How to Use Customer Insights to Build Your Brand

Branding doesn’t come from your company or from an agency you hire. Good branding is inspired by your customers. Your brand depends on your customer’s needs and desires and is influenced by their perception of you. Branding is not an inside-out activity; it’s an outside-in activity.

In others words, real branding boils down to getting inside your customers’ heads. What do your customers think? How do they behave? What do they need? Where do they go to get it? Where do they shop? How much are they going to spend? What’s important to them? How does it make them feel? And how does your brand help them further their personal goals?

FreshDirect: Faster from the Farm to the Fork

FreshDirect is an online grocery store based in the East Coast. When you order from FreshDirect, you can place a grocery order online today and receive delivery at your home or office the next day.

Since FreshDirect began operations in 2002, the company has featured a large selection of popular national brands, as well as their own private-label products. The company has direct relationships with regional growers and producers to ensure that the food you get is the best-tasting, healthiest, and most nourishing product available.

But as you are undoubtedly aware, the world has undergone a seismic shift since 2002. The food procurement space is changing rapidly. This space is becoming increasingly crowded every year, if not every month. It seems like new startup food delivery companies are popping up faster than you can say “fifth-floor walk-up”.

So how does an established player like FreshDirect compete with energetic, innovative, tech-savvy, and often extremely well-funded competitors?

FreshDirect started seeking opportunities to play a more meaningful role in customers relationships with food. Management asked themselves a deep existential question that defines a brand: “How do we extend our value beyond just the procurement of food?”

Instead of sitting around in a boardroom brainstorming, FreshDirect spent a lot of time and effort in learning every aspect of their customers’ relationships with food to assess opportunities to address more customer challenges.

These new insights enabled FreshDirect to expand customer base while better understanding customer goals. By diving deeply into customers’ food “life cycle”, FreshDirect was able to grasp their emotions, desires, and challenges in their interactions with food.

They learned that customers didn’t just want a supermarket that delivers. They wanted a partner who was a part of their entire food life cycle.

As a result, FreshDirect’s branding has evolved with consumer needs, expectations, and the changing types of relationships that consumers want to have with these types of companies.

Don’t Know What Your Customers Think? Ask Them!

Most companies don’t have a six-figure budget for market research. So how do you learn about your customers?

Lo and behold, you learn who your customers are by actually finding and having a conversation with them. Those conversations can take place through informal market research, such as chatting with customers in Starbucks, or through formal research methods, which could include everything from focus groups, to quantitative studies, to depth interviews, to observing your customers “in the wild” through ethnography.

In the case of FreshDirect, we actually observed the entire food procurement life cycle. We followed people around while they shopped. We used video cameras and asked customers to show us what it looks like in their houses during the dinner hour. They showed us what it was like to shop in traditional grocery stores. They showed us what the insides of their refrigerators and pantries looked like. In some cases, they even showed us the family dog.

FreshDirect is a major company with a big budget, but even a company that has only four employees and makes $250,000 a year has enough customers to conduct meaningful research.

There are many different ways to talk to your customers. On the super-low-budget end of the spectrum, you can just hang around in a Starbucks and ask people to try your product or service and then ask them for their opinions. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you like about this brand?” Or, “How do you see this fitting into your life?” Or, “What would you change about this?” Actually talking to customers face-to-face is one of the most valuable things you can do to better understand your brand.

Another easy way for marketing managers and executives to interact with customers is by fielding customer service calls or inbound sales calls. Even at the CEO level, if you take customer service calls for a few hours every month, it might just be the most valuable time you ever spend. The callers won’t have any idea you’re the CEO, so they won’t sugarcoat how they feel about your brand. And you can ask them almost anything you want and expect an honest answer.

Another inexpensive method is hosting a pizza and beer party (or pizza and wine party, depending upon your target demographic). Invite friends and friends of friends to visit your office or home and try your product. Tell them you’ll provide take-out food and beverages in exchange for their time. The key here is to make sure you’re getting honest feedback. Friends and family will usually try to tell you they love your product, even if they don’t. So, offer them booze in exchange for brutal, unvarnished honesty.

The above ideas are free, or extremely inexpensive. Entrepreneurs in early stage start-ups and companies without market research budgets should take full advantage of all of these and devise other methods that put them front and center with customers. On the opposite end of the cost spectrum is formal market research, such as depth interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys. Professional focus groups can yield a tremendous amount of data, but can be costly.

Whether you’re doing it in a scrappy, inexpensive way, or an formal, expensive way, companies of all sizes should ask customers about their needs. Oh, and here’s a protip: smart companies don’t just inquire about their own customers’ needs; they ask competitors’ customers too.

Customers must always be a central part of the equation when you’re doing brand strategy. Unfortunately, there are many agencies out there that believe they can do branding in a black box without talking to customers.

To do branding in a vacuum without putting the customer point of view front and center is a massive mistake. In building a strong brand that connects deeply with customers, you must understand customer needs as well as the trends, forces, and brands that compete for their attention.

The goal is not only to safeguard against what other brands are doing but also to gain insight into your company’s unique role in the marketplace. What strategies do you use to make your brand uniquely relevant to your ideal customers?