When sociologist Jane Jacobs artfully depicts crowds on a city sidewalk, she may as well be describing consumers. In Jacobs’ words:

“Under the seeming disorder . . . is a marvelous order. It is a complex order . . . This order is all composed of movement and change . . . ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole . . . in any one place [it] is always replete with new improvisations.”

Her language vivifies urban streets but also sums up today’s state of consumers: The seeming chaos that follows disruption betrays a marvelous and complex order underneath it. We captured this when we identified the five dimensions of consumer empowerment that explain changes from Pokémon GO’s flash-in-the-pan megatrend to Apple’s waning appeal among metropolitan Chinese consumers. And while smart business leaders connect the dots of their consumers’ digital lives to see an orderly whole, they must also prepare for improvisation — such as when consumers try out new tools to satisfy their needs.

Decoding patterns of consumer behavior has always been the first step to winning in the age of the customer. After living and breathing consumer data for nearly a decade, I’m thrilled to join Forrester’s CMO practice to infuse our incisive thought leadership with data-driven frameworks and cutting-edge research techniques and to accelerate our pursuit of fresh consumer insight that drives momentum in shifting markets. As 2019 gets into full swing, so does my journey to advance our analysis, interpretation, and predictions about the complex, dynamic, and evolving consumers that keep you in business every day.

But it’s tempting for firms with a well-oiled customer insights team or data-savvy marketing force to believe that they already have the tools to reach consumers effectively. So why are we ramping up our consumer focus? Because no matter how sophisticated your segmentation models, how rich your focus group feedback, or how sharp your intuition about what consumers want and when, you must continuously challenge your thinking around consumers in order to stay alive. Consider this in the context of three paradoxes. As business leaders, you:

  • Overhaul operations and technologies to deliver great experiences, but the quality of your experiences lives entirely in your customer’s head. Companies race to digitize services that appear to match customer demands of the moment, but consumer desires are fickle, and sometimes low-stakes improvements have the most powerful effect. True customer obsession is not about catering to the whims of entitled consumers; it’s about designing the context for consumers to feel valued. This year, watch for my new research that diagnoses your consumers’ emotional context and tracks their fluctuating appetite for change.
  • Make calculated business decisions to maximize revenue and shareholder returns, but your company is a sinking ship if it’s not constantly creating new consumer value. Empowered customers prove that companies can go from hero to zero overnight and that no brand is too big to fail. As CX stagnates and product utility hits parity, brands must deliver radically creative value to stay in their consumers’ orbit — for example, by catalyzing consumers to act on issues they care about. My forthcoming research takes a closer look at the relationship between purpose and profit and the potential for brands to become a critical source of meaning for consumers.
  • Must compete in a world that whirls with disruption but also note that in some ways, your consumers don’t change at all. It’s easy to get swept up in the buzz around budding consumer trends, but hype clouds the broader cultural and economic forces at play that explain the drivers and implications of these trends. Rather than chasing relevance or hastily defending the brand against potential threats, leaders must understand how their customers are fundamentally changing and what consistencies they can leverage to minimize shocks to the business. In the coming months, I’ll examine the direct-to-consumer trend through this critical lens and unveil the research at Forrester’s Consumer Marketing 2019 Forum.

Leaders must equip themselves with — and relentlessly sharpen — critical consumer insight to drive real transformation. The bold already are. Join us as we intensify our unique combination of deep expertise and rigorous consumer research to help you lead change. I invite Forrester clients to connect with me via inquiry and nonclients through LinkedIn and Twitter to ask questions, trade ideas, brainstorm solutions, or sharpen strategies. The endeavor to measure, interpret, and act on patterns of human behavior is nothing new — which is exactly why it will never get old. I’m looking forward to it.