Here's the second part of my Spark interview with Michael Perman of Levi's:
One to One
Today, we get out and try to understand the world by getting down to the individual level. In the past we looked at markets really broadly. Now there are a lot more questions being asked about real people. We may have an idea for a product or marketing initiative and we want to appeal to men, but there are a hundred million of them. Instead of trying to understand them all, what we try to do is contextualize their lives to find inspiration.
It’s important to boil inspiration down to a practical, individual level. It’s interesting; I hear more people talking in those terms around the company now – designers, merchandisers and marketing people. They are starting to talk more about the importance of leveraging an inspiration and staying as focused as possible.
Many companies do this by creating theoretical or fake personas of their typical customer. But it’s much more important to get out, immerse yourself in your customers’ lives and understand the real personas of your customers.
Today it’s easier to get people engaged with the immersion process through technology. It doesn’t matter how many employees you have around the world. A lot more people can now get involved with the inspiration. Technology is contributing to that.
In my earlier life, working for a food company, I’d immerse myself by riding in the distributor’s truck. I don’t think people ride the trucks as much any more. Most companies have downsized so much that people don’t ever get out of their offices. Riding in the truck is a bit of a metaphor, but there’s a kind of literal importance to it in that the towns you go to and the people you meet understand the reality behind the scenes. You have to have your own taste of this reality.
You can’t replicate it. I rode in the truck with what they call candy/tobacco jobbers. These guys sell cigarettes, candy and beef jerky and they go to all of the little stores everywhere and deliver their goods. When you’re immersing yourself, at this level, you see a different reality. You never forget the way the warehouse smells. It’s a combination of tobacco, chocolate and smoked meat in one warehouse, a very distinctive fragrance that’s really kind of pleasant. It’s the scent of reality.
I was recently at an innovation conference in New York and one of the speakers said something that stayed with me. He thought it was very interesting that the people in hotels who are supposed to have the greatest amount of contact with customers are more likely to be found in the back office than in a place to connect with customers.
If you think ‘Who’s the least customer-facing person in the hotel,’ it’s the front desk supervisor, who tends to be in the back of the room. There’s something very ironic about that. Most companies suffer from the same problem. How many managers get out there and spend time with their customers? They’d be better off if they got out and rode in a truck every once in a while.
No More Focus Groups
Lots of companies rely too heavily on focus groups. You’ve got to break down the two-way mirror, break the fourth wall. There are a lot of tools and techniques for making it happen, but there’s a real art to it also. I always look forward to getting out in the field to be able to do that sort of thing, and I’m frustrated if I find myself in a position where we’re still conducting interviews and not having discussions.
I’ve been at Levi’s for four years and I still need to get out more. I really want to get to one of our factories and make my own pair of jeans. And there’s a cotton farmer out there somewhere who makes the cotton that we use to make our jeans – I want to meet him.