This quote from Steve Jobs is really challenging for those of us in Market Research to deal with. Here is the full quote:
“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘if I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Thorndike Press, 2011 (large print edition), Page 806-7)
If you know very much about Steve Jobs and how he built both Apple and Pixar, you know that this quote is literally true. He did not use Market Research to understand his markets or understand what consumers wanted. He didn’t get help from consumers to design his products or to help make any decisions. He used his own instincts and opinions – he listened to others but he often disregarded what other people said. And he was very, very successful at creating products that people not just like, they love them. Customers lined up for days on the first day the new iPhone and the latest iPad were are available. So, he seems to have had a point.
So what does that say about the profession of Market Research? Does that mean what we do is useless? Or is there something we can learn about how we should do our job?
Here are a few of my thoughts about Steve Jobs and market research:
- This worked for Steve Jobs because he was the target market for his products. He was less successful in other ventures (for example, with his computing company NeXT) when he didn’t understand the customers and their needs.
- He had great insight into how needs and technology can intersect and that gave him great power. It made him a genius.
- He had extremely exacting standards, beyond what consumers who are more casually involved in a product would have, so went above and beyond what consumers might tell you about quality.
- But he was right that consumers may not know what they want until you show it to them. And in fact, consumers may not even know what they want when you do show it to them if it is cutting edge.
What can we learn from his attitude towards market research?
- If we aren’t in our target market, we need to totally understand them. That means really getting to know them, not just listening to a report from our market research vendor. It means investing time in going into the field, and making sure our marketing colleagues do so also.
- Don’t assume that your target audience can tell you what they want. A story from a different source illustrates this point. A certain car company which wanted to increase market share for their mini-van conducted a study to ask consumers what they wanted. The answer came back “more cup holders.” But more cup holders didn’t work to sell more mini-vans. What finally worked was ethnographic research that provided the identified a problem that moms had in getting their young kids who were in car seats out of the car. The moms needed to walk around the car over and over again to get the kids. Adding another door on the driver’s side met that need and increased sales. Moms didn’t know what they needed, and it wasn’t what was asked for, but once consumers saw it, they knew it met their needs.
- If something you are doing breaks a current paradigm, consumers may respond negatively to it even if it may ultimately be successful. The critics’ initial reaction to the iPad was negative (no USB cord, no multitasking, no Flash, etc.) but criticism faded when people got their hands on it and we all know how successful the iPad is. Another example is the research for the Aeron chair got the lowest scores ever seen in market research because it broke the paradigm. Before Aeron, comfort meant using lots of padding and, until customers sat in it and felt the benefits of it, no one could know that. Aeron has become an industry standard. Swiffer from P&G is still another example of breaking a paradigm and the initial negative reactions in market research. (See the new book, Imagine by Jonas Lehrer for details.)
- You may need to do unconventional research to get the kind of true insights that a genius like Steve Jobs had. All of these products went ahead, but in some cases market research was a stumbling block instead of a stepping stone. In order to avoid this, Market Research may have to step up to the plate to do things differently. This type of research has to be thought through carefully and it can’t be done by a formula or automated. It needs a human being who has time to devote to it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please post your thoughts or email me if you don’t want to make them public.
Note: Mike Garcia did some work for Apple and has added some additional insights in his reply – be sure to read it.
And here’s a blog post from a tech entrepreneur with a background at P&G on the same topic.