Interview with Hugo Martin-Bonneville, customer experience strategist: Strategy does not only belong to strategists
If you love learning, one of the big advantages of working at an agency is being surrounded by an impressive number of inspiring experts. Occasionally I’ll check in with a few of them to share their most recent observations and discoveries and to get their unique perspective on the future of digital.
This month, I met up with Hugo Martin-Bonneville, Customer Experience Strategist. As part of our customer experience team, his role is to pick insights out of a mountain of information and advise clients on how best to respond to their users’ needs. He was formerly a strategic planner with DDB Canada and has also contributed to the rise of many brands, as well as government mandates.
Hi Hugo! Here’s a big first question for you: What got you interested in being a strategist?
During a business dinner when I had my first job, there was a strategist at the table. He had an impressive understanding of the market, was already able to identify opportunities and show the numbers to support them, information about targets… I was like, “My God, what he’s saying and the way he puts things is so interesting. I’d like to do that too.” From there, I started making all my career decisions towards getting a job like his. It takes patience, perseverance and effort, because positions in “strategy”, ultimately, there are a lot of contenders but not a lot of winners.
Why are strategist positions so popular?
The truth is, strategy isn’t just for strategists. It’s like creativity—it’s not just for people that are creative. Strategy is for everyone. We can all develop a strategic mindset. The difference with people that are strategists is that that’s what they actually do for a living. You inspire your co-workers to develop their strategic instincts. You really have to be passionate about strategy to do it all day long, but real strategists have that desire. The more it’s spread across an organization, the more it will thrive. It’s a way of seeing things. You need to encourage people to stop and think to ensure the most consistency possible.
How do you explain what you do for a living, other than talking about user testing and trends in behaviour?
People often ask what the difference is between marketing and sales strategy. Where does it start, where does it end, what are their respective territories? Gwendolyn’s article on the division of responsibilities in particular attests to this confusion.
Basically, it’s like we’re selling sunscreen on the beach. When it’s sunny, sales come easily. But when it’s raining, people don’t need sunscreen. In the end, strategy is just trying not to sell sunscreen to people who don’t need it. It’s about bringing people (and our clients) under the sun. That means we’ll focus our efforts at the right place because these people will already be qualified and more receptive to the offer. The basics of marketing don’t change: the right message about the right product to the right people at the right time. That’s the goal of strategy.
What’s the role for branding in this context?
In the beach and sunscreen analogy, the role of branding is the way the vendors will approach you on the beach, as well as the way you’ll perceive them. Because in the end, a brand is first and foremost a perception.
And what is the perception of a brand built on? Emotion or reason?
We generally adopt a rational point of view when analyzing and justifying an emotional perception. Take McDonald’s, for example. My arguments could be: they offer fast service, they’re near where I live and I like their fries. So I like the McDonald’s brand. That’s the thought pattern often applied to brands.
But what we’ve learned from the research of economics Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman is the behavioural economic model. Roughly speaking, what that means is that our brain operates at two speeds. There’s a more emotional part of the brain (fast thinking), which can process a lot of information very quickly, and therefore more intuitively, and there’s another part of the brain that is slower (slow thinking), which can only process a smaller amount of information more slowly. If I ask you how you’re doing today, you’ll answer automatically without even thinking about it: “Fine.” But if I ask you the answer to a complex mathematical equation, you’ll probably need time to think.
People tend to believe that brands have rational characteristics upon which we base our perception of them, but it’s the reverse. We first have an emotional perception of a brand, then after we find rational arguments to reinforce our predisposition towards the brand. So basically, the brand is an emotional construct.
That doesn’t mean we can’t influence how people feel about a brand. One of the challenges in strategy is finding how to deconstruct erroneous perceptions based on obsolete information. Those are major challenges in understanding and education that inbound techniques can respond to.
How do you handle that as a strategist?
I’ll get back to Kahneman. In his work on memory and experience, the observation he made is that we often remember our more recent experiences much better than all of our past experiences. Tests performed on people receiving medical procedures have now shown that someone who experiences a higher level of pain throughout a procedure which then diminishes at the end will have a reduced perception of pain compared to someone that experiences a lower level of pain that increases.
Ouch! How does that translate to brands?
Brand perception is equivalent to the last experience customers had with it. I could have been going to the same barbershop for 20 years because I like the service, but if my last haircut was unpleasant, it’s highly likely that I won’t ever go back. Unfortunately, it only takes one bad experience to change everything. That’s why you have to work very hard to offer an exceptional customer experience every time.
What’s interesting is that when you compare brands and customer experience, these two concepts are intimately linked. The brand tells you what the company does, how it does it and, most importantly, why it does it.
You think about Why, How, and What.
Simon Sinek’s idea, exactly. The brand will express these kinds of things, but customer experience is kind of like the back end of marketing. It will structure your elements so that you can actually do what you say you can do. Your brand is your store window, and customer experience is what happens when you go inside. It’s important to structure things internally to produce a good customer experience, so that your brand perception is good. Everything is interrelated and influences everything else.
Do brands generally achieve that?
Never forget that we’re talking about people. We can talk about consumers, about target markets, but they’re still people with full schedules like us, who are thinking about their family barbecue, about their youngest’s soccer practice. You have to reach out to talk to them, you have to think about them. Empathy will enable a good strategy for differentiation, including listening to people and practising good emotional intelligence.
How do you talk to people, how do you connect with them? How do they feel when they use your product? Numbers are important, and it’s important to have good #analytics, but you should never forget that we’re also talking about human beings. It’s also important to reach out and take the pulse of things directly. If you have questions about your customers, get out of your office. Go out and meet with them.
In closing, Hugo, do you have any advice for developing our strategic reflexes?
We sell ideas. So from this perspective, finding the right way of expressing yourself is essential. What’s important in strategy is making things simpler, not more complicated. Mark Pollard has some good things to say on the subject. You need to turn yourself into the most curious person in the world, get out of your current domain and dive into anthropology, history, economics, philosophy.
To that end, here’s a short list of summer reading!
- The Social Animal by David Brooks
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- Start With Why by Simon Sinek
Thanks Hugo, have a great summer!