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Mapping Customer Thinking with Theories-In-Use

Mapping Customer Thinking with Theories-In-Use

Valarie A. Zeithaml, Bernard Jaworski, Ajay K. Kohli, Kapil R. Tuli, Wolfgang Ulaga and Gerald Zaltman

Theories In Use

A recent article in the Journal of Marketing offers managers a novel qualitative research approach they can use to better understand their customers, employees, and partners. The approach—called theories-in-use (TIU)—is rooted in the recognition that individuals’ everyday decisions and actions generally operate below their conscious awareness. It explains why people have trouble explaining their behavior and knowing why it is or is not successful. Direct and deep interaction between the theory holders and researchers (either company or academic researchers trained in the technique) can reveal the underlying mental models that drive decision-making and behavior. For example, a TIU approach could allow managers to map their customers’ underlying core thinking about the company’s products and services. With insights about the factors that motivate positive perceptions and choice, managers can design more effective marketing responses. Similarly, a TIU approach that compares and contrasts high performing and lower performing personnel could identify critical competencies and therefore lead to effective training programs. A similar approach could also be used with distributors and other partners.

Studying Customers

TIU is well-suited to situations where managers need a fine-grained understanding of how customers make decisions. For example, it provides a strategic playground for questions such as:

  1. What types of customer thoughts are missing from a customer’s thinking that, if present, would favor my product or service? How do I introduce these into their thinking? What tactics will succeed?
  2. What mental connections work to my favor and should be reinforced?
  3. Which present ideas would I like to eliminate or diminish in importance? How do I weaken them?

Investigating Key Strategic Topics

Role of Marketing in the Firm

A dominant view exists in marketing that “best practice marketing” entails segmenting markets, selecting target segments, developing differentiating value propositions, and then activating a marketing mix. Any or all of these basic steps could be challenged using a TIU approach. For example, under what conditions does segmentation still matter and when is segmentation inappropriate?  When do differentiated value propositions decrease sales rather than increase sales? And, thinking more broadly about the function, when should marketing “not have a seat” at the table in business unit strategy discussions?

Organic Growth

The litmus test for any high performing CEO, general manager, or brand manager is year over year profitable organic growth. The problem in our discipline is that we often approach growth as a marketing issue. However, from a firm perspective, the issue is how to integrate all back office and commercial functions to drive organic growth. Marketing is only once piece of this puzzle. When should marketing play a prominent (or less prominent) role in shaping the growth strategy? When is it appropriate to have “Chief Growth Officers” lead these growth efforts? What role should marketing assume when a firm decides to hire Chief Growth Officers—and not Chief Marketing Officers?

Digital Transformation

This topic is front and center for most Fortune 500 firms, yet little theory exists to guide firms in structuring market communications, collecting consumer intelligence, or building customer-facing digital platforms. Research in this domain can also closely examine the implications of digital transformation for the marketing organization within a firm. For example, whereas social media is largely viewed as an avenue for advertising and promotions, a number of firms are actively using social media channels for customer service, direct sales, and market research (see for example, efforts of KLM and Snickers Hungerithm Campaign). The multifaceted use of digital media raises several questions for the structure of marketing organization. For example, who should own the responsibility for planning and executing digital social media efforts? Is it the marketing department? What is the role of customer service and sales departments in these efforts? Digital challenges also have a corollary consumer research issues that could also benefit from a TIU approach—how do consumers experience their social media communications with organizations? What are the consumer benefits and costs of using digital platforms? Finally, a large set of public policy issues have emerged related to privacy, hacking of personal information, and regulatory interventions such as censoring.

Read the full article.

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Valarie A. Zeithaml is David van Pelt Family Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Bernie Jaworski is the Peter F. Drucker Chair at the Drucker School of Management. He has published extensively in the most highly regarded marketing journals and has been ranked among the most highly cited scholars in the field of marketing. He has won all three major awards from the Journal of Marketing—the Maynard, Alpha Kappa Psi, and Jagdish Sheth Award—as well as several other awards. For 10 years he was a senior partner at Monitor Group, a global management consulting firm, where he helped lead several large-scale transformations of marketing at Fortune 500 firms.

Ajay K. Kohli is Regents’ Professor and Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Kapil R. Tuli is Associate Professor of Marketing, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University.

Wolfgang Ulaga is Senior Affiliate Professor of Marketing, INSEAD, France.

Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author and editor of 20 books.