Customer listening

How listening to customers has led to multimillion dollar mistakes


One key reason that so many customer experience programmes fail is that the way organisations try to understand customer behaviour mean they can fall foul of the difference between what customers say and do. As some very large brands have found to their detriment. 

12th Sep 2022

Why do so many customer experience programmes fail to show tangible benefits? Why do customer experience programmes and metrics stagnate?

While there are a number of reasons, and I discuss those in my latest book, certainly one of those is the way organisations go about understanding customer behaviour. This opinion is shared by The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) as well. The ACSI data shows that customer satisfaction among major companies has mostly flattened between 2013 and 2018, and since 2019, there has been a sharp decline, which as of Q3 of 2021, stands at levels last seen in 2005.



While COVID-19 certainly has something to do with it, the decline had started before that. According to the ACSI, the main reason for the long stagnation and subsequent decline is not the lack of attention by businesses who have invested a lot of effort and resources in enhancing the customer experience. Nor do they contribute it to the lack of data either, as companies are now sitting on more data about their customers than at any point in the past. “While companies today have more data about their customers, the analytics employed to turn data into information are for the most part not good enough,” they say.

One should remember that, as the famous David Oglivy’s quote goes: “Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” People are very good at coming up with answers when asked for their thoughts and feelings, though.

The difference between what customers say and do

Take, for example, the Trinity Mirror’s New Day newspaper which launched in the United Kingdom in February 2016 and closed down in May the same year, less than three months after launch. Why? According to the publisher’s chief executive: because consumers did not want what they said they wanted. Following market research on what readers might want, New Day set out to be a positive, politically neutral newspaper. It turned out that’s not what customers actually wanted. Asked why the daily title did not succeed, Simon Fox told City A.M.: “I think because, at the end of the day, what consumers told us they would do, and what they actually did, were different things.”

Then there is Tropicana’s 2009 infamous packaging redesign failure. The PepsiCo-owned brand, which is the market leader in North America with sales of over $700M, decided to change the packaging for the North American market of its best-selling and most notary product, the Tropicana Orange Juice. They had entrusted the work on both the campaign and the packaging to a marketing agency they had worked previously with and also lined up a $35M advertising campaign that prominently featured the new packaging. I am sure that before the launch, they must have had some research with customers, given the budget allocated to this campaign, but whatever people had said beforehand must have been very different from what people actually did on the supermarket shelves. 




Soon after the launch, consumers started criticising the new design, especially on social networks. Two months later, sales dropped by 20%, and this spectacular decrease in sales represented a loss of $30M for Tropicana. At the same time, sales of competitors increased by double-digits, benefiting from Tropicana’s debacle and showing that the decline is not due to people suddenly consuming less orange juice. 

Neil Campbell, president at Tropicana North America in Chicago, part of PepsiCo Americas Beverages, explains their decision to revert back to the “old” design about a month and a half after the launch of the campaign. He says that they changed it not because they saw complaints on social media - the number of those has only been a fraction of a percent of their user base - but because the criticism came from their most loyal customers.

“We underestimated the deep emotional bond they had with the original packaging […]. What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn’t something that came out in the research,” says Campbell in a telephone interview with the New York Times

What this story shows again is that what customers say in research can’t always be trusted (I’ve given lot’s of examples in my book) and customers can feel an emotional bond even with the appearance of the product and the visual clues (brand people call it “visual equity”). There is more to it, however.

When you look into the subsequent analysis from packaging and branding professionals of why it failed, they would say it’s because it parted ways with the most recognisable visual cues of the old design, that is, the name and logo “Tropicana” was turned from horizontal to vertical. The orange with the straw disappeared and was replaced with a glass of orange juice, and the other changes that related to the text and flavor descriptors (i.e., no pulp, etc.) meant that consumers were confused if this was the same product that they’ve always loved. 

I believe that there are some behavioural science heuristics in play here as well. First, just like in the “New Coke” case, I think loss aversion affects people’s perceptions. People hate losing much more than they like winning. So with any change, you’d expect a bit of that. Then there is the mere-exposure (or familiarity) effect, which states that people tend to favor things they are familiar with or have been exposed to (even without them consciously recalling it).

In a famous experiment, social psychologist Robert Zajonc showed people meaningless Chinese characters and told them that these symbols represented adjectives. Later, people were asked if they remembered what the symbols meant, but they couldn’t recall any of them. Interestingly, however, when asked to rate whether the symbols held positive or negative connotations, the symbols that had been previously seen by the test subjects were consistently rated more positively than those unseen. 

Therefore, you’d expect to see some complaints and an initial slight drop in sales but nowhere near as dramatic as in the case of Tropicana. In addition, what you lose from parting with some old stuff, you’d expect to gain a lot more from a more persuasive and emotionally appealing design that would attract new customers. Scott Young and Vincenzo Ciummo from Perception Research Services, a company that conducts over 700 consumer research studies annually to help organisations with packaging, say that they’ve “actually found an almost perfect bell curve, in which roughly 50% of proposed packaging systems outperform current packaging.”  

They advise that in order to avoid such mistakes as in the Tropicana case, one has to start the research in the actual environment, that is, at the shelf. Understand the customer’s mindset. What are customers looking for and what are the visual clues they use to recognise brands and products? Their article “Managing Risk in a Package Redesign: What Can We Learn From Tropicana?” dates from 2009 and doesn’t talk about facial emotion recognition and eye-tracking technology but these are some very handy tools nowadays that help understand what customers see and how they feel at the shelves. Another interesting tip from them is asking customers to draw the packaging from memory to uncover the brand’s “visual equities.” It turns out there is a lot of science in package design just like there is a lot of science in customer experience and research. 

People’s actual behaviour is highly susceptible to context. Traditional conjoint analysis is entirely removed from any decision environment a customer would ever encounter in practice, so the resultant data is distorted. So instead of the typical conjoint exercises to understand what features customers prefer the most, organisations could move to a “behavioural conjoint” where customers are presented with whole product offerings as in the real world and asked which one they’d buy.

In this way, organisations could vary aspects of the product offering, language, and behavioural science nudges used in the description to see which offering package would have the biggest impact on customer behaviour. Then do some small real-life testing. Therefore doing a more advanced form of research that takes into account that customers are not aware of their inner drivers can do wonders for you and save you from costly mistakes but even doing so and using some of the methodologies we mentioned (i.e. SEM). However, our research shows that even using advanced research analytics, you may still miss 50% of the picture (i.e. what affects customer behaviour and drives value for the organisation), if you don’t include emotions in your research. 

To find how to uncover the true drivers of customer behaviour and business value, contact us for an informal discussion.

This article is a shortened version of Chapter 6, “Practice 2: Take Into Account That Customers Are
Not Aware of Their Inner Drivers,” of Zhecho Dobrev’s book “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook the Value of Emotions,” first published by Business Expert Press (2022).


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