Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Honor thy consumer

Eric Schulz
I wish I had a dime for every time someone called me up, bursting with excitement over some brilliant new product idea they just had. Inspiration strikes in some strange and wonderful places: washing the dog, looking for car keys, flipping the remote. The thought emerges, “Gee, I wish someone would invent something to make my dog smell better, or find my keys, or keep my remote handy.” Presto, the idea is hatched, and the product begins to take shape.

Sometimes the ideas are pretty good, and often the inventor has already dreamed up a catchy name, like “Smooch Your Pooch Sweet Smelling Shampoo.” But marketing a successful product should never begin with a focus group of one. The problem with many of these home-grown inventions is the inventor becomes so intoxicated with his idea that he starts building momentum before he tests the concept. He violates the most important rule of the marketing game: Honor Thy Consumer.

Everything in marketing begins and ends with the consumer. Before you can sell your product -- before you even develop a product -- you must understand what the consumer wants and design your offering to meet his or her needs. You may want a dog that smells like the Rose Queen, but do other consumers share your desire -- and will they pay for it? If your product concept is on the mark, then your job is simply finding the best way to communicate that you’ve got the goods consumers want. It’s a basic concept: you can’t create a need that isn’t there, and you can’t argue consumers out of what they want.

Knowing that the consumer is at the heart of every marketing decision, researchers have invented ingenious techniques to get in tune with the consumer, from focus groups, phone & mail surveys, concept testing, in-home trial and mall intercepts to proprietary panels, Internet panels and purchase diaries. Consumers have been ambushed, bar coded, spied upon and even hypnotized in the quest for information. Companies pour millions of dollars into research every year to help them understand what consumers are thinking and how the marketplace is changing.

But here’s the big question: if you are looking at the same studies and doing the same types of research as your key competition, how is it possible that you will gain insights different -- and better -- than theirs? The answer: you can’t.

Top companies understand this fact, and force their marketing personnel to go farther than standard methodologies to gain broader and deeper consumer understanding. This is where they create competitive advantage. They teach their marketers how to beat competition at the consumer learning game, where all good marketing begins.

So how do the top companies get better information than the competition? By spending millions, right? Wrong. Top companies teach their marketing personnel to gain strategic consumer insight through everyday life…watching TV commercials, browsing in stores and talking with friends and family.

It sounds too ordinary to be true, doesn’t it? Paying attention in everyday life is nowhere near as exciting as launching a half-million dollar research project, complete with one-way mirrors and hidden video. But don’t be fooled by the trappings of research. Top companies know the best way to gain real world experience is in the real world.

- Eric Schulz

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