Market orientation is a slightly clunky, academic term that I only came across earlier this year, in the first module of Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA in Marketing. To use a very modern cliché to sum the concept up, market orientation is about putting the customer at the heart of everything a business does.
It is normal for someone working at a company – especially if they’ve been there a few years – to think they know what their customer wants and needs.
Mark Ritson made the point that it’s not only wrong to do this, it’s dangerous. Bringing our biases and assumptions to the table makes us insensible to the actual needs of our customers. And everything we produce – within the brand and at the agency – may miss the mark.
“Faced with marketing questions,” Ritson says, “the answer must always be, ‘I don’t know, but we can find out.’”
Market orientation requires humility, curiosity and a willingness to learn that can overcome organizational barriers to research such as time limitations, pushback around costs or fear of what might be uncovered.
But the benefits far outweigh the investment.
John Narver, a professor who has been publishing papers on the subject since the 1990s, says: “Marketing orientation is a business culture committed to creating superior value for buyers through three combined behaviors – customer orientation, competitor orientation and inter-functional coordination. Recent research has shown what intuition suggests – that businesses that are more market oriented enjoy higher profitability as well as superior sales growth, customer retention and new product success.”
In summary, a market-oriented company has invested in understanding what current and potential customers want or need and how they can meet that need; understands what competing solutions exist and how they can outperform; and has all departments working together to create value for the customer.
A company like that should be unstoppable.
For my team, market orientation means getting out of the office – physically or virtually – and interacting with real customers.
Sara Galbiati, digital strategist at Hallam, says: “Turning ideas into a viable strategy is a challenge in itself, but without customer research, it’s a complete stab in the dark. Customer research provides real data to work from which, as a result, paves the way for better positioning, goals and growth.”
Ben Wood, strategy director at Hallam, adds: “Market research is a goldmine of insights that not only helps marketing communications but also customer service, product development, R&D, leadership and more. If you don’t stay close to your customers, how do you know what turns them on or off and what exactly you’re basing your positioning around?
“We’re talking directly to customers through both qualitative and quantitative research. We’re talking to employees – especially those on the front lines who interact with customers on a daily basis. And we’re doing research on competitors.”
Molly Watters, digital strategist, says: “You gain in-depth insights about how a company operates and what a company stands for. Then you’re able to take those values and make sure it feeds into the company’s marketing and external messaging. It’s also been lovely to bring a human touch to what can otherwise be digital-heavy work.”
It can be exhilarating – addictive even – but it’s not always easy. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way.
Customer research = learning an industry quickly
For agencies, this should be a required activity when you land a new client, and for brands, this should be what you engage new people to do in their first few months. It’s a brilliant way to learn the ins and outs of an industry, what’s important to people, what irritations they have with the buying process and what problems they wish someone would solve for them.
There can be unexpected resistance
Two of the barriers to market orientation can be arrogance (thinking you know the answer already) and fear (not knowing what customer research might uncover). We’ve encountered elements of both as we’ve proposed research. It’s up to us to bring empathy, curiosity and concrete evidence to the conversations we have with client stakeholders to get buy-in for the research from the beginning.
The questions you ask are the most important part
Generic questions taken from a Google search are not going to cut it here. It can be daunting to know what to ask, but we believe the best thing to do is start with the end in mind. If you know what decisions you want the research to inform, that will help you ask the right question. And don’t be afraid to talk about the negatives. Often the most valuable part of the conversion is when you start to hear about the tension and human problem that your client’s product or service is able to solve.
You’ll find gold for your campaign and strategy
What you learn in these conversations can be foundational when it comes to positioning your product or service to the marketplace and informing your messaging. Address the problems the customers told you about. Use the language they use. Make sure they see themselves in your website, social media, emails and paid advertising.
Once you start down the path of market orientation, you’ll want to keep going.
Julie Reid, head of strategy at Hallam.