I recently stumbled across a well-known quote from Intuit Founder Scott Cook that encapsulates the paradigm shift that businesses face today: “A brand is no longer what we tell consumers it is, it is what consumers tell each other it is.” There is no power struggle between marketers and consumers, no more push-and-it-will-come strategy, and no ripe-for-the-picking clan of consumers walking around uninformed and uneducated with wallets out.

But brands do have a choice. They can wake up every day uncertain about where consumers will take them, or they can be proactive participants in the journey. While the smart brands are ceding control, they do not defer when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunity that the newly empowered and socially outgoing consumer affords: the ability to learn and become consumer fluent.

Being consumer fluent, or knowing consumers inside and out, is about more than just staying informed – it’s about enabling brands to iterate, refocus and give people the experiences, products and services they want.

So what does being consumer fluent look like, and how do you get there? Consumer-fluent brands tend to follow these three pillars of business: 

1) They Analyze the Root Cause
Knowing “what” is the easy part. Any brand worth their salt knows what their customers purchase, what they like and share on social media, what movies they watch, food they eat, clothes they wear, and so forth. Some would call that knowledge insight, but leading organizations call it a nice start. The root cause, or “why,” is the real prize. Getting to it requires skill and resolve. Whether it’s uncovering the drivers behind a low NPS score by analyzing the open-end responses, or digging in qualitatively to unearth why consumers added those non-necessities to their shopping cart, the reward is the same. Root-cause understanding allows you to make smarter choices and pull the right levers. It can tell you that your call center issues don’t stem from poor customer service, but from unrealistic expectations set on the sales side. Or it can help you understand that your low product satisfaction scores are because your photos online look far superior to the product that actually comes in the mail. Knowing “why” sets you on the right path and is a crucial component to fluency.

2) They Learn Their Customers’ Language

The importance of understanding the language consumers use every day, as well as the language they use to talk about your brand and the competition, is often overlooked. When analyzing language, many companies take it at face value, deferring to word counts and rudimentary sentiment analysis. But meaning and associations do not reside at the outer layer. Best-in-class organizations go deeper to understand subtext and inference. Moreover, they take great care in assessing language’s passion and level of intensity. Whether by analyzing the context and the relationships between ideas in consumer commentary, or by following up with probing questions, there are ways to get more direction from words than ever before. When you understand your consumer’s language and take the opportunity to make their vocabulary yours, you’ve taken a crucial step in fostering successful engagements. 

3) They Get Fully Immersed with Their Audiences
We would all do well to put on our anthropologist hats when looking at key audiences. Any group of interest, whether it’s millennial women or Gen X dads, is complex and can’t be understood and engaged effectively using piece-meal research and data points. Organizations that are able to establish trust and rapport with their audiences are increasingly taking the initiative to learn about them from the ground up, and keep learning over time. By letting go of preconceived notions and truly having exploratory conversations, you can uncover habits, learn about influences and start to understand culture. Companies that are fluent in their consumers don’t just test with them, they talk with them, often with a goal as simple as acquiring knowledge. While it’s an initiative that is both long-term and intensive, the benefit is that you’ll know significantly more about your audience then your competition, and how valuable is that?                 

In the end, consumer-fluent companies win because they are armed with a deeper understanding of their audiences and a clear path to successful engagement. They harness every opportunity –big or small – to learn everything they can about their audiences, and recognize the reward in the continuous cycle of learning. How fluent are you?