Consumer Insights or Consumer Ignorance?

Ron Johnson "Just Rolled It Out" at J.C. Penney

Can you innovate without using consumer insights? Or can that mean ignorance of consumer preferences and needs?  

Architect’s Dream Client

Imagine you’re a successful architect. A new client walks into your office, asking you to work with him on a dream home. You spend the next month learning about his enormous budget, the building site and his preferences. He wants large, comfortable furniture to contain his generous frame.  His wife wants a traditional kitchen and room for her vintage diner plates collection. They both want a relaxing place for old friends to visit.  You nod and listen to everything they tell you.

Modern Interior with Sleek Furniture and Sunlit WindowThe couple leaves for a year working in East Asia and approves the budget for you to design and manage the building of their new house. But when they return to move into their grand new home, they walk into a sleek, walls-of-glass entry, stark, seemingly fragile couches and the latest non-representative art hanging in their silver-and-magenta-sequined kitchen. They are outraged.  You are fired and sued. You arrive in court, still confused as to why your ex-clients didn’t laud your clearly superior artistic choices.

But What if We’re Smarter?

This disdain for the wishes, lifestyles and even body types of his customers was one of the defining traits of the newly ousted CEO of J.C. Penney, Ron Johnson of Apple fame. As noted in Stephanie Clifford’s April 9, 2013 New York Times article, he ignored marketing research on customer preferences towards sales and coupons, ran advertising suggesting customers should surely want to look better, and humiliated in-house marketers’ promotional tactics in front of their peers. He told employees, “We’re not going to test it – we’re going to roll it out.”

Shoppers Like to Buy Clothes on Sale

Prior to Johnson’s arrival, J.C. Penney’s may well have run too many sales and coupons, or leaned too heavily on a high-low retailing strategy. But according to a Shopping Strategy graph from March 2013 at, even years after the Big Recession hit, more than 80% of U.S. consumers still “usually” or “only” buy clothing when it’s on sale. A surreal Penney’s commercial showed women overwhelmed and frustrated by changing prices, while its research showed that they just weren’t. This mismatch alienated sale-seeking shoppers.

Consumer Ignorance Drove Shoppers Away

During Johnson’s tenure, customers stopped shopping at JCP’s stores in droves. In her October 17, 2012 article in Forbes, Pam Goodfellow discussed the 1.3 million female shoppers who had stopped shopping at JC Penney from September 2010 to September 2011. Over the past year, the stock price has lost 58% of its value. Theo Francis in a April 10, 2013 New York Times article noted that JC Penney is on a Rotary Gallop list of companies most vulnerable to a takeover.

To ignore current customers, mock current employees and refuse to gather consumer insights before moving head on new ideas will push your business in the same direction as the architect who communicates to his clients that their wishes, preferences and needs are unimportant and, frankly, in poor taste. In both situations, customers will just take their money and go find someone who will listen to them and treat them with respect.

Marketing Research Guides Innovation

Marketing research and the resulting consumer insights don’t create the architectural blueprints of successful creativity. That job falls to you, savvy, forward looking marketers and executives.  What they do provide are the parameters within which to innovate. Consumer insights can provide the  “you are here” sign on your map of the future.

Photo by Flickr User (Plage Vinilos y Decoración)

Talk to, not at, your buyers, with smart, insightful research.  Contact BuyerSynthesis, the buywhys™ marketing research company, at

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