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FlexMR Chief Marketing Officer, Host of MRX Lab Podcast and Insights Empowerment Advocate
Throughout the late 20th century, a quiet business revolution took place. As the cost of production systems declined and consumers became accustomed to greater choice, conventional marketing wisdom was slowly replaced by something new and something better. The sales and product orientations of old gave way to modern market orientation. This radical new approach espoused the virtues of quickly generating, disseminating and acting on market intelligence.
No longer was it enough to create a product and dictate demand. Now the markets themselves had power. The companies that would win this silent uprising were those that could best meet the needs of their customers, respond to demand and act decisively. The importance of the market orientation was cemented by a landmark research paper in 1993 by Bernard Jaworski and Ajay Kohli. Among a variety of findings, one, in particular, stood out: The degree to which a company embraced a market orientation was a key factor that determined its success. And thus, a new marketing principle was born.
But how can you become more market-oriented? Over time, its original definition has been distilled into simple — yet not particularly useful — mantras. The customer is king. Those who get closer to customers win. The customer’s perception is your reality.
While well-intentioned, these statements often lead managers astray. After all, choosing a business orientation is only the first step along a lengthy marketing process. To jump straight from management philosophy into tactical implementation is a disservice to the role of segmentation, targeting, positioning and strategy.
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With that in mind, here are three creative ways your company can become more market-oriented without falling into the trap of generic mediocrity:
1. Create a customer insight engine.
It’s important to note that the definition of a market orientation involves both responsive generation and the dissemination of data. That’s a tricky thing to achieve. Brands, business units and departments often work in silos, detached from an integrated picture of the company. In each of those silos sit small troves of data. In isolation, these pockets of data skew internal perceptions of customer needs. But together, they have the power to form a valuable strategic asset.
The real challenge is bringing all that data together. One firm that has successfully done so is Unilever, embarking in 2016 on the journey to build a complete insights engine. Any employee can both contribute to and access the 70,000+ documents stored within the central repository, providing a major competitive advantage. But if you want to create a similar system for your business, remember that technology alone is not enough. While knowledge management software can bring data together, breaking down departmental silos requires human behaviors to change also.
2. Cultivate informal lines of communication.
While an insight engine might provide the central structure for sharing data across departments, the inherent weakness it struggles to address is that it requires active engagement. It is, in essence, an example of lateral and vertical formal communication. But to become truly market-oriented, an accurate view of the market should also penetrate informal lines of communication.
It’s important not to underestimate just how much innovation, idea sharing and inspiration comes from these “water cooler” chats among colleagues. However, since the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of hybrid-working models, many of these informal lines of communication have been lost. It’s therefore important to consider how such communication can be encouraged and facilitated.
In this article, coauthors Dr. Weintraub and Steven Lewis suggest that leaders model expected communication, create virtual catch-up calls and set clear expectations around what informal communication looks like in a hybrid working culture.
3. Build a customer advisory board.
This final example is borne out of personal experience. Whilst investigating how to make FlexMR more market-oriented, our leadership team identified the need to bring customer voices directly to the board level. Seeing data through a knowledge management system or filtered upstream through departments simply isn’t that compelling. There’s no substitute for the simple act of talking to those in your market.
So, we built a Customer Advisory Board who meet on a quarterly basis to discuss, well, pretty much everything — from us as a supplier to the competitors that offer a similar product and even just what’s important in their world at the moment. Our relationship with them isn’t the sole focus, nor should it be. Because to be market-oriented, it’s important to understand the market in its totality, and from an objective standpoint.
Sometimes the conversations are challenging, bringing to light new needs to be addressed or a macro-environment that’s changing rapidly. But if there’s one action I would encourage you to take, it’s this. Regularly pairing customers and senior leaders build empathy, galvanizes action and acts as a catalyst for change.
The Future of Customer Closeness
Only now, nearly three decades after its inception, are many firms starting to grapple with what it means to be market-oriented. But there’s still a long distance to go.
In the coming years, we can expect firms to become more comfortable listening to — and taking action based on — a complete picture of markets and customers. So the early adopters among us need to be looking one step ahead and seeking to reach that purest form of market orientation. Not just gathering intelligence but disseminating it. Turning data into action and following the path that has been there all along.
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Author: Chris Martin, Forbes Councils Member