in terms of brand enthusiasm.”

Though this could well represent a win-win situation for brands: gaining insight as well as exposure – De Wulf is quick to point out the limitations of consumers with regard to providing strategic guidance. There is a key difference, he explains, between involving consumers as a basis for strategy development and asking them to directly formulate a strategy.

“Consumers can have a huge impact on strategic decisions if we use them in the right way,” he explains. “Creative techniques, projective techniques, assignments: all of these can be used to craft a strategy. To ask them to directly formulate one is a step too far.”

The other thing to bear in mind is one that is touched on in the concept of internal leverage, as described above. In order for an organisation to best incorporate the views of consumers, the way that the insights are gathered should, according to De Wulf, reflect the company structure.

“The process of consumer consultation needs to blend naturally with the workings of the organisation,” says De Wulf. “There’s no technology that you can just drop into an organisation and then magic starts to happen. You need to take into consideration how a company has evolved over time in order to find the right rhythm, the right pace, the right format.

“The consumer can then become a natural collaborator within the organisation, as they are connected to normal systems and tools of the organisation. It should become habitual to bring the consumer along on your journey.”