Don’t fall for consumer-generated marketing

We’ve all experienced this: fear-obsessed managers willing to delegate every possible choice to “consumers”, in the form of focus groups, surveys or popular corridor tests.

And no, it’s not because consumers matter: it’s because consumers are outside the company, so they’re the only ones who can’t be held accountable for the consequences of their choices. Whereas presidents, marketing and product managers, strategists and consultants of the various kind fear that litterally any choice they take might jeopardize their career, in case things would not run perfectly smooth before the next quarter.

And today the whole “consumer+brand” Zeitgeist might provide the cultural ground to legitimate this degeneration more than ever, with companies being mere receptors of judgements from “The Consumers”

It wouldn’t work.

And not quite because of the immediate response by all of us: if consumers are taking all choices and decide where the money should be put, then what the heck are managers getting paid that much for? If I need someone to write questions and collect answers…well, we all know who we’ld hire instead.

But rather because:

1. In a world of multiple identities, liquid modernity, long-tails and so on, if you think that running a couple focus groups (or pretty much any current kind of research) means “talking with consumers”, or “learning what consumers think”, you’re a fool. Again, you are a fool.

2. Truth is, consumers don’t know better. They can give you hints, suggestions, provide insight, even come up with interesting ideas, but they lack:

  • universality: they state what matters to each of them, but they can’t provide a synthesis that goes beyond individual needs and wishes (and shouldn’t be asked to)
  • awareness of implications of whatever issue they’re confronted with
  • a deeper understanding of how certain mechanisms work (they can realize that a certain packaging shape makes them feel comfortable, but be unable to isolate exactly why. Let alone replicate it)
  • in general, talent. Revolutionary talent. Involve consumers, and you’ll get marginal improvements. Ask one or more talents, and you’ll get breakthrough innovations. (And by consumers I mean, well, consumers. Not people-not-currently-employed-in-my-company. Which makes this post consistent with the old one about ideas)

Does it mean you should drop consumers’ involvment? Of course not. But rely on consumers wisely, knowing they can provide answers, feedback and improvements, but are unlikely to change the world.

Take a look at what Akio Morita, Sony’s late visionary leader, states (special thanks to Piaras Kelly):

“Our plan is to lead the public rather than ask them what products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do. So instead of doing a lot of market research, we refine our thinking on a product and its use and try to create a market for it by educating and communicating with the public.”

Final Burp: If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse (Henry Ford)


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