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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

You Can't Tell People they "Don't Really Want" Stuff

Maybe it's an occupational hazard of having a front-row seat as a marketer helping companies test new products with targeted online campaigns, but once you get the hang of how today's consumer mind works, it's painful to observe those who still want to communicate with people (to paraphrase Godin's latest free ebook, Who's There) "like it's 1969."

(BTW, for those keeping score, there's nothing wrong with 1969. In fact it was a high-water mark of sorts, given that humans haven't walked on the moon since. But the fact that it was a good year shouldn't govern the way you think today.)

It doesn't have to be complicated. "Palm rallies on Treo smartphone sales." Give 'em what they want.

It's been less than a month that the story came out about the engineer who modified his Prius to get 250 mpg (using more electricity, to be sure), and the Toyota spin-meisters who want us to think that this kind of tinkering is of interest to only a tiny minority of consumers. (True - we don't want to modify our own engines. We want you to build a better one.)

Top-down marketing (or "constellation" marketing, as Jeffrey J. Fox puts it) gathers all the rational reasons why people want what they want. It revels in focus groups, meetings, production cycles. It tells people what they want. But in Godin's underestimated book Survival is Not Enough, we learn that zooming companies don't plan that way. They get into the marketplace and just find out what customers want, and adapt to that. Then they adapt again.

As a car buyer, there are many things I want, and can't have, just to continue with the automotive example. Why do cars come in so few colors, for example? Why do we have to pay an extra $650 for a color that isn't crappy?

Now that the price of gasoline has shot up 30-40% even from our conversation of three weeks ago, I'm thinking that 250 mpg hybrid would be even more attractive to my wallet. Millions of consumers agree. The reason people aren't buying the 250mpg car is not because they don't want it... it's because they can't get it!

Now from the environmentalist and anti-consumption side of the ledger, you have pundits and puritans asking the whole population to give up their fascination with SUV's. Here again, it isn't going to happen. People know what they want. An SUV is irrational for many. You buy it because you think in your mind it's your ticket to freedom. And there you sit, stuck in gridlock. Granted, it was pretty funny to see the Ford Escape sitting next to me at a dead stop next to me on Lake Shore Blvd. yesterday. But that doesn't mean you don't buy it. Irrational, but you want it. That's how markets work. Amazing that in this day and age, big companies (and the no-logo crowd) try to tell people to be "rational" and to start wanting the stuff they "should" want.

I'm like anyone else. I want both. I want it all. I want the 250 mpg hybrid. I want the 2008, moon-walking, avant-garde concept SUV being planned by Toyota. And I want one in burnt orange and the other in metallic silver with a hint of blue.

The car companies will tell me I really don't want a crazily modified electric car, when actually, I do. Anti-consumers will tell me I'm a freak for wanting a giant truck thing that looks like it could collect moon rocks (when in fact I'd just be acting like an 8-year-old boy, and what's so wrong with that?).

Sure, we can overcome our wants and think better of certain anti-social decisions, or just adjust to whatever is available. But increasingly, consumers will have the power to ignore or circumvent those old limitations. I can listen to a million songs at the touch of a button, and that's not supposed to affect the way I think about other things I want?

The era of mass customization, instant gratification, open communications, and relentless marketplace feedback is upon us. For companies to survive this... well, Seth said it. Survival is not enough.

So what's going to happen? First, the typically comic reaction as large companies hold back the pace of change for their own convenience. And the endless, puritanical, economically incoherent, freedom-hating, missing-the-point diatribes against consumption in anti-consumer mags and such will carry on in their quixotic quest to tell me the metallic silver-blue 2o07 Moon Walker is something I don't really want.

Then, the dams will finally burst. People will start getting what they want. It always happens.

One type of want isn't mutually exclusive to another. Krispy Kreme - got huge fast. Whole Foods Markets - same deal. When it comes to analyzing such trends, why fancy it up? It's called freedom of choice.

In a couple of years, we're going to see something very predictable (it's starting already). People will want both the hybrid and the cool moonwalker thing, so they'll clamor for vehicles that incorporate both. The current crop of hybrid SUV's gets crummy mileage and is far from cool enough to satisfy either urge. You'd be better off with either an old Jeep or an old Honda Civic. (Or walking more.) But eventually, the power of those demands will be enough to force the big automakers, kicking and screaming and five years late, to come out with products that are both incredibly cool and incredibly energy-conscious.

That delay is what interests me now. That holding back aspect. The tragedy and the comedy of these attempts to ignore consumer demands for new products, and then, the opportunity that awaits startups and nimbler companies who simply accept those demands at face value and serve them.

That, in a nutshell, will be the subject of my next book, whose working title is one of:

Demand: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Markets

OR

Peanut Butter that Won't Kill You: Harrowing Tales of Actual Consumer Demand

I guess that's what happens when your first book finally hits the shelves. You start planning the next. I'm looking for a publisher. And maybe an agent. :) But I plan to take a good six months away from writing and another six planning that next project. After all, just ask the folks at Toyota. There's no hurry.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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