The Yale Customer Insights Conference gathers industry leaders from across the globe to discuss cutting edge marketing strategies and how they uncover consumer insights. Ideas To Go has had the honor of sponsoring the event for the last 8 years. Each year we go we learn something new, and this year was no different. The speakers ranged from Lee McCabe, VP, GM of North America at Alibaba, to Eric Solomon, Director, Global Head of Business Marketing at Instagram. But if you weren’t able to attend this year’s conference, we’ve got your summary right here.

Brigitte King: Chief Consumer Officer, L’Oreal

Kicking off the conference was the brilliant Brigitte King. In today’s digital landscape, companies have more touchpoints with their consumers across more channels—web, voice, store, social, etc. But there are also more brands available to the consumer than ever before.

Traditional storytelling isn’t as effective with the ever-shortening attention span of the consumer. Brigitte thinks that the consumer experience—how your brand interacts with the consumer throughout the entire journey—is set to overtake price and product as the most important factor in the buyer’s decision. 

To do this, you must focus on the customer first. Use customer data to personalize their experience and increase relevancy. The more tailored an experience is, the more likely someone is to enjoy it. The messaging is no longer about your product, it’s about the benefits the consumers get from it and the experience along the way.

I’ll wrap this talk up with a quote from Brigitte that stuck with me: "What’s the difference between a product and the consumer? Consumers have a memory."

Emily Culp: Chief Marketing Officer, Keds

Keds was founded on a simple, yet profound mission: to empower women to be who they want to be and go where they want to go. This has been brought to life through their #LadiesFirst campaign.


Another one for @kedssg x @royalsportinghousesg #LadiesFirst #KedsSG

A post shared by J I E Y I N G 👸🏻 (@dj.ying) on

In order to effectively communicate to women, Keds needed to understand the typical day of a woman. For example, they found that women tend to be multitaskers, using their phones to do two things at once.

Keds identified three areas that push sales:

1. Drive Brand Heat

Using celebrities and influencers, Keds is able to spread brand awareness by the millions—with a single post. What they found was that through a simple Instagram post, blogs and magazines were picking up on the shoes these celebrities/influencers were wearing and resulting in a snowball effect of brand reach.

2. Own Female Empowerment

Even before the #MeToo movement, Keds was operating the #LadiesFirst campaign at large scale, like holding events across the globe on International Women’s Day (which is March 8th in case you didn’t know). #LadiesFirst is driven into the culture of the company with the heads of the company—all women—which has a top-down effect all the way to the product itself.

3. Drive Omni-Channel Retail

Keds spreads unique yet consistent messages across all channels, capitalizing on the many touchpoints in the brand/consumer relationship. With a mix of digital and traditional media outlets (yes, even magazines), they are able to talk to reach their consumers to drive home their overarching mission: the empowerment of women.

Anindya Ghose: Professor, NYU Stern

If I had to sum up Professor Ghose’s talk in one sentence, it would be that companies are underinvesting in mobile. Phones (and by phones I mean cellphones, because who has a home phone nowadays?) are a truly personal device. They come with you everywhere you go, nobody else uses your phone—unlike, perhaps, a desktop computer or iPad—and you can do just about anything on it, anywhere. 20 years ago, you had to physically go into a store to buy something—now you can lay in bed and buy a pair of jeans in a matter of minutes.

With more and more people using their phones throughout the day, it is leading to a plethora of data points. And that data is specific to the owner of that phone. Which provides a huge opportunity for brands looking to personalize each consumer touchpoint. Professor Ghose gave a great example of this personalization: Based on people’s distance from a physical store, provide them with a coupon of varying amounts. The further away someone is, the higher the discount. This was executed in real life and it turns out that this type of customization works—which shouldn’t be a surprise. Knowing that everything comes down to cost vs. benefitincluding people’s timethis ad used minute-by-minute, location-specific data to customize an offer.

Ghose also discussed consumer contradictions, and how what a consumer says isn’t always what they do. For example, people say they like choice, but the data shows that too much choice is overwhelming. People like privacy, but are willing to trade it for convenience and benefits. People say they like spontaneity, but tend to stick with certainty. That’s why it is important to use personalized data to find the intent behind consumer behavior—because sometimes even the consumer doesn’t know why they do the things they do.

