We’ve all heard the tale of Henry Ford’s response when asked whether he would consider the value of customer feedback and market research as he developed his automobiles: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
While it’s not a very charitable characterization of the consumer imagination, it lays bare a very clear danger within product innovation: People are often not very good at articulating what they want in consumer products. It’s not that they’re lying—we’re just failing to ask the right questions…
Allow me to set a (completely hypothetical) scene: The brand manager of a major food company arrives early to the focus group facility and takes her place behind the mirror, excited and nervous at what the small and carefully-recruited group (her target consumers!) will think of a new product idea – a fruit-stuffed-flake cereal – that has been months in the making. There’s a lot riding on this research: Will they like this new product idea? Will they buy it, enjoy it, and re-buy it? Will they tell others about it?
Luckily, the consumers respond with enthusiasm:
“I’d buy this right now.”
“My teenager would eat a box a day…”
“My husband would inhale it!”
Success, right? Let’s launch!
But too often, this brand new product – which demonstrated so much promise – is discontinued after only a short tenure on shelf.
So what happened in this situation? How did their carefully planned research fail to predict real world behavior?
The team had unknowingly been lured by the ‘Samesies’: They had presented something with enough sameness to another product to trigger the existing positive emotions in the consumer. The cognitive description is ‘mental attribution,’ and it essentially describes the ‘credit’ your mind gives to a person, product, situation, or just a sound, smell, taste, or feeling—without you even realizing it. For example, the smell of pecans instantly transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. And the smell of bleach will always mean ‘clean’ to most people. In the above situation, the conscientious-but-nonetheless-fallible respondents attributed that fledgling concept to a product that was already in market – in taste, nutrition, price, and presentation. A complete and total Samesie in the minds of consumers.
The Samesies are a common error whose roots can be found in neuroscience – real and predictable hard wiring of cognitive functions and human behavior. Over millennia of human evolution, the brain has evolved to run lean in order to maximize efficiency. As a result, the amygdala, or old Paleo brain, acts as a crude filter to external stimuli. As even carefully-crafted marketing messages fall into that category, they are generally met with 2 reactions:
This isn’t important to our survival – just ignore it.
We already know this – just ignore it.
Conversely, the brain’s key pleasure mechanism, dopamine, can be triggered by new information. When we actually learn something or encounter new information that makes it past the bouncer and the velvet rope of the Paleo brain, we’re rewarded with the warm, tingly cognition of dopamine. This is what innovators are seeking when they roll out new products: a chance to make us feel good about discovering something new. The things that the Paleo brain perceives as truly new drive behavior.
Is the fruit-stuffed-flake idea destined for the recycle bin?
Suppose if rather than merely asking for consumers’ feedback, the researchers had pressure-tested the expected behavior with one or more transactional, behavior-driven learning approaches? For example, longitudinal ethnographies would allow an up-close-and-personal look at target consumers ‘in real life,’ to observe actual purchase behavior and product use to reveal a more realistic framing of the opportunity. A ‘virtual shop’ (whether digital, or set up in real life) would pit real, current products – on shelf – against one another for a true gauge of context-rich, in-the-moment decision making. These techniques uncover not just what consumers say (and say they do), but what they actually DO.
Say your product turns out to be a Samesie – It’s not necessarily back to the drawing board.
There is another path to profitability for your innovation. Instead of focusing on innovation within the context that the physical product plays, try a context shift. Context can be more than just a place: home, car, school or work. It can be time: morning, afternoon, or coffee break. It can be the environment—physical, psychological, sociological – in which the consumer makes contact with your product. So if the fruit-stuffed-flake doesn’t pass the Samesies test, try shifting, for example, to an afternoon pre-workout snack designed to provide you with the energy to get you going, but with the fiber to sustain you…
Traditional market research paths are lousy with identifying Samesies. They lurk around every corner. But disciplined innovation and a willingness to engage in context shifting can get you the newness you need to make an impact on your consumers.
And again, don’t blame the consumers in the research. They were just following their biologically mandated brain processes. It’s not easy to go up against neuroscience, but the right techniques will keep the Samesies at bay.