Five Lessons from the 2015 Customer Insights Conference

The rise of the millennial generation and the explosion of mobile technology have permanently changed the landscape for marketers. At the annual Customer Insights Conference hosted by Yale SOM’s Center for Customer Insights, marketing professionals discussed the biggest trends and their impacts.

By Dylan Walsh

The story goes that Nobel-prize winning physicist Niels Bohr was talking with a friend who noticed a horseshoe hanging over Bohr’s door. He asked whether Bohr sincerely believed that a metal antique could bring good luck. “Of course not,” said Bohr, “but I’ve been told that it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”

Speaking at the 10th annual Yale Customer Insights Conference, Deepak Advani, general manager of IBM Commerce, echoed this idea: “In marketing, at the end of the day, we’re all placing bets on technology, on trends,” he said. “If a trend delivers economic benefit to customers, it’ll happen whether you embrace it or not.” At the conference, Advani and other leading practitioners and academics detailed some of today’s most important trends.

1. Millennials Happened

Born between 1980 and 2000, millennials now make up one-third of the global population. “They are deciding what and who gets to come with them,” said Anne Hubert, SVP of Viacom’s Scratch. She pointed out that there were once 9,000 Blockbuster video stores around the country. “Then millennials happened.”

To understand this trend, Scratch built the Millennial Disruption Index, classifying industries most at risk of disruption. Two variables proved particularly important: how “loved” a company is, and how distinct it is within its industry. When love is low and companies are indistinguishable—Hubert pointed to banking—then an industry is likely to be disrupted.

Bob Adams, a senior director at Visa, also described how millennials are driving the emergence of shared and digital economies. “At a high level, they’ve tapped into the notion that there is a better way” to do business, said Adams. Companies like Uber and Airbnb—refinements on old taxi and hotel models—are rapidly reshaping conventional markets.

2. Media Are Changing

Millennials are not only altering markets because of the businesses they choose to support, but because of the fundamentally different—and rapidly evolving—ways in which they consume. Patrick Harris, director of global agency development at Facebook, pointed out a number of significant changes over the past two years. For instance, visualization is becoming the dominant language. While content on a Facebook newsfeed would have once been primarily text, nearly everything today is a photo or, increasingly, video. People today don’t talk about a movie—they show it.

Harris also noted that “the world has gone mobile.” Sixty percent of Amazon’s holiday purchases last year were made on mobile phones, and mobile connections are growing at five times the rate of population. “Some say it is going mobile,” said Harris, “but it’s already gone.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the generation after millennials: 38% of children have used a mobile device by the age of two. Ossa Fisher, CMO of the e-learning company Istation, highlighted how this tidal change can be used for the benefit of education worldwide, improving attention, memory, and motivation among students who previously struggled.

3. Google’s Greatest Threat is Google

Incumbent firms face serious threats. Gerry Tellis, professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business, held Intel up as an example: the company has a market cap in the hundreds of billions and an 85% share of the notebook market—but it holds only 1% of the mobile market in a world that has gone mobile.

Complacency, said Tellis, can be a company’s downfall. When Google cofounder Larry Page was asked about the greatest threat to Google, he named Google. “So how can firms stay relentlessly innovative?” Tellis asked. He offered three pieces of advice: companies must cannibalize successful products, they must embrace risk, and they must focus on future mass markets.

Scratch’s Hubert recalled her prior work at MTV where, every so often, the channel “had to shed its skin.”

In a discussion moderated by Beth Storz, president of Ideas to Go, former eBay CMO Richelle Parham hammered home the importance of constant reinvention among big companies. “The taxi industry is a perfect example” of what happens, said Parham. “It’s being disrupted by a company with no taxis and no employees. The incumbents don’t always win—just because they’re big, it doesn’t mean they’ll win.”

4. Be Funny. Improvise.

“Marketing has always been such a deliberate process,” said John Deighton of Harvard Business School, with terms like “campaign” drawn from military strategy. “But in the world today it pays to be a bit more improvisational.”

Marketers should experiment. A commercial needn’t look like a commercial. Deighton highlighted the unlikely advertisement for a German clothing company, Killa Thrill, which showed nothing more than an airplane recorded by handcam that lands after one wing tears off midflight. The name of the company appears on the body of the plane at the very end of the video. Approaches like this, said Deighton, could transform commercials from “opportunities to go to the bathroom” into meaningful engagement.

Such playful methods can also help to “reach new audiences in unexpected ways,” according to Linda Boff, GE’s executive director of global brand marketing. Boff highlighted recent work by GE, like the creation of #6secondscience on the day that Vine launched and the series of “Fallonventions” produced by late-night host Jimmy Fallon. “We run ads on the Tonight Show, which are good,” said Boff, “but that’s nothing like getting Jimmy to invite kids to show.”

5. Hand Over the Controller

This kind of lightheartedness often demands relinquishing some control over market messages. But this can be a tremendous asset. Monte Lutz, global head of PR at Activision, said that the quantity of in-house marketing pales in comparison to user-generated content—gamers who post videos to YouTube and subscribe to Twitch. “These people are the life-blood of who we are, so it’s okay to hand over the controller,” said Lutz. “At our core, we’re not defining what the brand is.” Part of this shift is simple acknowledgment that, according to Nielsen, 92% of consumers trust word of mouth while only 47% trust advertisements.

IBM’s Advani elaborated on the importance of this trend, describing the arrival of a new era in which “customers are now in control of the brand.” Behind the C-suite, customers are most effective on questions of strategy. This influence is only expected to grow.