Customers hire your product to do a job. That is the summary of an excellent Harvard Business Review article titled Marketing Malpractice by Clayton Christensen, Scott Cook and Taddy Hall. The article turns usual marketing and product innovation assumptions on their head by asking why after 30,000 new consumer products hit store shelves each year, 90% of them fail. Manufacturers and service providers go to great expense to undertake customer research on tastes, preferences and trends and yet they still don’t get it right if the product failure rates are anything to go by. The fact is that most customers purchase a product or service to get a job done, which job might not be that apparent in some instances to the creators of the product. Take this example that the writers found: a fast food restaurant wanted to improve milk shake sales. A researcher watched customers buying shakes, noting that rushed customers purchased 40% of the milkshakes early in the morning and carried them out to their cars. Interviews revealed that most customers bought shakes to do a similar job: to make their morning commute more interesting, stave off hunger pangs until lunchtime and give them something that they could consume cleanly with one hand as they were driving. Understanding this job inspired several product improvement ideas. One such idea was moving the milk shake dispensing machine to the front of the counter and sell customers a prepaid swipe card so that they could dispense the milkshakes themselves and avoid the slow drive through lane.
Thus, by observing and interviewing people as they are using products, you can identify the jobs they want to get done. Procter and Gamble, the manufacturers of globally recognized brands such as Ariel, Gillette, Oral B and Vicks have internalized customer observation as a key driver for product development. P&G executives are actively required to visit supermarkets and homes whenever they travel in order to observe customer preferences and utilization of domestic products at their point of use. It is only by actively being in the consumer’s world can the company continue to drive innovation and a close connection to understanding what job their products are hired to do.
Another great example of consumer observation inspired innovation was the founder of Sony, Akio Morita. Morita was known for not believing in consumer research and asserted that Sony shouldn’t ask people what they want because they don’t know what they want – quite similar to Apple’s Steve Jobs ethos. Having observed what people were trying to get done in their lives, he then tried to see whether Sony’s electronics miniaturization technology could help them do these things better, easier and cheaper. Thus instead of trying to augment the traditional tape player into one with more features or a cheaper version, Sony developed the portable tape player, the Walkman, to allow people to carry and listen to their music everywhere they went. The Walkman was designed and launched as a fashionable device because Morita predicated the rise of a “headphone culture.” Said Morita at the February 1979 launch: “This is the product that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day. They’ll take it everywhere with them, and they won’t care about record functions. If we put a playback-only headphone stereo like this on the market, it’ll be a hit.”
Closer home, the augmentation of the Mpesa product with Mshwari serves as a classic example of a product that customers hire to get a job done. When Safaricom launched the Mpesa money transfer service it had multiple purposes. Firstly to enable movement of money across the country at a far lower cost with greater convenience than the existing money transfer services at the time. However as the product continued to gain rapid acceptance, it became apparent that subscribers were not only using the service for moving money across, but were also using it as a repository of funds. And, get this, they were happy for those funds to sit idle in their mpesa accounts without generating any return in the form of interest. Which would then typically generate an internal corporate question: what are our customers hiring our mpesa product to do? Transfer money or keep money in a 24-hour access, cheap and extremely safe environment?
That mpesa had morphed into a “bank” of sorts was quite likely an unintended consequence of a product that was created to serve a completely different purpose. Thus partnering with a bank to create the banking service that subscribers were seeking was a natural progression that quite obviously arose after observing consumer behavior. Having said that, the mshwari loan product that was initially marketed as a way to help the small scale entrepreneur to borrow for business growth has found greater use from the mobile phone subscriber who needs a short term loan to sort an emergency requiring small amounts of cash that they currently do not have in their physical wallets. Hence the product advertising that pushed mshwari as an entrepreneur’s answer to sources of debt may need to be enhanced as the product serves more than that purpose. As the HBR Marketing Malpractice article states, a good purpose brand can be sustained by linking your product to the job it serves through advertising. The writers assert that savvy ads can even help consumers identify needs that they were not consciously aware of before. The example given is that of Unilver’s Asian operations which designed a microwavable soup tailored to the job of helping office workers to boost their energy and productivity in the late afternoon. Called Soupy Snax, the product generated mediocre results. However when Unilever renamed it Soupy Snax – 4:00 and created ads showing lethargic workers perking up after using the product, ad viewers remarked, “That’s what happens to me at 4:00!” Soupy Snax sales apparently soared thereafter.
Observe your customers as they use your products rather than assuming your product serves their needs. You might be surprised at the results.