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McKinsey & Company

Optimizing to Customer Worldview is Competitive Advantage

Optimizing to Customer Worldview is Competitive Advantage

Quick paths to efficient growth are hard to come by. Knowing and acting on customer worldview may be one of them. Oh, and your competition will likely not pursue it because it feels dicey.

Sounds great, but can your business deal with it?

It seems like an odd business question - if the promise is there for growth and efficiency, then you can deal with it! But then you stop to think about holding meetings with colleagues about customers as liberal and conservative. Hmmm. How’s that going to go? Will meetings turn into political arguments? Will HR call and ask what you were thinking?

Two technology companies, Basecamp and Coinbase, famously banned political discussion in the office in 2020 and 2021, one citing that it’s too distracting. Basecamp and Coinbase are “virtual first” companies; they both staff with a more remote workforce. Due to geographic distribution, this workforce will be far more diverse with liberal and conservative worldviews. By contrast, companies with large headquarters in urban centers tend to have an overwhelmingly liberal culture. In those instances, there will be fewer political arguments.

Knowing this - that the discussion I am proposing sounds like it might be banned in some companies - is it worth it? And if you do it, how do you approach it?

It turns out to be pretty straightforward, and teams will likely find it very interesting because it has nothing to do with politics. But your competition will probably dodge the process, which is great for you and your business.

The way to make the process straightforward is to do three things: Detach the exercise from politics, use a neutral system for uncovering opportunities, and execute with a self-awareness that allows you to consider customers as having a worldview that’s not the same as yours.

Detaching the exercise from politics is not complicated for most people but difficult for some. The trick is to focus on worldview, and more specifically, your customer’s worldview, not politics. A worldview is a way of seeing the world. Politics is one expression of a worldview. What people buy is another.

This distinction between worldview and politics helps keep politics at arm’s length. Certainly, when you bring up conservative and liberal worldviews, there will be a strong temptation to link it to politics, which must be resisted for this exercise. Some will find that task easier than others. I have found that you sometimes have to listen to some politics for about ten minutes, and then you can get on with the exercise.

Having a neutral system for evaluating opportunities supports detaching the exercise from politics. Here we can use a hundred years of research in social anthropology adapted to the American consumer. Mary Douglas, one of the most famous social anthropologists, outlines the components of a foundational model in what she referred to as Group-Grid. This model can then be extended to a host of attributes for the American conservative and liberal customers in a dispassionate way.

Keeping the conversation focused on customers and having discussions guided by a neutral framework can go very far toward turning this into an interesting exercise for everyone.

Mary Douglas certainly ran into people who struggled to consider a neutral stance in evaluating cultures and groups. She commented in her book, Thought Styles:

The task of cultural theory is to decompose the elements of the argument, and show how each vision derives from a distinctive vision of society . . . If the debaters were to take up their issues from the vision of society instead of from its justification, they would confront the choice between organizing principles instead of vilifying one another for moral obloquy. Between visions of society, there is no moral judgment. We are dealing in preferences, assessments of the outside conditions for achieving different kinds of results.

It’s the “moral obloquy” that you want to avoid in favor of “achieving different kinds of results” - better business results.

The third important aspect of the exercise is looking at customers without imposing your worldview - or that of your colleagues. This sounds simple, but it can take a bit of work in practice. The problem is that it can be hard not to project your worldview onto a market when considering what customers want or like. You have to think of customers completely dispassionately on this front. This requires stepping outside of yourself, as well as your market, to allow customer insights to surface. It’s acknowledging that customers may see the world differently from you.

Nobel laureate and author Daniel Kahneman put it this way when being interviewed by Kara Swisher on her podcast, Sway:

We look at the same world, and we look at it with confidence. I feel that I’m right in most of my judgments and I feel so do you. I respect my colleagues, and I like them. And they are looking at the same world. I expect them to see the same world that I see. But in fact, they don’t.

It seems like a simple task to acknowledge that customers may be different, but it can get a little more complicated when it comes to worldview. It’s not uncommon, for example, for founder CEOs to project their worldview through the business onto the market. In this case, few may push back on their worldview, especially if they are very opinionated. The most successful CEOs, of course, listen and are open to thinking analytically about their business. They are also typically under a lot of pressure to grow the business, so new growth opportunities are often welcome.

You can see that conducting a customer and market exercise around worldview doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you get into the process, it’s pretty dispassionate.

Here’s an example: liberal customers are prone to seek answers about the future. In contrast, conservative customers are more prone to wanting to maintain the present, so the future is more of a known quantity for them. These are example themes a business can use to frame products that don’t have an ounce of politics. Two very successful companies - and WeatherTech - each employs liberal or conservative signals that speak to worldview, not politics. You can read a detailed account of those two companies here.

The cost of revealing customer worldview opportunities is very low - a few meetings and a small amount of research. So if your organization can execute a worldview assessment and optimize better toward how customers think - and your competitors don‘t - you may have one of the lowest-cost competitive advantages you can find.

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