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May, 2024

4 lessons in customer insight, leadership and creative success from the former Global Radio UK CMO, Unilever ice-cream brand manager and MyBrandTruth co-founder, Giles Pearman

What you need to know:

  • Giles Pearman, the co-founder of MyBrandTruth, and former Global Radio UK group marketing director, has joined Mark Lollback’s Global Mentorship program to share his brand, marketing, startup and growth experiences with mentees.
  • The experienced leader, who readily admits to being customer and product marketing fit obsessed, believes too many marketing and brand teams are driven by the ‘data’ about customers or ticking the box of market research yet fail to get to the ‘why’ necessary to meeting modern customer need states.
  • Pearman also has plenty of lessons for the creative industries: Number one is being laser-focused on vision and one, unifying strategy; the other is to not be afraid to copy others – as he says, “you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel”.
  • If you want the proof of success, take his work at Global Radio, which has since seen commercial radio overtake the BBC for listeners, or how he helped Jude’s icecream switch from a losing battle against Unilever around dairy products, to carving out clear space in vegan and fast-growing categories like low-sugar varietals.

Fail to get to the truth of the customer through their emotional drivers, rather than just data, market research or focus groups, and you fail to humanise them, Pearman believes. And best of luck finding true product market fit that way.

The UK-based marketing guru, who has spent the last eight years coaching startups and helping businesses find growth through differentiated market positioning, has signed up as one of the first 28 mentors for Global Mentorship, a mentoring initiative set up by marketing, media and agency industry notable, Mark Lollback. As first reported by Mi3, Global Mentorship is a new business model connecting a handpicked, global assortment of experienced leaders and executives with mentees wanting to find someone externally willing to advise and support them professionally with discretion.

In bringing 30+ years of marketing, product development and brand experiences to the mentoring task, Pearman is the epitome of what the new program is trying to achieve: Access to practitioners with lots of hands-on experience who have been there, done it and have the scars to show for it. Pearman spent 16 years at Global Radio in the UK, including six years as group director of marketing, and was instrumental in building out the Heart Network to compete against BBC Radio. Earlier in his career, he worked in ice-cream marketing for Unilever, overseeing iconic brands such as Solero and Magnum.

“When you get people who have an awful lot of experience, they tend to have done lots of different kinds of jobs, have met lots of different kinds of people and have lots of different kinds of knowledge,” Pearman comments. “Coaching and mentoring requires an awful lot of understanding what people are like. That only comes with working with lots of people and looking for treasure.

“So when I mentor and coach, I’m looking for hidden treasure. And it’s the exact same thing I do when it comes to customer insight work; it’s the same process. You’re actively listening and looking for clues, triggers, emotional barriers and bridges. Out of those things you provide guidance and support.”

Lesson one: Why customers do what they do

Through MyBrandTruth, Pearman helps other brands find that customer truth to achieve product market fit and growth. And herein lies Pearman’s first lesson for his budding mentees – and every brand and agency leader who needs a reminder of what it means to identify customer needs.

“Unless you get to the truth of the customer, and what they really want, and what their emotional drivers are, rather than just the data, you don’t really get to humanise the customer, and you don’t understand how you can truly create product market fit,” he argues. “Product market fit is something I’m obsessed with. It’s when you know your brand flies off the shelf, because you don’t need to advertise it, everybody wants it, because it’s just perfect for that customer need state.”

As a case of what not to do, Pearman points to working in Unilever’s ice-cream department and the traditional market research approach taken to understanding customers.

“All the parents are saying their kids don’t eat sweets. I’m thinking, well, if everyone’s like this, we have no market. You know it’s not true,” he recalls. “I see three problems with that model [of customer research]. The first is companies think they’re ticking the ‘customer’ box. The second is they’re using an agency to do it, so there is conscious and unconscious bias going on. The third is they’re doing it entirely the wrong way, because those small numbers of people have been paid quite a lot of money and been pre-filtered by search companies. That’s the world I came from. Unilever learnt a lot about that later on and started doing deep dive, one-on-one interventions, rather than collective focus groups, as a result. 

“Everyone talks about ‘customer’ but they’re mostly talking about data. The problem with that is data can tell you anything you want it to tell you.”

Instead, Pearman points to Simon Sinek’s work contrasting the limbic brain, which controls our feelings and emotions, with the neocortex, which controls rational thought and language.

“The data will tell you everything about the neocortex; it will tell you nothing about the limbic brain,” Pearman says. “If it’s true, or even partially true, it means we’re making decisions in the feeling part of our brains, then trying to explain out of the feeling part of our brain factually why we’ve made decisions we’ve made.”

