TRA Journal

Why we need to go beyond understanding the individual to become truly customer-centric

Andrew Lewis

During my time on this planet I’ve had three quite separate ‘lives’ from a beer perspective. 

The first life saw me in full mainstream Christchurch ‘one of the boys’ mode, drinking Canterbury Draught (Our Beer!) from plastic jugs at the Halswell Tavern or Lincoln University stein. In this life I valued the absolute unswerving patriotism, universal acceptance (and let’s face it, the rather sweet and uncomplicated palate) of the drop. 

But we grow, and in my next life, as part of a wider transition from a student into a Young Auckland Professional (single word, rhymes with ‘anchor’), my second beer life saw me dive straight into the shiny, premium lager existence of ‘Heineken Man’. This life was all about looking worldly and sophisticated while enjoying the crisp, tart simplicity of ice-cold Euro-lager.

The third, and current beer life has seen another remarkable about-face in taste profiling, as I find myself delving into the musty, beardy world of craft beer. In this life I find myself announcing preferences for double-hopped IPA and claiming to know the taste difference between Sauvin and Riwaka hops (I don’t).

If you were to ask me how these monumental shifts in beer preference occurred, I would certainly try to tell you that these were clear, considered changes in my individual decision behaviour, directed by me and reflecting the needs and motivations that well up from deep inside me. I would note my increasingly sophisticated palate demanding a more meaningful experience from my beer of choice, and my changing life stage and the shifts this brings in the things we feel we want from life. 

At some level, all of these feelings I have of personal agency about my changing choices are probably true. But what’s funny when I look at my beer-life-transition is just how closely it reflects everybody’s journey through this category. 

A quick look at beer volume statistics in New Zealand show a clear movement away from mainstream beer brands and into premium lagers across the late 90’s and early 2000’s, followed by a remarkable growth of craft beer volumes over the past 15 years or so. In fact, it’s not even just a New Zealand thing. If you picked pretty much any beer market in the entire developed world, you see the same journey unfolding from mainstream to premium to craft.

A cultural force field 

So while I feel like I have been making my own choices, based on my own individual needs, clearly this isn’t entirely true. Something else has been going on around me that has been impacting a huge amount of other people in the same way, at the same time.

And the interesting thing is that it’s not just beer either. If you stop and think about all the categories you make decisions in and reflect on the general changes you have made in your choices, what becomes fascinating is just how many of our individual journeys are simply facsimiles of many other people’s same experiences. 

A movement from jeans hanging off your arse, to skin tight, to cropped above the ankle? From grunge to house to indie to R&B? Food mash-ups? Fancy feasts to fast casual? 


The scary, but amazingly obvious truth about our decisions, when we stand back and chart their progress against general movements in our peer groups, markets, countries and planet, is that they tend to follow clear patterns, with distinctive ideas fuelling their progress. 

Indeed, researchers from Durham University recently proved that not only does decision-making move in clear cycles through a whole range of categories as diverse as music, baby names and dog breeds, but changes happen at a predictable rate of reinvention. For example, if you looked at the Billboard Top 200 chart from 1950 onwards, the rate of turnover sits at a fairly stable 6% each month.

So, when looked at as a whole, not only does decision making change in clear patterns within categories over time, it often does it at a fairly predictable rate!

Outside in, not inside out

Now, on one level you are probably thinking that’s all pretty obvious stuff – I think we all know that categories are driven by trends and fads. But we need to reflect on that universal truth because it means our decision-making is hugely driven by what’s happening around us.  

It means that while we like to think about ourselves as captains of our own ship, for the large part we are not. We are constantly taking in the shifting culture around us and applying it to our decision criteria to shape outcomes – whether we are conscious of this or not.

And let’s take that idea further, in particular as we put on our hat as business professionals in the game of generating demand for our wares. We all find it easy to think of a category such as fashion or music as highly driven by cultural change, but is there any reason why we should not consider any other human decision-making endeavour to be similarly driven by the wider forces of culture? How about what we look for in an experience with a bank? Or how brand communications are shaped in order to connect? Or what qualities we will seek from our breakfast cereal over the coming years?

When we seek breakthrough insights to drive customer-centric thinking around a service, brand, category or communication, what does this idea of the influence of our surroundings suggest about where we look for answers and inspiration?

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, author and academic Douglas Holt positioned social media as heralding a new age in branding and marketing because of the impact it has on the diffusion of culture. The connection that social media brings, Holt argues, means that ideas spread much faster from subcultures into the mainstream. His argument primarily relates to how brands are losing their traditional ground as cultural innovators, via the advertising they produce. But he also exposes that the potential for culture to impact decision-making, and the speed with which it can do this, is now greater than ever.

If we used to be influenced by TV and radio alone, what does the introduction of this hyper-connected, always-on social media do to the way we structure our choices?

Interestingly, much of what behavioural economics has to say on the subject of decision-making supports this idea that the outer world influences our inner world when we make decisions. A central tenant of behavioural economic theory is the idea that we seek to remove decision burden as much as possible by taking a default position in the choices we make – going with the popular option, the default setting that we think others will make. Other tenants around the power of anchoring, framing, the role of the messenger all further suggest that the influence exerted by our surroundings on our choices must be fantastic.

Building a cultural framework

The upshot of all of this is that if we want to be customer-centric in our business practice, it is an understanding of culture and context that is critical for achieving this. We humans are herd creatures, and much of what we think or do is driven by what is happening outside of ourselves.

So how do you bring an understanding of the wider cultural context into your business? At TRA our practice focuses on developing a clear structure around the core drivers of both our ingrained cultural codes as a country and the impact of global currents of change that are sweeping through. Using a combination of broad reaching data capture, artificial intelligence and specialist expertise in decoding culture, we build a framework to guide an understanding of how culture impacts a client’s category and how key ideas within this can be harnessed to drive innovation, improvement and relevance.   

The good news for business is that once built, this cultural framework for a brand lives and breathes, adapting as new information comes in, allowing us to stay on code with what people demand of us. By travelling upstream from simply looking at how individuals interpret their own needs, we find a clearer understanding of what it means to be truly customer-centric.