Lee McCabe: VP, GM of North America, Alibaba

Although Alibaba might not be a household name in America, you can bet that almost everyone in China knows the company. China isn’t just the maker of products anymore, they’re designing, importing and consuming—and they’re at the forefront of all of it. Alibaba owns a step along each point of the consumer journey, leading to a lot of touchpoints and even more data. Alibaba Group owns 6 major e-commerce platforms, 3 cloud computing and AI service platforms,  Alipay (think Apple Pay, except everyone uses it, everywhere), 3 entertainment companies for music, movie, and TV streaming, Youku Tudou (the Chinese version of YouTube), Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and more.


As you can see, they play a major role in consumers’ lives, creating a streamlined and simplified process of moving through the buyer’s journey.

China skipped physical malls and went straight to ecommerce. They also skipped credit cards and went straight to mobile payments. They’ve created an ecosystem where consuming content, shopping, and purchasing is all done online—and with Alibaba, it’s all on one account. With a process as simple as it is useful, Alibaba has managed to collect so much data on their consumers, they no longer consider themselves a B-to-C company, but rather C-to-B.

John Bargh: Professor of Psychology, Yale

If you’ve paid attention to pop culture lately, people tend to use the unconscious mind as a scapegoat for the poor decisions they’ve made. And while the unconscious is automatic and stems from thousands of years of evolution, we can still overpower it through the power of knowledge (see our Behavioral Innovation™ approach).

A powerful example of the unconscious mind that Professor Bargh (author of Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do) gave was a study looking at the effects of warmth on people attitudes toward others. Researchers found that people who held a warm beverage in their hands—as opposed to a cold beverage—prior to meeting somebody viewed that person as more generous and caring. This is because physical warmth activates the insula region of the brain, which is also activated by social friendliness. The connectivity primes a warm reception of the person during their first encounter.

Another study found that repeating someone’s order at a restaurant led to a significant increase in tips given to waitresses/waiters. The simple act of mimicry is perceived as empathic, creating a bond and increased interpersonal appeal.

The point of Professor Bargh’s talk was to show that people aren’t always aware of their decisions and actions. For example, despite being generally against tanning in tanning beds, college-aged women were more likely to go tanning if they had just gotten off Tinder. Tinder activates thoughts about relationships, which in turn makes people want to appear as attractive as possible—which apparently leads to the tanning bed. So understand that your consumers aren't always going to act rationally and will still use their unconscious mind to make purchasing decisions.

Max Shron: Head of Data Science, Warby Parker

Max Shron focused on the data science being used by Warby Parker to better understand consumer actions and direct business decisions. For example, Warby Parker isn’t going to open a new store just anywhere—they factor in a bunch of consumer and store data. These types of decisions are about more than the store itself. They’re about more than the consumer themselves. And they’re about more than the product. It’s about all three combined.

Warby Parker takes data analytics into serious account: area income, whether people there are likely to own an iPhone, traveling habits, etc. But it’s not just data alone—they need to talk with existing stores to see what successes they’re experiencing and what can be done on the micro-level that will enhance the in-store experience. If one store location is seeing higher return rates in their glasses, they will talk to that store to see what they are doing that might be resulting in the increased return rate.

However, to do these things successfully, the analytics can’t be outsourced to a separate firm. Warby Parker was able to build their own analytics ecosystem rooted in their own business strategies. They talked to shareholders to find out what information would be most valuable to the company’s objectives, resulting in a personalized analytics system where they can track changes in sales at the smallest level. This type of control at the analytics level has led to an increased understanding of their business decisions and better predictive validity in future decisions.

Nathan Novemsky: Professor of Marketing, Yale

Every year Ideas To Go hosts a Lunch and Learn during the Yale Customer Insights Conference for our guests. This year we had the pleasure of learning from Professor of Marketing at Yale, Nathan Novemsky.

Professor Novemsky helps companies uncover consumer insights—a lot of times through one-on-one interviews. He doesn’t use large focus groups because he feels you don’t get to go in depth with anyone, and only receive surface information. The value lies deeper within the consumer. The only problem is that people generally can’t communicate the real reasons they do things.