In Sinek’s Golden Circle approach – one Pearman clearly subscribes to – the key is to start with ‘why’. Then get very personal, very quickly.

“I’ve done hundreds of face-to-face customer interviews for the companies I’ve worked with, and simply started with ‘why’. That’s so I can get an emotional read on the reason why they engage, the reason why they’re leaving, what do they love about the product. That’s how you analyse product market fit in the first place,” Pearman explains.

“What you do is bucket those customer groups in love and hate, and you talk to them. You just understand, like you’re in the pub, why they do what they do. The insight you get out of it is so blindingly obvious, yet companies so often aren’t doing it.”

I've done hundreds of face-to-face customer interviews for the companies I've worked with, and simply started with ‘why’. That’s so I can get an emotional read on the reason why they engage, the reason why they're leaving, what do they love about the product. That’s how you analyse product market fit in the first place.

Giles Pearman, co-founder, MyBrandTruth

Lesson two: Champion the radiators, not the drainers

So ends lesson one. Pearman’s second hard-earned learning is one of talent management. He points to two kinds of people in business and personally: Radiators and drains.

“You have some people in your network, who every time you meet you meet them leave you with less energy because it’s all about their problems, challenges and issues. They might ask you how you are but that’s kind of a courtesy because really, it’s always about them,” he says. “There are other people you meet who are radiators, who are always interested and curious about you. They will talk about themselves, but they’re looking for your benefit – they’re looking to support you and strengthen you.

“Going back to the need for obsession around customer: The only person we should really be super serving is the customer. The radiators in your organisation will do that because they’re built to do that. The drains meanwhile, are much more self-serving, are focused internally, and on what they get out of situations, or how they can get people in the business to do stuff for them or take credit.

“If I was going to talk to a younger version of myself, I would have spent more time trying to coach and mentor those radiators, because they are the people who are game changers.”

Lesson three: The simple truth of creative industries

Pearman’s third lesson is one for the creative industries and takes its cues from his 16 years in the commercial radio industry, notably as group marketing director of Global Radio. As he explains it, commercial radio back then was “a fragmented, low invested, poor-quality product” that lied in stark contrast to the dominant BBC.

“We decided very early on – even as a messy startup – that we were going to create a brand to compete against each one of those four BBC brands,” he recalls. “We took 55 local radio stations and created one brand called the Heart Network. We positioned that against BBC Radio Two, which was the mass market, every day, easy listening station. Classic FM was already positioned against Radio Three… We took LBC, which was the UK’s oldest commercial radio station, and made that national to put it up against BBC Four. And we created the Capital Network from nine different radio stations, launching a network with big pop stars fronting it and positioning around it and putting it up against Radio One.

“The reason I tell this story is for the insights I got on how to work in the creative industries. There are some really simple truths.”

The first in Pearman’s book is to have a very clear vision. “If you have a very clear vision, where you can have it on a piece of paper and say, we’re just going to build four brands, we are going to compete against the BBC on those four brands, you can win. Now, commercial radio is bigger than the BBC – 39.1m weekly listeners to the BBC’s 31.3m.

“Part of the reason is you can then create programming that is networked, you can afford to pay bigger stars to be on your shows, and you can make bigger events. But it was all focused around these strategic imperatives. That was a big learning for me in in the creative industries: To have really clear focus. If you already know there are four cohorts of audiences, that there’s a market for it, and you reposition yourself around that, you’re pretty sure that’s going to work.”

Lesson 4: Don’t reinvent the wheel

Which leads to Pearman’s fourth big lesson: Don’t be afraid to steal other people’s ideas. “Don’t be so proud to think you need to reinvent the wheel the whole time,” he says.

A case in point was his work with artisan dairy ice-cream group, Jude’s, which historically distributed through restaurants, pubs and seaside F&B businesses. After Pearman’s time, the strategy had pivoted to selling non-dairy products through large supermarket chains and differentiating on niche, emerging consumption behaviours.

“Most people are so focused on what they’re doing day-to-day, they’re not taking that step back and saying this is the direction we need to go in. Jude’s can’t make better Magnums than Unilever so we said let’s not make a better Magnum, let’s make something different we know is following global trends, then strategically partner with a distribution channel, like a big supermarket, where you’ll be exclusive to them,” Pearman says.

All this came from identifying Jude’s big, hairy, audacious goal: Doing more work in the local community. This realisation also led to the Little Jude’s low-sugar range and sourcing more sustainable ingredients.

Everyone talks about strategy all the time, but people don’t talk about vision. The reality is what makes a leader a leader is they can see the future. Elon Musk can see the future – love him or hate him, he can see a future. It might not be the future. But it is a future that in his mind is clear enough, he can plot a course from what that future destination point is all the way back to now,” Pearman adds.