Don't Just Sit There — Incubate

This is the second of three articles based on a dialogue between marketing expert Martin Lindstrom and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor-in-Chief Diane Merlino.

Innovative marketing maven, brand specialist, bestselling author and consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom gives the travel industry pretty low marks when it comes to identifying game-changing consumer trends.

In fact, says Lindstrom, whose most recent books include Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, and Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, the industry overall is “very conservative” and is “lagging behind” other industries in pursuing ethnographic research, one of his areas of expertise.

Are a lot of other industries conducting ethnographic research to develop and position products and brands?
In particular the manufactured consumer goods (MCG) industry — Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, Unilever — are all spending millions and millions of dollars on this type of research.

axesmborderUnilever developed Axe, the deodorant, by living with young guys to find out what their desires are around sex. And that became the foundation, not only for their advertising campaign, but also for the product design and new innovations. The entire way Proctor & Gamble developed Tide, and later on the new innovations for Duracell tidebatteries, and even the Old Spice campaign, they built all that by living with the consumer. This format has different degrees depending on how advanced it is, but it is pretty common among the MCG category. In the travel industry, you rarely see it.

Why do you think this type of research is so rare in the travel industry?
I think the industry believes — or has convinced itself — that it is close to the consumer because it gets so much feedback from people all the time. And because everyone is traveling themselves, they believe they know how it is to travel. But they are only seeing it from one angle. It’s a little bit like believing you have a strong understanding of children just because you have two children at home.

The dilemma for executives is a big thick wall between their own little universe and the rest of the world. That is a wall I recommend they break down, because as soon as they do that they will see a revolution is happening in their own industry.

A revolution? What do you mean?
The travel industry is incredibly conservative. I think it’s also fair to say that online we are starting to see some fairly innovative concepts in travel. The reason, typically, is that people who have had frustrations have created alternative solutions themselves. But it happened from outside; it’s not like people inside the industry are questioning what they are doing and saying let’s turn everything upside down and find a whole new way to address our challenges.

Why is it so important that travel industry companies change how they approach customer research and marketing?
My Buyology book is all about non-conscious consumer behavior. The book concludes that about 85% of everything we do every day is non-conscious, because that’s how our brain is built. But the only research we do today is conscious, which is uncovering just 15%. lindstromhorizontal 

I travel about 300 days a year and visit 50 to 60 countries a year. I’ve learned that when I’m jet lagged, which I am quite often to be honest, that I’m more irritable. And I know that I become more arrogant when I’m jet lagged. That means that I’m more likely to complain, and I’m more likely to be touchy when I’m traveling.

If you go back to internal training by the airlines on how to handle passengers, I’m sure they rarely take into consideration that some of their passengers are so extremely jet lagged that they don’t even have a short fuse — they have no fuse at all. Therefore, what irritates them is totally irrational compared to when they are not jet lagged; they see the world in a very different light.

Does that irrational customer syndrome apply just to the airlines?
I think it’s fair to say that the entire travel industry is every day managing millions of people who are behaving irrationally, yet the industry is measuring everything from a rational point of view. They are asking questions and having people fill out questionnaires but it’s all from a rational point of view — how was the customer service, how do you feel about this, what would you change?

What the travel industry needs to understand is if they can uncover the non-conscious behavior instead, suddenly they will uncover things which are totally different, and that in turn will create a new business model or even achieve a paradigm shift in the industry.

How can they do that, though?
It’s very simple. They first thing I would do if I headed up a travel company is I would ask the majority of my senior staff to identify an unknown person, a guest, and spend 48 hours with that person, get permission to live life with that person, in that person’s shoes. That’s the cheapest but also the most efficient way of doing research.

And by doing that the senior staff will start to see the world in a different way, start to see how consumers are really behaving rather than what you think they’re doing. Then I would exchange that information worldwide at an annual conference. You would have a mini-revolution happening from the inside.

There are a lot of major companies in the travel industry — cruise lines, hotel companies, airlines — that are successful based on the way they currently do customer research and marketing. What would you say to them?
When you become big it’s difficult to change because you are afraid of losing what you have. The travel industry is transforming right now due to many reasons, including the financial crisis around the world. Then there is the fear of disease, and the whole aspect that people now are driven by community; you don’t necessarily travel with family any more, you create a mini community and travel with likeminded people you found online.

As all of these new aspirations and aspects are coming into the industry the big players will be afraid of adapting or changing their platform, because they will be afraid of losing what they have. And that’s where the biggest risk and biggest challenge is coming for these companies.

What’s your recommendation for avoiding the limitations imposed by fear of change?
I would consistently have an incubator type of model in those larger companies, 10 or 15 people who are kind of isolated from the rest of the company. These guys have a mandate to transform the business model whenever they feel that there are signals coming from the surrounding world that the platform is changing. So you constantly have an eye on what’s going on.

But also this little group is reporting to senior management so they quickly can say, ‘There is a change and a potential risk for our business model to fall apart now. We have a solution for how to address it; it requires some courage, but this is the right time to do it.’ Rather than just saying, ‘I don’t believe anything is going to happen.’

That’s exactly the reason why Kodak is where it is, it’s the reason why Nokia (lost its dominant position). And it’s the reason why it seems like the entire telecommunications industry is falling apart, with services like Skype appearing. That industry did not want to see that a change was coming because it was so dependent on the revenue it already had. 

Also see: Forget Surveys. Move In With Your Customers


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