Is Your Brand Truly Consumer-Centric?


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“Our DNA is as a consumer company – for that individual customer who’s voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s who we think about. And we think that our job is to take responsibility for the complete user experience. And if it’s not up to par, it’s our fault, plain and simply.” – Steve Jobs

Marketers want their brands to resonate with consumers, and often companies want to grow without limitation. However, many brands fail to live up to such aspirations because they fail to establish strong consumer connections. Brands often focus too much on a brand USP (unique selling proposition), on segmentation targeting, and a brand-centric approach – a focus on what the brand wants to say about itself.

This article discusses the challenges of being too brand-centric in the hope that readers might think more about their consumers, and less about their brand. Look after the first, and the latter will win.

There are many examples of brands which have demonstrated the success of a generalized consumer-centric approach – brands that have tapped into what consumers want to feel, without expressing a USP or targeting a narrow consumer segment. In converse, brands which support one USP, to one ideal sub-segment, often find themselves restricted in their potential for greater mass appeal. Why put the brand in a box with walls? Might your brand benefit from being more consumer-centric, without self-inflicted restrictions?

A Consumer-Centric Approach

As the label implies, a consumer-centric approach puts the focus on consumers; on what they want to hear, feel, and ultimately experience. It is about creating brand resonance via emotional associations. It is about triggering. It is about avoiding narrow-casting to sub-segments of the market. Good marketing is based on what consumers want to experience; not about saying what the brand wants to say about itself. To forecast where I am going with this, consumers want it all!

Humans judge decisions by how they expect each choice will make them feel (perceived or in reality).

A consumer-centric approach recognizes how humans make decisions. Humans build associations for brands. These associations are complex sets of intertwined messages, experiences, characteristics, hearsay, feelings, assumptions, and so on, based on everything that has being experienced in relation to a brand. Each of these associations is evaluated (consciously or sub-consciously) for the degree of favorableness; some associations for a brand may be negative, while others are neutral, or positive. Naturally, there are degrees for all of these associations, and how we ‘feel’ about them changes based on our moods. Overall, we carry many associations for each of the thousands of brands which we have experienced.

Humans have many different need-states and desires. And we are motivated to satisfy them.

Next, we need to consider the consumer and his or her need-states. Humans have needs and desires. Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We can also think of moods, dreams, and wishes if you would like. And these needs and desires flux and change hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, and so on. One moment, I might want junk food, but after satisfying that craving, five hours later I might want healthy food. The speed of how quickly a junk food desire becomes a wish for health food can be quick. Consumers are not constant, consistent machines. We are moody and often irrational! It is these wants and desires which motivate consumers to act; to satisfy them. Some are easier or quicker to sate, and others take years to plan and achieve.

We forecast our expected feelings in satisfying our need-state based on the associations built up with each choice/option.

The act of selecting and buying a brand happens at the intersection of a consumer’s needs/desires with whatever brand associations they have in mind. For a specific need-state (for example, a hunger pang at 4 pm), a consumer will judge the brands/choices which come to mind and could satisfy their desires. They assess what they know and expect to experience from each possible brand selection. The person puts weights on the importance of each strength and each weakness associated with a brand, and arrives at an overall assessment of “fit” of the brand to their need/desire. How well does each brand compare versus others for specific need-states?

  • Brands which fail to come to mind at all, for that consumer’s specific need-state, are not to be judged. Strike one. (This is not a case of the brand being unknown. It is a case of the brand failing to come-to-mind, at the right time, to be judged).
  • Brands which come to mind, but fail to have positive relevant associations for the given need-state will also drop out of contention. Strike two. This can be due to a lack of appropriate brand familiarity, or it could be due to an irrelevant set of associations (for that need-state). To be clear, these associations are judged by the consumer against what he or she wants to feel/experience. It is not enough to know a fact about a brand, if one does not appreciate what that fact might allow them to better experience some day.
  • Brands which fail to have multiple other possible benefits (for other needs states; and only apply for this one specific need/situation), may also be disadvantaged. Brands which can satisfy the current need, as well as other different possible need-states, may earn greater attraction versus a brand which is a ‘one-trick pony’. A third strike? Has your brand struck out?

Elements of a Strong Consumer-Centric Approach

1) Can your brand do better WITHOUT a USP (Unique Selling Proposition)?

There is a significant desire of a brand team to differentiate versus competitors. The strategic thinking which goes into selecting a brand’s USP resembles warfare, with imagery maps reflecting the competitive battle field, and positioning statements as the weapons. In brand management, we are often encouraged to pick one brand benefit (advantage) and leverage it.

