Innovative Insights:Taking an Expanded View of Customers' Needs

Social value-focused interviews can uncover customers’ real desires for new products and help yield critical insights for innovations.
The following article was written in conjunction with Maria F. Flores Letelier and Bobby J. Calder

Marketing practitioners and theorists have recognized the limited ability of marketing research to generate innovative product concepts. A common complaint of managers is that marketing research does not allow them to decide whether a radical innovation will succeed in the marketplace or not. Consumers can discuss potential innovations in focus groups and respond to surveys, and the results will be repeatable. But managers still feel as though the results are insufficient to understand what consumers will do. In many cases, a product has failed even though extensive research showed customers had the need and favorable quantitative concept tests showed the product met the need. Other times, competitors have been able to innovate in socalled saturated markets where management believed that no need existed for a new product. Therefore, most managers end up believing that managerial intuition is better than customer research for the case of innovative concepts.

Most market researchers and strategic theorists would allow that the limit has to do with the capability of consumers to say what they really want or to predict how they will really behave. According to Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, “Market research carried out around a new product or service concept is notoriously inaccurate … and is of little use in helping a company better target its development efforts around emerging markets.”

With new ideas, technologies, and innovations of any kind—with anything unfamiliar to a particular market—research cannot determine how people will act. Leonard, Wyner, and others have led innovative thinking around research for unknown customer categories. They have shown us the importance of understanding customers’ “unarticulated needs” through customer observation and by using more than one conventional technique to investigate issues that customers will have a difficult time expressing.

Observing market research

In observing market research directed toward new-product generation in more than 100 high-performance companies over the past five years, we have learned that most companies receive weak results because they attempt to listen for one, single consistent voice from customers, one that clearly expresses a need for a particular product. The problem with this approach is that it completely misses a key resource that qualitative customer interviews can provide. Namely, research can identify those areas in customers’ lives related to a product category where customers express conflict or ambivalence. Such ambivalence covers not only what they need from the product category, but also their goals and the meaning they receive from the category in the context of the rest of their lives. These ignored expressions present opportunities for producing market-creating innovations that most companies today overlook.

In this article, we first present an expanded view of customers’ needs that will allow researchers to explore the conflicts among certain kinds of values since these conflicts lie behind the ambivalences and inconsistent expressions. We then present techniques, which we call “Articulative Interviewing Techniques,” that can be used along with customer observation and other market research techniques to uncover value conflicts. Finally, we show how findings from articulative interviews can be used to design innovative product concepts. Managers do not need to rely on intuition alone; customers can in fact reveal quite a bit about the directions in which they are changing and, consequently, about new products they will bring into their lives.

Socially Driven Orienting Values and Conflicts Among Orienting Values
A different approach to primary customer research, particularly interviews with customers, can help managers design strategic, market-creating innovations with which customers have no experience. This approach enables researchers to gain insights about the conflict among what we call “orienting values” that emerge through social change.

Orienting values, a term based on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, are a class of values that people hold. We draw the term “orientating value” from his term “strong evaluation.” The term value here is not being used in an economic sense, but rather in the philosophical sense. An orienting value is one that orients our general sense of a worthwhile life, one that is socially estimable or not estimable. A person might value the pleasure of owning and wearing a certain skirt, but is unlikely to orient a life around that. Being a serious professional, however, might be one value that orients a person’s life. Other values such as the pleasure of a hot red, satin skirt would be evaluated and acted on in relation to the orienting value. Unlike other values, orienting values are bipolar. The opposite of an orienting value is inestimable or unworthy and experienced as contemptible or disgusting. A professional person is disgusted by her lapses into unprofessional behavior. A person who seeks to be cutting edge rejects all that is not cutting edge. We will not discuss these philosophical views here in detail; our point is that market researchers can learn a lot from exploring orienting values and how they change for understanding consumer behavior.
The orienting values that customers hold change with history.

Let us look at the changes in orienting values that affected how people esteemed cars in the last two decades. Few would doubt that the BMW was the upper-middleclass car of the 1980s, meaning not that BMWs brought in the most revenue but rather that BMWs represented the standard against which other cars were judged. The BMW was the high-performance, optimizing car. Desiring a BMW was worthwhile because it showed that a person cared about the orienting value of high performance. In the 1990s, however, sport-utility vehicles such as the Range Rover and Jeep Cherokee became the ideal cars. These cars bring out the orienting evaluation of flexible optimization.

They are still high-performance cars, as high performance still matters in many domains of our lives (such as work). But these cars also reflect today’s more flexible lifestyles; they reveal multiple personal roles such as relaxed family member, adventurous hiker, and high-performance career person.Customers will often hold conflicting orienting values. Such conflicts reveal how customers are changing and hence offer insights into innovative offer concepts. We can easily see how being responsible can come into conflict with being free. Desiring a Honda Accord is good because it allows a person to feel responsible, but a Ferrari is good because it lets the driver feel free. The Mazda Miata was one response to this conflict. It was responsible enough in price, quality, and gas consumption and yet allowed the freedom of taking off in a roadster. Successful breakthrough products resolve these conflicts.

Articulative Interviewing
The best method market researchers can employ to listen for and to identify key conflicts in orienting values is a practice of qualitative group interviewing called articulative interviewing. We call this interviewing articulative because it draws interviewees to articulate orienting values and their inherent conflicts, which might otherwise seem inexpressible.

Articulative interviewing, unlike standard consumer research, is structured so as to elicit narratives as opposed to the factual truth. Standard focus-group interviewers attempt to design interviews to generate “objective” results, which, for investigating consumers’ relationship to products with which they have experience, are crucial. However, in articulative interviewing the point is to uncover what consumers find worthy and unworthy in their lives, and the best source of this material is the narrative matter that participants provide about how they live in particular roles and in certain domains of activity. Whether these narratives are accurate or populated with small infelicities, narratives reveal the values that participants esteem or dislike. As interviewees tell their narratives, they also get themselves and others in touch with the important roles that they play. So their conversations become increasingly molded by the values relevant to the product category.

Narratives enable articulative interviewers to raise questions about the parts of the story that were left out and tend to bring out expressions of conflict. The pastpresent- future structure of a narrative allows the researcher to identify which values are changing. By asking the participants about the context of a story, the interviewer brings the participants to describe how the different roles they hold are in conflict and produce seemingly insoluble dilemmas.Most conflicts among orienting values can be identified by exercising four basic listening and analytical techniques for identifying orienting values and four other techniques for articulating conflicts among orienting values. As a practical matter, identification of orienting values takes place best in one-to-one interviews. In practice, it is best to begin such interviewing by finding an informant like the kind anthropologists use.
An informant knows the product category well, has a wide range of friends in the segment to whom he or she gives advice, likes talking frankly about the product category, and is sensitive to the differences in understanding between him or herself and the researcher. Once one-to-one interviews have uncovered orienting values, group interviewing is best for getting at shared social conflicts in orienting values. Groups assembled by the informant work best. The informant serves as the investigator’s connection to the group of customers being interviewed and draws together acquaintances who already share similar orienting values. With such a group, trust is quickly built, and, consequently, authentic life narratives are revealed.

Ideally, the group should be small (three-five people); the interview should last one and a half to two hours; and the researcher should take steps to ensure that [the] group shares a trust-building level of similarity.

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