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The consumer is not always right

“It’s what the people want.” This is the Prime Minister’s justification for the recently announced strict new immigration rules that could be very damaging for the UK economy. The Government’s decision on immigration is clearly more ideological than commercial, an ideology based on the Brexit vote and what people are saying in focus groups. But are people being asked why they really think like this? Are they being properly interrogated?

People’s wants are far more nuanced than consumer research can reveal.

If Sony had listened to the ‘people’ we would never have had the Walkman. It bombed out numerous times in consumer research – people couldn’t conceive of the idea of walking around listening to music. It was too big a mental leap from a static music system in their living room to a mobile device. But the CEO of Sony believed in it and he made sure it was launched. It turned out to be a huge money-spinner for Sony and was the precursor to the smartphone. Would we have smartphones today if it wasn’t for the Walkman?

Hands up those who thought the ipad was a good idea when it was first launched? I was one of the majority who thought there was no way anybody would want one – I’ve got a desktop and a laptop, don’t need an ipad. How wrong was I? At the launch of the ipad, when questioned by journalists about the consumer response to the ipad in research, Steve Jobs revealed that Apple hadn’t conducted any research. He said: “It isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want”.

As marketers we have to listen to the consumer but we need to ask the right questions in the right way. I have sat through way too many focus groups, stuffing myself with sandwiches and wine behind the two-way mirror, to know they offer a valuable insight into the way the consumer will act once a product is on the market. Out of eight respondents you may hear at best the very strongly held views of a couple of people at most, and they tend not to be open to new ideas or concepts.

The vast majority of consumers are just not very good at picking the benefits of a new product or creative ad campaign. In attempting to ascertain the likelihood of success of a new product it is much better to identify your core target audience and spend your research budget on gaining an intimate understanding of them. You can do this by conducting quantitative and qualitative research on people’s attitudes and behaviour to the key market or markets you want to launch the new product into. You can analyse your target audiences’ Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, media consumption habits etc. Once you really know your typical customer you can then use your knowledge, experience and intuition to tailor your new product to optimise its chances of being purchased. By following this approach you could end up launching a product as successful as the Walkman or ipad!

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