Don’t Ask Your Audience What They Want

Market research. Consumer research. Customer surveys. Focus groups. Whatever you want to call it and whatever form it takes on, the objective of this kind of research is pretty clear. You want to find out what your customers like, what they don’t like, what they want, and what they don’t want. Armed with this information, the thinking goes, you are better equipped to deliver just the right product that’ll sell like hotcakes.

Except it turns out that your customers aren’t really all that interested in classic breakfasts anymore, so you end up focusing on selling hamburgers instead… only to get totally burned by some girl in pigtails. Go figure.

But here’s the thing. When you go ahead and ask your customers what they want, you oftentimes end up with a bland, boring product that’s designed by committee. It’s like regression toward the mean, except you get something that’s average, by definition, in every sense of the word. And it’s hard to stand out and be noticed when you’re average, which is just another word for mediocre. Do and be like everyone else and you can only hope to be average at best.

Henry Ford famously once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Some people have disagreed with this sentiment and there’s not even substantial evidence to indicate that Ford ever said this, but he’s still got a point. Average Joe Consumer doesn’t really know what he wants, because he only knows what he knows… and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And then he doesn’t know what to do with the thing he thinks he wants once he gets it.

Ask the overwhelming majority of people what they want and many of them will tell you that they want to be rich or famous or rich and famous. You can’t blame them. But then you have people who suddenly achieve some level of fame and they don’t know how to deal with all that attention. Years ago, we witnessed in this in the stark contrast between Eminem’s first two albums.

And there’s a reason why so many lottery winners go broke shortly after coming into those big bucks. They weren’t very good with a dollar, so they end up being that much worse with a million dollars. They don’t know what to do with themselves, because they don’t actually know what they want to do with that money. So they blow it on frivolous purchases and don’t think it through.

If Ford actually took his customers at face value, we may not have ever had the Model T. That said, what the customers were really saying was that they wanted a faster mode of individual transportation. In that sense, Ford delivered.

Here’s another iconic quote from another iconic visionary. Steve Jobs once said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It was from this “think different” mindset that we eventually got our hands on the iPod, iPhone, MacBook, iMac and all the rest of it. Again, some people will disagree with this sentiment and their arguments are perfectly valid.

But if Apple were to have turned to its customers and asked them what they wanted, they would have never taken that bold step of removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Yes, they received a lot of hate at the time, but it set off a new trend in smartphones without headphone jacks. If Apple asked customers what they wanted, no one would have said they wanted the “notch” in the iPhone X and yet, here we are.

I’m not necessarily agreeing with Apple’s decision to ditch the headphone jack or to implement the notch. What I am saying is that it takes a little bit of stubborn egocentricity to push innovation forward. You need to think in ways that no one else has, going to places that no one else even imagined. You might falter, you might stumble, and you might fall flat on your face. Or you could stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The best thing you can do for your brand is to be true to yourself. Be the best “you” that you can be, because no one can do “you” better than you can.