Because of this, Professor Novemsky suggests probing the four W’s: What, When, Where, Who. They are objective questions that are relatively easy to remember. So if you’re talking to a customer about their cereal buying behaviors, you might ask, “When did you last buy cereal?” Then dig a little deeper, probing for who they were with, what they bought, and where they bought it. The big W that’s missing from the equation is "Why." And it’s because consumers usually don’t know why they do what they do. Most of the time they will confabulate inaccurate reasons.

In fact, even asking consumers hypothetical questions generally yields poor results because of their inability to understand their own behaviors. As soon as you ask, “If you were to buy. . .” or “On your typical trip to the grocery store. . .” consumers are rationalizing behavior that they aren’t even carrying out. It’s unreliable. So when it comes to talking to your consumers, try to stick to concrete events that have already happened—typically probe into the last time they did something. Memories from the last event will be most salient and they will be able to go into the most accurate, detailed accounts of their behaviors.

Gina Boswell: President, Customer Development, Unilever

Dove launched Baby Dove with the goal of becoming the 3rd largest baby skincare supplier, an accomplishment they achieved quicker than expected. To get there, Dove knew they had to find insights that truly resonated with their target consumer—mothers. A large focus was on new mothers, during a time that is equally as happy as it is anxious.

Once they had the insights, they used highly personalized social ads to promote their new brand. They were able to promote different ads depending on the soon-to-be mother's specific trimester—a level of targeting only obtained through digital advertising. Once the mother gave birth, she was targeted with a new set of ads based on the age of the newborn baby, promoting different messages with Baby Dove.

Friends of the expecting mothers were another target for personalized ads. Gift giving is a huge opportunity for brands, and Baby Dove capitalized on it. Aimed at close friends and relatives of women who are expecting, Baby Dove provided coupons with messages focused on gift giving—which led to a serious boost in sales.

The main takeaway here is twofold. First, hyper-personalization of the messages you’re promoting is not only possible, but it’s extremely valuable. If you can relate to your consumer where they need it the most, you will see results. Second, sometimes it’s important to think outside your target demographic. Understanding the people around them is an excellent way to capitalize on an audience that might otherwise be overlooked. After all, there’s always an occasion for gift-giving.

Tanya Berman: Vice President, Chocolate Category, Mars

Tanya Berman’s focus was the one-of-a-kind Super Bowl commercial Skittles created. In case you missed it, Skittles shot a full blown commercial costing millions of dollars with David Schwimmer, and only showed it to one person—Marcos Menendez, a California teenager.

It’s a crazy idea, one that cuts viewability by over 100 million, but they did promote the Super Bowl commercial with other ads. They treated it like a movie rollout, with a series of social ads that teased the concept and commercial. So while the commercial itself wasn’t going to be seen by millions, they managed to promote it—and Skittles—to millions by generating buzz.



Beth Storz, Ideas To Go President and Innovation Process Facilitator, had the opportunity to host a Q&A with Tanya after her talk. She asked what was on everyone’s mind: How did you get all the execs to okay such a far out idea? Tanya pointed to three ideas that Skittles really tries to embody:

Be Nimble

Skittles is able to stay on their toes and maneuver when it comes to their marketing strategy. Not putting all their eggs in one basket provides the opportunity to try new things.

Be Curious

Curiosity is in Skittles’ DNA. They have always been quirky and aren’t afraid to experiment with witty and humorous material—or spending millions of dollars on an ad that one teenager will see.

Have Fun

At the end of the day, Skittles is a confectionary brand. They need to be fun because candy is fun, and demonstrating that playfulness in their messaging shows consumers that it’s ok—even encouraged—to have fun.

Stephan Gans: Chief Insights & Analytics Officer, PepsiCo

Stephan Gans’ message was similar to that of Max Shron from Warby Parker: it's important to streamline software internally to solve for your own needs. Except instead of data, Stephan’s focus was on insights. As a global company, PepsiCo has access to insights from consumers across many countries. And until now, the problem has been organizing them.

Through various vendors, insights were scattered across different platforms, making them difficult to access. More importantly, PepsiCo was unable to organize the insights and find meaningful trends.

Stephan has launched an internal initiative to create an end-to-end digital insights platform. International insights will be accessible from anywhere and easily discoverable through an automated insights engine. By reinventing PepsiCo’s insights practices, Stephan hopes to create a smarter, more efficient process that can track year over year innovation efforts to see what leads to the most growth

Eric Solomon: Director, Global Head of Business Marketing, Instagram

Instagram is a huge platform for brands. Of the 800 million monthly users, 80% follow a business or brand. That means users are willing to see brand content genericallya huge opportunity, considering advertising on the platform can increase reach even further. It’s important to remember, however, that consumer value heavily outweighs business value.

