It’s the Consumer Stupid!

A number of years ago as part of my initial orientation program at Unilever I was taken on a plant tour of their laundry detergent facility.  As I toured the site I was asked by one of the production foremen if “I was going to be the guy who put in or took out the blue sparkles.”  When I asked him to explain what he meant by this question he told me that every few years the marketing person responsible for laundry detergents changed and the new person decided to reformulate and most of this reformulation was simply cosmetic, adding or deleting a consumer cue like blue sparkles.  I asked him if it made any difference to the performance of the detergent and he said no it was just “a marketing gimmick”.


While one can argue that blue sparkles are in fact a cue to consumers that there is something different about the detergent it is also a sign of what I call a “marketer’s shinny object syndrome”.  All too often we get caught up in the next new innovation in terms of product or packaging in our search for a USP or competitive advantage versus our competitors but we do so without thinking about what our consumers will think about it.  If their reaction is “so what” then we are wasting our time and effort in promoting this new item.


We need to start with the consumer and build our brand proposition and identity based on understanding what their needs and desires are.  This is not to say that we should necessarily be researching every idea with consumers only that we need to look at our brand proposition from a consumer’s standpoint. 


A lot of people have cited Steve Jobs statement that he did not believe in consumer research because consumers didn’t necessarily know what they wanted or needed but that doesn’t mean he didn’t create his brands without regard for the end consumer. 


Take for example the iPod.  By itself it was nothing more than another mp3 player but Jobs saw the potential benefit to tie it into a system whereby you could purchase music to play on it in addition to what you already owned and launched iTunes at the same time.  In this way he met a new consumer need/desire, that is to be able to cheaply purchase single tracks of music that could be downloaded to his iPod from your computer thereby gaining a competitive advantage over the competition that they could never overcome.  The net result was two category killers; the iPod in the mp3 player category and iTunes in the way we purchase music. 


Compare that to what RIM has done with their tablet compared to the iPad.  I am hard-pressed to think of another brand/product launch that was as poorly thought out from a consumer perspective as the Blackberry Playbook.  Like the launch of the iPod the Blackberry Playbook already had a standard from the consumer’s point of view, the iPad.  What RIM failed to do was to understand that what consumers expected with the Playbook was the next generation of tablets not a regression.  The Playbook needed at a minimum to have every important feature of the iPad plus some new bells and whistles or applications that were unique to the Playbook.  Instead RIM focused on the technology of their Playbook and not on consumer expectations.  We therefore had the launch of Playbook without some critical features such as e-mail.  They therefore are left with the last refuge of a poor marketer, price.  Sales of Playbook have only taken off when it was discounted to under $200 or less than half the price of an iPad.


RIM’s failure to understand and anticipate consumer wants and needs has led it to the price death spiral it is now in, not just in the area of tablets but in smartphones as well.  Their focus from day one has been on their technology, their bright shiny objects and not on building a consumer friendly phone.  Unless and until they get ahead of the consumer’s expectations in these markets they are doomed to be also rans and potentially out of business.  RIM needs consumer marketers leading their company now not technicians who are fascinated by the next iteration of blue sparkles.  The best marketing advice for them is to start by determining who their consumer is and then building something that meets their needs.  Incidentally their consumers may not be the same as Apple’s, in fact they would be better off if they could focus on another group but they do need to focus on the consumer and not on the product if they are going to be successful.