Susan Lee is senior vice president of business development for Valassis, with a focus on developing and executing corporate growth through strategic initiatives, partnerships, and M&A. She has over 18 years of professional experience working in advertising, technology, and innovation. In this interview, Susan shares her thoughts on changing consumer expectations and how companies can evolve alongside them.

Q: How do you think the buying journey has changed over the past few years?

A: From the marketer’s perspective, the process has changed to one that is considerably more complex and challenging. From the consumer’s perspective, though, the journey has changed in a way that’s easier and more beneficial.

In the past, the way one found out about a product, and the journey to buying it, was relatively linear and straightforward. You’d hear about something on TV or in a print ad, and it would very clearly be marked as an advertisement. Now, there are lots of different places to see ads, especially on your digital devices. Not all of them are even seen as “advertising.” Furthermore, messages are more targeted and personalized than ever before. The result is that you can be influenced by more — and more diverse — sources today than you could have in the past.

For example, consumers now see their peers as influencers, and they formally “follow” professional and celebrity influencers. Social networks, therefore, continue to be an important channel for people to find product recommendations, read reviews, and move down the purchase funnel. It feels much more organic because friends and followers are giving their unfiltered opinions on products, which carries a different kind of weight than the average advertisement. This is one of the many factors influencing consumer behavior.

A final example of how things have changed is that buying options have proliferated. When it comes to the purchasing process, you used to have a handful of places to buy something offline and were limited to your local store and inventory options. But with the growth of e-commerce, you have the ability to buy at your fingertips and then have the product arrive, in some cases, within the hour. You can purchase from big places like Amazon, from a smaller web store, or even on social channels themselves.

Q: Do you have any thoughts for marketers and brands on emerging demands from consumers today?

A: Be authentic. This goes for everything from the actual product and beyond, including how it’s made, where it’s made, and what its source is. People care about that, and they’re much more informed than they’ve ever been before. If people aren’t happy with that information, they can easily share it with others. Make sure you’re taking part in authentic marketing.

The younger generation is much more vocal about these things, but all generations have more access than they did before. Making sure that your message is genuine and truthful is important because it will spread quickly and negatively impact your brand if it isn’t.

Be personal. People are demanding a different journey and experience. 
They want the journey to be personal,
make sense, and have context. It has to be aligned with their lifestyles. Consumers are demanding that brands know them and then use that knowledge to market to them more effectively.

Q: What strategies or approaches should marketers use to engage consumers?

A: Understand consumers and have a relationship with them. Ideally, this is a bidirectional relationship. You’re not just profiling consumers and checking boxes to target them as a “demo” because today, you have the ability to go much deeper. You can have a direct connection to them that allows you to get feedback — good, bad, and ugly.

Do what you can to get feedback and implement it rapidly. Utilize customer feedback throughout your entire organization. Some of the insights and information your brand receives could be very valuable to your product development team. There are some trends and feedback that, if caught early and acted on rapidly, can result in a much more successful product development process and eventual product launch. The brands that have done really well with this tend to be the smaller direct-to-consumer type of brands. They not only have relationships in place, but they also receive and implement feedback quickly and use it to develop their products in the future. Even larger brands are trying to adopt these techniques into their own processes to operate in ways that are similar to these smaller companies.

Q: Is there a specific brand that is doing a good job of addressing the evolving consumer?

A: I think brands are doing this successfully in different ways. This one is nontraditional, but Netflix is doing a fantastic job. The company understands its customers and is using feedback and data to give viewers relevant TV shows, movies, and promotions. The service also creates phenomenal content, based in part on what its audience is viewing and what that audience likes and doesn’t like.

As an example, if Netflix wants to promote “Good Will Hunting” to viewers, it’ll highlight different themes and moments from the movie based on what the viewer has been watching. If a viewer has been watching a lot of romantic comedies, Netflix might show more of the romance or relationship dynamics from the film. But for a viewer who is more interested in algorithms and mathematics, the promotion would highlight those themes more.

It’s all based on the content that the customer likes or doesn’t like, staying personalized and tailored to his or her specific needs. Netflix is able to create a relationship with its customers by curating and promoting content that’s relevant to them. With six Oscars, it’s doing something right!