Almost every fmcg and retail company says in its mission or values that understanding and applying consumer insight is central to its approach. We work with many such companies, and the degree to which they live up to the theory varies widely. Some consistently live it, others less so.

So how do you know if your company is genuinely consumer and shopper-focused? Here are three things to look for.

First, is your insight team focused on the big picture rather than the smaller details? Typically, insight teams do a lot of work checking how consumers respond to different ideas, products, store formats and more. This work can be important, but it is far less important than the bigger questions. How are people living? What do they aspire to? How does your brand or service fit?

Yes, do the work understanding if people prefer a raspberry or strawberry flavour. But do much more work understanding how your offer will fit in the new world. People are moving towards subscription services and last-mile delivery is growing. Consumers are being influenced digitally in new ways. For many, money is tight and choice is exploding. Your insight people should spend 80% of their time understanding dynamics like this, and their implications, and only 20% double-checking your ideas and initiatives are working.

Second, encourage your insight team to speak truth to power. Companies need insight leaders with the skills, courage and opportunity to talk to decision makers – to constructively challenge them with what consumers want and need, and what they are actually getting. When I worked for a large, struggling retailer, there was little opportunity to have such conversations with the execs. Then with new leadership, and the company beginning to succeed, the insight team met the board twice a year, with an uncensored, honest presentation of what we were hearing and seeing from customers. Challenging, sometimes controversial insights and ugly truths are often necessary to move companies forward, especially in turnaround situations.

Finally, consumer focus has to be driven from the top. It requires leaders (especially the top dog) who spend time talking and listening with customers. Yes, they should read the monthly satisfaction or brand image numbers. But it is more important they have an empathetic feel for consumers as people – observing them, talking to them and thinking about how to do a better job for them.

So, focus your insight people on the big picture and encourage them to speak candidly with leaders. Find and support leaders who have a feel for consumers, and who will model consumer-driven behaviour. That’s how to walk the talk on consumer focus.