For decades we’ve been taught the surest way to developing successful new products is to listen to the voice of the customer. And we’ve all experienced focus groups and surveys. Consumers tell you they want one thing and then turn around and do another. So which is the right voice to listen to? Harvey Briggs provides some guidelines.

For decades we’ve been taught the surest way to developing successful new products is to listen to the voice of the customer. Companies have spent billions on VOC research encompassing everything from massive quantitative surveys to rapid ethnographies, in-home use tests and social media customer feedback mechanisms. Some have created whole divisions dedicated to it with executives who have titles like Chief Customer Officer and Director of Customer Experience.

The New VOC

Putting your customers at the center of your enterprise isn’t a bad idea. But if you want to separate yourself from others in your field, you should innovate around a different VOC – Voice of the Culture.

Think about the most innovative companies in every category: brands like Google, BMW, Apple, Target, DC Shoes, Virgin and others. They don’t stop at doing what the customer says they want, they go beyond. They understand the very culture of their users, introducing products that do more than attract mere customers; they create passionate fans.

Filtering out the noise

As innovation professionals, there’s one thing we rarely lack, data. We’re not just swimming in it; we’re drowning in it. Everyday new information comes across our desktops that seemingly contradicts what we knew to be true the day before. One customer wants it bigger. One wants it smaller. One wants it red, while another would prefer black. Listen to the voice of every customer and soon you’ll be spun in so many directions, you won’t know which way is up. The result in many cases is a tangled mess of line extensions and SKU proliferation that is practically unmanageable.

Tap into the culture, however, and you’ll be able to create real value for your users.

The irrational consumer

We’ve all seen it in focus groups and on surveys. Consumers tell you they want one thing and then turn around and do another. Ask who wants a cheaper smart phone and everyone raises their hand. Yet Apple continues to dominate the market. The new iPhone 4s is only in pre-order, and they’ve already sold a million of them at $399.

Apple knows it’s about more than functional benefits and price.

Innovative Culture

Innovate around charts, graphs, numbers and dots and you’ll get incremental improvements that people will appreciate but rarely pay extra for. Remember when only luxury cars had power windows and automatic climate control? Now you can find those features on entry-level subcompacts. BMW continues to demand a significant premium for its cars, however, because it ties those features into the culture of driving. BMW positions itself as The Ultimate Driving Machine and thus those who own one see themselves as ultimate drivers. Every feature and interface is designed to reinforce the culture of driving from the power assist steering that gives you excellent feedback to the adjustable suspension with sport mode that lets you dial in a setting for more spirited driving.

So how do you gain an understanding of the culture of your customers?

1.) Immerse yourself

Harley-Davidson does it by making sure product developers, engineers, designers and other key employees attend the various gatherings and rallies that happen around the country every weekend. From poker rides organized by local dealerships to the massive annual gatherings in Daytona and Sturgis, Harley employees are everywhere interacting with customers, looking at their bikes, listening to their music, seeing what they’re wearing, paying attention to their stories – not just about bikes, but their lives. With this as a backdrop Harley was able to create their new H-D1 Custom Bike builder concept.

2.) Don’t ask what or why

If you want to change the world or at least your business, stop asking people what they want and why they want it, and ask them for a window into their world. A few years ago on a project for major global beverage company, we gave video cameras to 15, 16 and 17 year old boys, asking them to create a movie of their lives for us. After 5 days, they brought us the footage and we sat with them editing the biopic, complete with the songs that served as the soundtrack. The resulting Culturescape™ videos held incredible insights into not just their eating habits; they also communicated volumes about their relationships with friends, siblings, and parents; as well as expressed their aspirations, dreams and fears in a way no interview could have. This cultural deep-dive provided incredible insight for product development as well as provided the inspiration for innovative marketing programs.

3.) Become an expert or ask one

Companies like Target have formal structures and processes for staying in touch with the cultural values of their customers, for spotting the trends that will interest them, and using that information to inform both product development and customer experience. They have teams dedicated to and individuals responsible for identifying and integrating the latest cultural trends.

The extreme sport apparel company, DC Shoes employs a network of athletes and artists who their customers have identified as influencers to help them make sure their products don’t just follow trends, but set them.

There’s not one right way to keep your cultural edge. The most important act is to adopt a mindset that what your customers believe is more important than what they say. Then develop a program that helps you understand those beliefs and integrate them into your organization so you can create products and services that embrace that culture.

Do that and you may just create the next Mini Cooper instead of the Yugo.

About the author:

Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.