For example, if one was marketing ‘pain relievers’, a brand team could choose one of several different possible strategic USPs: longest-lasting, fastest acting, the safest, the most gentle, the most powerful, or the cheapest (among other benefits). However, this is a brand-centric approach. Consumers do not want USPs. Consumers want it all! Consumers want a pain reliever which is the fastest, strongest, longest-lasting, gentlest, safest, AND cheapest. And if there are three or four such brands, this would be even better because it would make finding a solution even easier.

Picking just one main reason to buy a brand narrows the appeal to only those consumers who value that proposition, in those fewer need situations. A well established USP makes the brand less universally appealing. This is what I mean by putting walls around a brand, and restricting the opportunity to be big, for all people.


  • Focus less on the one or two features or positionings of the brand, and instead, focus on sating one or more consumer need-states.
  • Consider avoiding precision (be vague!). Appeal to general (genetic) human desires found in all of us without building walls or restrictions. The Nike campaign, “Just Do It” is a strong and successful example of focusing on consumer desires/wants, without precisely defining a narrow appeal. The campaign is focused on the consumer and not Nike features, products, or USPs. “Just Do It” appeals to the full range of consumers, for however each person interprets the brand.

2) Would your brand be better WITHOUT segmenting the target?

Marketers often like to conduct segmentation research, grouping people into common profiles, and labeling them. However, such segmentation fails to appreciate that consumers are not stable and consistently rational. The reality is that all consumers have many similar (genetic) emotional needs and aspirations within them, and they become stronger and weaker depending on the person’s moods. Thus, it is not a good idea to put one label on a person and to assume this is constant. For example, health nuts will eat junk food. Blue collar workers will drink imported beers, men will use female shampoos, and so on. The explanation is found in the need-states, desires, and sets of brand associations…not in a fixed constant segmentation label.

Furthermore, the more success a brand has in targeting a specific sub-segment, the less welcome other people who do not match that definition will feel. Imagine if Apple’s iPod was launched as a new technology for the young generation of connected Millennials. If Apple narrowly focused on this sub-segment, and referenced age-appropriate music which appealed to the Millennials, there is a real risk that iPod would have turned off the older generation, or alienated people who enjoy other forms of music. The iPod “Silhouette” campaign did a great job of avoiding a user profile definition, or any one type of preferred music. By avoiding a narrow segment, all consumers are invited to a brand, for whatever reasons they enjoy. In turn, there are no restrictions put on the brand, which can then appeal to all.


  • The most relevant exception to segmentation is to simply target where the money is made. Follow the money, and then otherwise, invite everyone to the brand (who can possibly give you money)
  • Avoid narrow-casting or targeting a sub-segment which uninvites those outside of the sub-segment. Appeal to the emotional need-state found in all people. This brings us to resonance…

3) Are you selling to the emotional need-states in all consumers?

How many different emotional need-states can your brand put up its hand to be legitimately considered? When consumers have desires, is your brand an obvious strong choice to satisfy the desired emotional experiences? These emotional elements are the ultimate drivers in brand choice – so this is where the emphasis should be. The more often a brand can respond to different emotional need-states, the more chances it has to be chosen… and the greater the sales. Product characteristics are simply the ingredients (license-to-believe) which support the consumers’ assessment.

With this in mind, perhaps brand managers should be targeting consumers with the intention of enveloping their brand with many emotional associations. What emotional pay-offs can your brand offer? And how many?

From our Ipsos databases, we observe:

  1. Some well established brands are associated with offering many emotional pay-offs, while other known brands lack such associations;
  2. Brands which offer many emotional associations have higher brand equity and stronger purchase interest than brands which offer fewer such emotional associations;
  3. Strong brands can offer many emotional associations which on the surface appear to be opposites or contradictory. Some brands are seen as both harmonistic/reserved/quiet, while offering emotional associations of being individualistic/expressive/out-going.
    Emotionally rich brands such as Starbucks, Apple, Hallmark, eBay, Zappos, Nike,
    Virgin, Wikipedia, Facebook, and many more have earned great equity and business success. They have avoided selling to a small sub-segment, for one USP, and focusing too much on themselves. They have avoided being too prescriptive and precise. Instead, they have invited the consumer to build their own reasons for engagement. These brands have followed a “Broad Selling Proposition”. Nike simply said “Just Do It”. Apple invited all people + music, and Virgin just showed a rebellious brand personality (Richard Branson).

To be clear, this is not about directly trying to sell or communicate multiple messages. It is being so universal and all-appealing, that consumers establish their own different, unique (multiple) associations – the power is in the simplicity.


