Our Thoughts

What Part Should Customers Play in Strategy?

31st July 2020

I recently came across an article on the problems that some brands face when they make a decision that proves to be unpopular with customers, entitled "Don't let your strategy be hijacked".

It's an interesting read, and proposes four guidelines to help prevent companies from getting into this kind of fix:

  • Predict and preempt. Anticipate resistance, and take steps to offset it (for instance by offering choices).
  • React and revert. Be open to making a U-turn on strategy if need be.
  • Monitor and mobilise. Track customer feelings, and mobilise customer support for the strategy you want to pursue.
  • Divide and diversify. Unbundle the overall strategy into separate projects, so the whole thing is less likely to be hijacked.

All very sensible, but something about the idea of customers "hijacking" strategy made me uncomfortable. It's true that it's easier than ever for customers to make noise when they disagree with something an organisation has done, and to recruit others to their cause (although the New Coke debacle shows that it's not a new phenomenon!). And it's true that customers care deeply about particular brands and products, and will naturally object if they feel that a business is taking those brands or products in the wrong direction. But is that hijacking strategy?

I don't think so.

Let's look at some of the examples in the article. Sonos planned to drop support for some of its older speakers. Mondelez changed the shape of Toblerone by removing every other peak to reduce weight. Lego came under pressure from Greenpeace for its contract with the oil company Shell. Carlsberg changed the shape of its bottles. In each case customers are reacting to a mismatch between their expectations of a brand and its behaviour.

Organisations often think about their brand and customer experience as separate parts of their overall strategy, but the truth is they can't be separated - your brand creates a promise for your customer experience to live up to. It seems to me that the "hijacking" in these examples is simply a case of customers saying that there's a mismatch between what they perceived the brand promise to be and the reality.

What's the answer? The four guidelines proposed by the article are good, but I think we can make more explicit the need to base your strategy on a really good understanding of customers. What matters to them? What do they understand your brand to be? How are they likely to respond if you make a change? Good customer insight will put you in a position to make strategic choices that work for customers (or, worst case, anticipate a negative reaction and mitigate it).

If your customer insight is good enough, customers won't need to "hijack" your strategy because it will be aligned with their needs.

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