24 June 2008

Valence Marketing at Unit 7

One of the consequences of framing a company as a valence organization is the realization that employees and customers are equivalent. Several of my participant organizations have recounted how the stark difference between the ways in which they regarded and treated their employees, and how they regarded and treated their customers led to their respective cultural transformations. But what does it mean to perform marketing from a valence-organization perspective?

Unit 7, one of my participant organizations (which has given me permission to disclose their identity), provides an object lesson in valence marketing. As reported in a recent article on BrandWeek.com, 39 members of the 100-person Unit 7 organization decided to immerse themselves as their target consumers to learn more about living as recently diagnosed, Type 2 diabetics.
Most are perfectly healthy people. Yet they’ve subjected themselves to a unique, pioneering experiment. For 14 weeks, the members of this group assumed the roles of patients newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. They hit the gym religiously; they watched enviously as their friends ate candy bars that they could not; and they picked up a blade and forced blood from their fingers.

The aim of this experiment wasn’t to show how far medical science has come. Instead, it demonstrated how far the study of marketing has come. The members of the group are all employees of a relationship-marketing agency called Unit 7, and it is attempting to be at the forefront of what can be best described as “empathetic marketing.” In the past, marketers relied on focus groups of diabetics whom they interviewed in an attempt to guess what living with the disease was like. Since launching the program, however, some of the guesswork has been factored out; nearly half of Unit 7’s staff now has a much clearer idea of what living with diabetes is like.

This expertise is valuable to the health-related companies that Unit 7 counts among its client pool, corporations such as Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Meyers Squibb (which is currently developing new diabetes drugs with AstraZeneca). Unit 7’s leadership believed the value of this experiment went beyond what it could learn about diabetes alone; the sort of deprivations to which the firm’s marketers subjected themselves were a window into the world of any consumer forced to make health-related lifestyle changes.
Conventionally, gaining this type of knowledge is part of ethnography - living and participating as one of the community that a researcher is investigating. By itself, this is a relatively known form of research, something that Unit 7's "me-too" competitors are anxious to point out. But despite some of their sour grapes responses reported in the article, Unit 7 is onto something: Their remarkably collaborative culture is beginning to extend out beyond the walls of their agency, in true valence fashion. Unlike other marketing organizations that would consider this experiment as merely a research exercise, Unit 7's collaborative context sets the stage for this experience to be an authentic valence connection that strengthens the flux, or tactile intensity, among the companies and consumers that now comprise Unit 7's total valence-organization environment.

Congratulations to Loreen Babcock, and the other 38 members who participated in the B-Roll Inquiry.

Update (25 June 2008): Charles Green, who writes on matters of trust in business, provides his take on the B-Roll Inquiry, and why the naysayers have (cynically, in my view) missed the point.

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