  • By avoiding precision, one can achieve the most! “Just Do It” invites any and all humans to feel good buying the brand – from world-class Olympians to couch-potatoes who rarely exercise.
  • Sell to (universal) emotional need-states, and not to sub-segments of people.
  • Do not sell product features. These are the license-to-believe to support the higher-order emotional associations. Focus on the latter. Build the emotional associations as the core basis for why consumers will want to select your brand.

4) Does your campaign have the right architecture? Should you be triggering your brand instead of communicating about it?

I find many advertisers have adopted an advertising model of trying to get their message in to consumers’ heads, but often the better model might be to work on triggering out the brand associations at the relevant situation. Many brands are old, established, and familiar to consumers. Thus, it is relatively pointless to have as an advertising model the goal of communicating what consumers already know. Instead, the advertising model should be working to trigger out these mental associations at the appropriate situations. If a consumer understands much about a granola bar, but fails to think of such a snack when their stomach rumbles at 4 pm, then the failure is not in understanding the brand, but failing to have it triggered to mind. Is your brand better served trying to trigger?

A rather old yet still relevant example is the US “Miller Time” campaign. This advertising stopped talking about the beer, and focused instead on establishing the trigger of “Miller Time”. The advertising built the link between the end of a long day’s work and the emotional associations of relaxing with a Miller beer, all tied to the brand in a neat easy-to-remember ‘thought unit’. The trigger of quitting time is associated to Miller beer…and to relaxing. To this day, many Americans over 35 years of age still remember that at the end of the day, when it is time to relax, it is “Miller Time”. And you can’t miss the branding! This is great triggering in action. It is about the consumer, and not the brand features.


Focus the advertising on the need-states in each consumer’s life in which the brand wishes to come-to-mind. Then establish the link between this need-state to the brand. This is often achieved in a short memorable advertising mnemonic, jingle, or visual image. The focus of the advertising is building the link (trigger) instead of focusing on communicating brand features (which are already known).

A case for a USP and narrow targeted segmentation…

To close, and to be fair to the many readers who are feeling worried that this may not apply to their brands, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that some brands do indeed need to offer a reason for their existence. For example, a new (late) entrant into a mature category likely needs to offer a strong reason why the world needs another brand choice in the market. And some brands which cannot afford to battle the big guys may wish to find a small ignored, niche sub-segment of consumers, in hope their brand can carve out a profitable business. These are good reasons to have a USP, and to narrow-cast. However, such brands should also accept that they are likely putting their brand in a box, with limits for growth. And even in this niche marketing effort, do not forget to build the emotional associations consumers want to experience. And please consider triggering as a more appropriate advertising architecture. Meanwhile, for the big brand leaders, bring down the walls, and build as many emotional associations to allow your brand to resonate as often as possible. Give consumers everything they want.

Copyright © 2012 Ipsos North America.

Republished with author’s permission from original article.

John Hallward
John leads the global innovation for Ipsos-ASI, and is a member of the ASI Board. He is author of "Gimme! The Human Nature of Successful Marketing" and winner of the ARF "Great Minds Award" for innovation ( NY, 2008). John started at P&G, and was a founder of Tandemar Research (1986) which was bought by Ipsos in 2000.


  1. John –

    This was an excellent, really insightful, posting; and I find many areas where we are in agreement. A lot of your blog content resonated with me, particiularly areas which suggest the value that can be brought to clients through linkage of brand passion and customer experience. Early on, you speak about brand associations, in your words, as the “…complex sets of intertwined messages, experiences, characteristics, hearsay, feelings, assumptions, and so on, based on everything that has been experienced in relation to a brand.” From my perspective, that’s another way of defining brand relationship, which is core to linking brand passion and customer advocacy behavior

    In the middle of your blog, in the discussion, you invite marketers to “Follow the money, and then otherwise, invite everyone to the brand (who can possibly give you money)” and avoid narrow-casting which uninvites those outside the sub-segment. The key is to create resonance, sell/appeal to as many different need-states as possible, making the brand the most “obvious strong choice to satisfy the desired emotional experiences”, which are the drivers of brand choice.

    Increasingly, rather than narrow-cast the brand and, as you say, put it in a box with too constricted a USP, we are seeing companies link the brand directly with the customer experience, i.e. creating a branded experience. You might be interested in my CustomerThink blog on this subject:


    Michael Lowenstein, Ph.D., CMC
    Executive Vice President
    Market Probe (

  2. Old school thinking is brand centric. New school thinking is customer centric. Today the customer defines the brand. The ability for them to share their thoughts via the many social channels means their voice is becoming "louder” than the traditional media organizations use to promote and create their brands.


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