Moving to tapping customer relationships also may help market legalized cannabis

By Matt Chong

We live in an era where consumer data and insights are among the most valuable commodities possessed by ourselves as modern marketers. As technology has evolved we now have far more access to customer intelligence than ever before, ranging from primary research and big data to social media listening tools and chatbots. The question is, which tools are the right ones that will truly help marketers to better understand their customers?

Long-form versus consumer insights communities

In 2000 Vision Critical pioneered the technology behind the modern consumer insight community. The company’s premise was that instead of engaging in lengthy primary research that consisted of long-form research, such as phone interviews and/or focus groups, brands should be continuously engaging their customers in ongoing dialogues.

Vision Critical’s solution was an online cloud-based platform that would allow brands to build communities of their customers to engage in real-time two-way dialogues. Brands would then be able to innovate in real-time and stay on the pulse of consumer behaviour. If you were a big brand such as Nike and you had an insight community of 100,000 customers, you would be able to tap into this robust audience on an ongoing basis to better inform your decision-making.

Since then companies such as the Angus Reid Forum and Research Now have built similar online panels that allow marketers to access large groups of known respondents, typically representative of Canadian and U.S. census populations to participate in online quantitative and qualitative research. These services provide marketers with real-time access to consumers across every conceivable demographic and psychographic makeup.

I sat down recently with American Marketing Association Toronto chapter vice president strategy and insights Christopher Stathousis. He had this to say about research in the role of gathering insights:

“Traditional research methodologies based on waterfall thinking with long planning, launch and measurement cycles don’t work in the new world of human-centered innovation. In today’s fast-paced world of marketing innovation, organizations no longer have the luxury of time for long planning and testing cycles and the risk–tolerance of slower traditional qualitative and quantitative survey research approaches.”

Coming from the market research world I see the value of online research as a way of validating decisions and understanding consumer behaviour. However, I believe that true consumer insight comes from developing and engaging in one to one relationships with your customers. This is most apparent with communities and media that cater specifically to niche audiences that quite literally live and breathe the attributes of these segments.

The Coke experience

There are many examples of brands that invest a tremendous amount of resources to better understand and engage their customers. Take Coca-Cola for example. Coke is investing in innovation labs in order to better understand their consumers and keep a pulse on changing trends and tastes.

I would imagine that Coca-Cola launched their innovation lab to avoid one of their spectacular failures in product launches: New Coke. New Coke was launched in 1985 as a response to the Pepsi Taste Challenge. At this point, Pepsi had been performing better in consumer taste tests due to the sweeter nature of the product. As an effort to rejuvenate the brand to compete against Pepsi’s increasing popularity among the younger generation through the Pepsi Taste Challenge, Coke launched a sweeter version of their classic product to replace the original under the assumption that consumers would love the product.

But as history tells us, New Coke was an absolute disaster with many consumers boycotting the product and brand due to their affinity to the original formula

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. The learning from New Coke tells us that marketing leaders are continuously evolving their organizations to gather insights from their consumers on a regular basis1.


Global design company IDEO has been championing the idea of human-centred design. It rapidly gained popularity as many marketers were drawn to its pure simplicity.

Using behavioural data, IDEO consults with organizations to create more agile and effective products and environments. Its secret sauce is its ability to gather insights through the eyes of their target audiences by using qualitative research to develop solutions that are quite literally built from their own shared experiences. This humanized approach to gathering insights has become a model to marketers across the world.

Applying insights to cannabis marketing

In Canada, one of the most topical industry discussions is around the legalization of the sale of cannabis that takes effect October 17, 2018. While other marketers are focused on licensed producers and retailers, I’m fascinated by how data and consumer insights will affect this new space.

Lift & Co, self-proclaimed as the “Trip Advisor” for cannabis, specializes in aggregating consumer reviews of cannabis products. Its focus differs from most companies in the cannabis space as it is investing in data and technology to better understand consumers’ usage of cannabis products. Upon legalization it will also be launching the “Cannabis Concierge”, which will allow retailers to use this crowdsourced consumer data to help individuals understand which cannabis products are right for them.

With the launch of new industry in Canada, this type of data and insight will be absolutely essential for cannabis brands to understand how to market to a brand-new audience.

Marketers today have a wide variety of tools to tap into from consumer research and crowdsourced data to social media listening tools. That being said, I believe that one of the most valuable tools that marketers can tap into are specialized communities where relationships are engrained through always on engagement.

Matt Chong is vice president, strategic development and partnerships at Notable Life. As a seasoned strategist and consultant, Matt works with brands and agencies to help them better understand the young professional millennial audience in Canada. Matt is also the current sitting president of the Toronto Chapter of the American Marketing Association and founder of e-commerce startup Chong Tea Co.

1 Ellie Kennedy, “New Coke: A Classic Brand Failure”, case study, Inform, University of Reading, July 11, 2016.

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