Merchandising & Retail Buying

"We're consumer obsessed" — you said it, now actually do it

Chris Hull

July 13, 2020

This post is the second in our series from Shinola's former Chief Merchandising Officer, Chris Hull, on modernizing your product-to-market process. Read the first post here.

About a month ago, TJ Papp, a longtime friend and former colleague, emailed to ask my thoughts on what it means to be “consumer obsessed” as a retail brand. After nearly 15 years at Nike, I’d heard this term frequently from designers, product creators, and brand leaders.  And to be fair, it wasn’t just meeting jargon — they really did live it.

A few weeks into my Nike career, a humbling experience proved their commitment to this idea.  While sitting in a product review meeting, I stated (unprompted) that I didn’t like the jacket being presented. The product leader stopped the meeting, turned to me and asked: “Are you the consumer?”  

The short answer was no — I was not. Was my career at Nike going to be over before it started? Fortunately for me, this leader took the opportunity to teach me a lesson I would never forget. Instead of shredding my Nike employee card, he sent me to New York to spend time researching the target consumer (who, by the way, was much younger and cooler than me). Since that day I have strived, not always successfully, to be consumer obsessed.

Changing consumer expectations and the challenge for brands

Recently, I’ve read countless articles quoting brand leaders who claim their organizations are “consumer led”. What does this mean at a time when consumers have more choice, access to information, and buying power than ever? How do you create products for a constantly evolving target consumer who expects your brand to keep up — or lose them forever?  

Today, it isn’t as easy as hopping on a plane to New York and spending a few days with them in their environment. You need to connect with consumers quickly and at scale. Even more so, you need to incorporate this consumer input (both qualitative and quantitative) into your critical go-to-market decisions to de-risk these decisions on a repeatable basis. To me, this initiative is table stakes for your organization to be consumer led in an age of constant change.

Three steps to put your “consumer obsessed” plan into action

The first step is to acknowledge — and welcome — the voice of your consumer in the decisions you make across your go-to-market process. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve witnessed brand leaders saying, "our consumer doesn't know what they want". This may very well be true, but they surely provide plenty of hints and clues that can de-risk the decisions brand leaders must make on a repeated basis.  

The second step is to identify your target consumer, so you can ensure these insights are relevant to your decision. Being consumer led doesn't mean just talking to anyone. You need to align cross-functionally across Creatives, Product Leaders, Marketing, and Leadership on which consumers drive volume now and which will drive future growth. Once you’ve built these profiles, you can determine how to access them in a scalable way. 

The third step is building out that scalable system to incorporate consumer input into your process. There are several "decision phases" brands go through to bring products to market such as concepting, designing, building, buying, and marketing products. Utilizing real feedback from your consumers at any of these stages positively impacts the decisions that are ultimately made and helps your team remain objective. While any consumer input can be valuable, brands often make the mistake of extrapolating anecdotal feedback from individuals or small sample groups of 10 or 20 people. But with new technologies like MakerSights, brands can generate statistically significant input from a broad group of target consumers that provides confidence in the product decisions made.

Embracing change

As someone who truly believes in being consumer-led, I simply don't understand when brand leaders eschew the thought of incorporating consumer input. It’s just another tool to accompany hindsight selling data and your gut. Utilize it or discount it, but ignore it at your own risk.

Chris Hull
Advisor at MakerSights

With over 20 years of experience in the retail industry, previously led global merchandising organizations at Shinola, Converse, and Nike.

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