Instagram is the platform users go to to post high value, highly curated content. Your content has to earn a place on their newsfeed, so you have to focus on your consumer over your brand. Plus, Instagram launched Stories a little over a year ago, a new way for users to share ephemeral content with their followers.

Some might say the Stories feature is a mirror image replication of Snapchat, but Instagram says they saw an opportunity for users to share content in a more in-the-moment situation.

Regardless of the origin of Stories, it has seen massive success, overtaking Snapchat with 250 million daily active users. Users are engaged with Stories too, with 1 in 3 Stories receiving a direct message. This is a new area for business to be sharing content and promoting new products and services. While Stories are easy to share, the content should be in an appropriate format—short and to the point. People like skipping Stories, so it’s important to introduce your brand at the beginning and end, with entertaining content in the middle. Instagram is where your consumers are, so your business should be there too. And as Eric Solomon said, “If Salt Bae can get 12.7 million followers, so can you.”

Dan Salzman: Global Head of Media, Analytics and Insights, HP

Today’s world sometimes seems full of divisions. As a business, choosing a side can mean alienating a section of your consumer base—a scenario HP is looking to avoid in their future messaging. But the quest for a message that applies to all consumers is difficult.

The process involved deep social listening to uncover distinct categories that everyone has in common. HP also recognized that true insights come from human interaction. And human insights need to come before any messaging is developed. So they invited people with opposing views into the same room to openly discuss topics they disagreed about. Dan said that these discussions were tense at moments, but also provided a level of understanding for everyone involved. Most participants were appreciative of the opportunity to talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss.

HP is using these types of techniques to get at the heart of their consumers—all their consumers. In doing so, they hope to reflect the diversity of their customers in their product messaging.

Barbara Kahn: Professor of Marketing, Wharton

Professor Barbara Kahn was an excellent speaker to finish off the day. Her passion for marketing and spreading her wealth of knowledge was evident in her desire to continue talking after her allotted speech time had run out.

Did you know that 8,600 brick and mortar stores were shut down in 2017? It is just one of the long list of effects of the increasingly digitized world. People aren’t using physical stores to shop anymore, they are using them to gain an understanding of what they want to buy, just another step along the buyer’s journey. However, what people fail to understand is that these stores were primed to fail anyway—there was an overabundance of physical stores which led to a saturated market. The digital marketplace was just the icing on the cake.

In order to maximize the use of in-store locations, businesses must use them as data touchpoints and focus on what the customer wants. And that’s where the Kahn Retailing Success Matrix comes into play. The matrix was built around the customer, understanding that every customer wants to buy something of value from someone they trust and to buy from retailers who provide the best value.

The four points on the matrix are Brand, Experiential, Low Cost, and Frictionless. A business excels at Brand when they provide superior products and a consistent shopping experience across all channels. A great example here is Nike. With Experiential, it’s less about the product and more about the experience the consumer has while in store or online—think Sephora here. Low Cost is self-explanatory. They provide products at an unbeatable price, most notably Walmart. And with Frictionless, the brand is removing as many customer pain points as possible to provide an easy experience. Such convenience can be seen with Amazon. Using the matrix, you can assess where your business stands, and what value you’re providing your consumers.

Kahn Retailing Success Matrix

The matrix mostly boils down to whether or not you are increasing consumer pleasure or reducing consumer pain points. And while most companies are specialized in one quadrant, they will also own a secondary quadrant. Assessing your company and your competitors on the Kahn Retailing Success Matrix is a valuable exercise to help you visualize what you are doing for your customers and where you can improve.

As you can see, the conference was packed with great speakers and valuable information. To read more about the event, visit the conference website, or watch videos of the individual speakers here. Want to know what our guests learned at the conference? Find that here: Yale Customer Insights Conference: Guest Takeaways. To be among the first to hear about next year's conference and receive attendance discounts, sign up for the Ideas To Go newsletter in the sidebar. 

Tyler Thompson

Tyler Thompson is a Creative Process Designer and Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.