Shirley Polykoff was a legendary advertising professional and a copywriter par excellence. She went on to emerge as one of the early women leaders of advertising [remember Peggy Olsen, the underappreciated copywriter in the series MadMen]. Polykoff began her life writing copy for a clothing store at an early age of twenty-one. While at Foote Cone & Belding, New York, she created advertising history with her campaign for Clairol hair colour. The ‘Does She … or Doesn’t She’ Clairol campaign is considered to be one of the most effective ad campaigns of all time. By using pictures of moms with children, she made hair colour a widely accessible product. She even became the agency’s highest paid employee and the first female board member.

Why is she of relevance in this book review?

Shirley Polykoff is reported to have observed that she is nothing but an articulate consumer in a client’s board room. Pay attention to each of the words. She is pointing out to something that we will soon dive into; the fact that boardrooms and consumers are in two different planets. Secondly, she says she was an ‘articulate’ consumer, not a silent one. She represented consumers, their aspirations, desires, worries and fears in a company’s boardroom. And she managed to create impact.

Interesting observation since Rama Bijapurkar has also been doing this in Indian board rooms for the last two decades. In corporate boards that are packed to the gills with CAs, lawyers and retired IAS officers, she has been holding the candle for the ‘articulate consumer’. Not only has she played this role to perfection in multiple board assignments, she has also been teaching a full credit course at her alma mater, IIM Ahmedabad. The book ‘Customer in the Boardroom?’ is an abridged version of her course. So those of us who are not able to attend her lectures, discuss the cases, can now dive into this book to understand how bringing a customer into the boardroom can make a big difference to a company’s fortune.

Inward focussed boards

You may wonder, aren’t company boards concerned about consumers? Why do you need an articulate consumer in your boardroom? The truth be told, most companies and corporate boards are inward focussed: what technology do we have, what can we make next, what is our R&D lab creating, what is our competitor doing etc. The big questions like who is our customer, how are they changing, what can we do to fulfil a latent need, are questions that don’t get discussed enough.

Bijapurkar presents a very comprehensive ‘Customer Based Business Strategy [CBSS] Framework’ which takes off from the usual strategy framework and its standard questions [where are we today, where do we want to go, how do we get there]. What CBSS does is it puts customers at the centre of the strategy pie by asking several key questions. Where should we compete [in which parts or segments of the market to play in, with what intensity?], how to compete and what are the sources of competitive advantage.

Deep dive into decisions

The book starts by presenting the CBSS framework. Then we are taken on a deep dive into the ‘where to compete decision’ and ‘how to compete decision’. One of the most important chapters, at least for this reviewer, was the chapter on ‘designing the value package and value delivery system’; how cost and price cannot be linked without understanding the value that a product is delivering to the consumer.

Companies do not spend enough time to understand what ‘value’ a consumer is deriving from using the product; the inward focus on cost of manufacturing [and raw materials] leads to a lot of value non-discovery. The chapter on consumer insights has numerous examples from her life as a market researchers and consumer insights consultant. The last chapter lays down a recipe for putting CBSS into practice in an organisation.

The book is heavy on strategic concepts with numerous examples drawn from legends of strategy like CK Prahalad, Theodore Levitt, Michael Porter, Gary Hamel, S Ramachander and more. That was yet another attraction this reviewer found in the book.

All in all this is not a book that you can keep on your bedside table as a late night snack. You need to dive into this book with a pen and a yellow highlighter in hand in order to derive the maximum benefit. And then you can rightfully claim that you attended Rama Bijapurkar’s class on Customer Based Business Strategy course in IIMA.

Customer in the Boardroom: Crafting Customer-Based Business Strategy
Published: Penguin Business (IIMA business books)
Author : Rama Bijapurkar
Price: ₹399 Pages: 256

Check it out on Amazon.

(The reviewer is a best selling author of eleven books and an independent brand coach)