“I never rely on Market Research”

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:

  1.  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.
  2. He had great insight into how needs and technology can intersect and that gave him great power.  It made him a genius.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.


7 responses to ““I never rely on Market Research”

  1. Karen, great post. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that Steve Jobs’ intuitive approach worked when he was part of the target market. Another factor in his success was that his needs and wants in the personal electronics space were representative of a vast swath of the population. Often, we’re dealing with markets that are more heterogeneous and we need to get outside ourselves and put ourselves in the shoes of other types of people through good marketing research. I think traditional marketing research is good for identifying unmet needs but I agree that it often falls short not only in predicting the reaction to new products in the marketplace but also in conceiving these products in the first place. While Steve Jobs was a rare genius, there are many smart people out there that may have already jerry-rigged solutions to problems that can inspire ideas for new products, through doing lead user research.

  2. For the most part, consumers can’t tell you what they need, but they can sure ‘tell’ you where they want to go. My guess is that if Henry Ford had asked his potential customers how they could get from point A to point B ‘better’ or what frustrates them with using their horse to get someplace..he would have received some interesting answers. Growing up on a livestock farm, I know of several! We in our respective industries have to figure out ways to get them to their desired outcomes better. If you ask the customer what they want, they are going to give you variations on the same theme. You are right that ethnographical research can help with this process immensely. I used this extensively in the office furniture market. The story with the Aeron chair was well described in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This is a case study for why neuromarketing activities are so valuable in market research.

    Back to Apple, think about the ipod. Do you think there is a chance that market research could have told Apple that people were sick of needing to carry around CDs and wanted outcomes such as decreasing the time from swithcing from listening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to ‘I Write the Songs’? Actually, they wouldn’t have said that because the same person doesn’t listen to Led Zepplin and Barry Manilow except me, but you get the point. Bottom line is that Steve Jobs had terrific insight into his customers that not a lot of CEOs have, but he used a mighty wide brush to discredit market research. After all, to say a hammer stinks because it doesn’t turn a bolt very well doesn’t mean the hammer is not useful.

    • Kelly, thanks for the citation on the Aeron case study, I was trying to remember where I read it. Yes, Steve Jobs did use a broad brush to discredit our profession – but I wanted to focus on how we could do things differently to address those concerns. I have seen market research that does kill good ideas, and that isn’t future thinking, which is perhaps the achilles heel of market research. Further, as we move towards a future which may include more automation and fewer people per project, we run the risk of less thought per project – which is exactly the wrong way to address this criticism.

  3. Great points, but not entirely true. Apple has and likely continues to conduct market research. I know it’s not true because I did market research for Apple back in the early 90’s (before I just did healthcare research) and I’d bet they continue to do market research today.

    How much they actually listen to the results I am not sure – sounds like Jobs certainly wasn’t a fan. I think that it simply makes the point that you can’t JUST listen to your customers’ ideas, as they might not be able to think beyond the existing box.

    I recall that my research for Apple at the time was focused on laptops which did not have any floppy drive (remember those?) or CD/DVD drives in them. At the time, this was revolutionary, because users needed to connect wirelessly in order to put data in or out of the computer. Most customers loved the idea of a lighter-weight laptop, but were not sure about this new concept of wireless. We talked to very tech-savvy users who were in fact open to using laptops without such peripherals about how others might be taught to appreciate the concept of going “driveless.”

    In pharma, an equivalent would be having discussions with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), who are often more open to new ideas and thinking about “what could be” rather than what exists today.

    There’s a great article I read a few years ago about a woman who started a gourmet pet food company. Like Jobs, she also thought that she knew better than her customers and often ignored their advice. Later, she implemented some of these customer ideas and her business really took off.

    Here’s the link: http://money.cnn.com/2009/12/23/smallbusiness/profiting_from_customer_complaints.fsb/index.htm

    I’d argue that there’s always a need for market research, even if your market research isn’t what drives the innovation. It’s still be important to understand people’s reactions to the new ideas, and to use this input to guide your business decisions.

    • Mike, thanks for filling us in on the fact that Apple did conduct market research – I was wondering about that. At one point in the book, somebody suggests conducting market research on a new product, and Steve Jobs again says, “I don’t rely on market research”. My net take away is that while they may have done market research, it didn’t have buy in from the top.

  4. I was going to make the point that you brought up already, Karen. That is that Jobs was in the fortunate position to be able to afford to be wrong. A great example are the computers produced by NeXT – which tanked and cost him a fair amount of his personal fortune.

    Also, when it comes to high tech product perhaps MR may not be as helpful as it is with conventional products. People understand what is in front of them and feelings and associations evolve as we move forward in time so conducting market research on conventional consumer products and existing brands make sense.

    Asking people to speak to what they want but have not yet seen or do not know is possible is an entirely different situation. I think it takes someone like a Jobs to make a leap or to connect the dots on existing consumer likes and pull them together in one device like what was done with the iPhone. All of the components of the iPhone existed in the mainstream – the cell phone, MP3 players & the iPod, portable music players, computers, etc. Steve’s instinct was spot on when he put all of that functionality on one device. It didn’t hurt that he had a good sense of style and an exacting nature about details. It also didn’t hurt that the technology had evolved enough to make it possible to build.

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