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Want a tight innovation brief? Focus on your customer

By Jeff Tan | Innovation solutions officer

December 11, 2020 | 7 min read

To drive effective marketing innovation, you first need the right objective. Dentsu innovation solutions officer Jeff Tan shares how talking to real customers, understanding constraints and reframing your innovation challenge can help create a watertight brief.

It’s time to get away from your desk and go talk to customers: you heard me. In today’s world, many of us are afraid to talk to our customers. As a result, we struggle to empathize with them.


Interviewing customers used to be standard practice. Recall the first scene in Mad Men when Don Draper is in a restaurant working on ad copy. The Don strikes up a conversation with the waiter and says, “Old Gold man huh? May I ask you a question, why do you smoke Old Gold?”

Why did we as an industry start shying away from talking with real human-customers? In a word: data. Along with a multitude of new options, the digital age brought with it a multitude of consumer data. But we started hiding behind it, using quantitative data as a proxy for true customer understanding.

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Instead, park yourself outside your store, dealership, or go into a bar, shopping mall… wherever you can find your customer. Strike up a (socially distant) conversation. Or run a good ole’ fashioned online focus group. Ask why they do certain things, what motivates them, makes them tick.

Move past canned, prompted responses – what they think you want to hear. In the essence of any journalist or massage therapist: go deeper.

Get a feel for ‘empathy mapping’

One framework to use is ‘Empathy Mapping‘ to understand rational and emotional needs, stated and unstated. Ask questions about her objectives, what she sees, hears, says, her pain points and her motivations.

At the beginning of an ideation sprint, I always run an empathy mapping exercise to get the group into the head of the customer. This could be as simple as a quick group discussion, or as in-depth as a focus group.

When developing a strategy to launch a new migraine medication product, I’ll admit I’d no idea what a migraine physically felt like. After running a focus group, an insight that emerged was that migraine sufferers are isolated:

  • Physically: since often being alone in dark room with a cold compress is the only relief.

  • Socially: respondents spoke about missed social events as a result of migraines.

  • Emotionally: even my own wife feels I don’t understand her when she has a migraine.

If I hadn’t spoken to actual migraine sufferers, I’d have made assumptions that could have been wrong, leading to ineffective solution building later on.

Identify constraints. Be specific - it won’t hurt.

Ever been involved on a brief that included statements like, ‘Imagine there are unlimited budgets and no constraints. Just go big with creative thinking?‘

In this case, setting up a storefront on the moon would qualify as an idea. So, would floating a 500-ton block of ice in the shape of your logo down the Hudson River. In order to have the best chance of quality output, you need to provide quality constraints.

Clearly consider and define elements such as:

  • What is your ambition for this project?

  • What does success look like?

  • What is your anticipated investment?

  • Who is your target customer?

  • Where in the customer journey do you want to focus?

  • What are you inspired by from competitors or other sectors?

  • What selection criteria will solutions be judged by?

Reframe your challenge: it’s not me, it’s you.

The final step is to design a challenge statement through the lens of your target customer, based on a key human need.

We often have to go through several iterations. Usually, a marketing need starts with an inward focus such as, ‘sell more plane tickets,‘ ‘increase visitors to our dealership,‘ or ‘raise awareness of a new migraine medication.‘

None of this takes into account any human customer need. Quite frankly, customers don’t care about your brand, they’re not thinking of you. Reframing the challenge means letting go of any organization-focused ambitions, not an easy task when we’re brand marketers. It’s not about us, it’s all about the customer.

We reframed our migraine challenge to focus on removing the isolation felt emotionally, socially and physically by sufferers. This set us up to explore territories in the next ideation stage around initiatives to decrease the emotional distance felt by sufferers. We could also explore content to educate partners (AKA myself) on understanding what their loved one endures.

A technology client wanted to better understand the emotional needs of their high-end laptop audience. Through empathy mapping we uncovered that the need for optimism, recalibration and re-establishing normality in a post pandemic world are critical. So, our reframed challenged focused on initiatives to become a catalyst for positive change in our customer’s life.

Based on customer interviews, we knew that a shoe retailer client’s fashionista customer craved permission to reward herself and a desire for spontaneity. We reframed our innovation challenge to focus on providing permission to express herself again, without the boundaries that she’s been living within during a pretty restrictive year.

Now, let’s put this all together. By talking to real customers, you can gain insights that will help sharpen your focus. Identifying constraints will make your ideation process more focused later on. And reframing your challenge through the lens of the customer will ensure that ideas generated are more likely to resonate. All of this adds up to create a watertight innovation brief.

Jeff Tan is Dentsu’s innovation solutions officer. For more, check out Jeff’s previous article, where he discussed how to define innovation for your organization through the lens of tactical, operational, or strategic initiatives.

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