In general, yes, it makes sense to understand who you’re developing products and services for, why, and what exactly they want. But I learned that consumers can lead you astray, too.
Elon Musk believes this wholeheartedly as he said at a U.S. Air Force tech conference (two weeks before the polarizing Tesla cybertruck unveiling) that he does “zero market research whatsoever.” While I think Musk’s audacity goes too far, there’s wisdom within.
Musk’s argument for ignoring consumers isn’t so much that they’re wrong, it’s that he believes he’s right. As Musk said at the conference, “A lot of times people try to make products they think others would love but they don’t love themselves.” Instead, Musk said Tesla builds the “platonic ideal” of a car. Musk continued, “I find if you do that, people will want to buy it. If it’s compelling to you it will be compelling to others.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that at the unveiling event Musk said Tesla wanted to try something different since trucks haven’t changed much in 100 years. If that’s his goal, sharing the truck in artificial focus groups would have watered things down as consumers (knowing they’re being paid) feel compelled to be insightful, which often means they’re overly critical, comparing to their only reference point — what they already know.
In the real world, emotions play a bigger role. Consumers react differently when a space-age looking truck is rolled out, for real, amidst lasers and smoke and when they realize that their neighbors could have one before they do.
So Musk trusted his gut. It might prove a smart move as pre-orders are already at 250,000.
When, then, should you trust your gut over market research? I don’t recommend it as a default, but from my experience there are four scenarios when you should set the consumer aside and boldly proceed.
1. When you’re convinced the consumer won’t/can’t articulate the want or need.
Many believe Henry Ford said, “If I asked the people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” Some refute he ever said it; whether or not he did, the sentiment remains true. That’s exactly what would have happened if Ford focus-grouped transportation ideas.
Sometimes the consumer just can’t articulate what they want or need. It’s the holy grail, discovering unarticulated wants/needs then delighting the consumer by filling them. But such things are unarticulated for a reason and conducting consumer research isn’t necessarily the best way to unearth them. It’s often better to present your idea to consumers in a real-world scenario and see what real-world decision-making processes transpire.
So, if consumers haven’t told you yet that your idea is what has been missing in their lives, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
2. When time is of the essence.
Consumer research can add months, or years, to a product launch timeline. I’ve experienced it frequently; we’d bring a new product launch TV commercial into a focus group, take what one New Jersey consumer said to heart, rework everything, test the ad quantitatively where it would bomb, and then go back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, a scrappy competitor launched a similar product with a good enough ad and stole market share while we navel-gazed. Sometimes urgency wins.
3. When you have a group of experts with a track record for confirming gut instincts.
Experts within your company often know better than the consumer does, especially for products outside what the category currently offers.
P&G got it right with Swiffer, a dry cloth alternative to a broom, the idea for which it took and promptly created a massive new category. They researched it, but knowing they had a big idea, didn’t overanalyze. There were a lot of smart R&D people and marketers working on the launch who were practiced at developing their gut instincts for identifying big ideas and so they moved relatively quickly (for P&G).
Your company likely has experts with great instincts, too.
4. When the cost of failure is low.
Sometimes it’s just easier and far more accurate to put the product or service out in the marketplace and see what happens. Even if it’s just a test market. (Yes, that’s still market research but it’s much closer to the real thing).
Or even better, use a “lead market” — launch your product or service in one market and pending success, default to launching it more broadly. Fail fast. Fail cheap. Just don’t fail to get it out the door on reasonable timing.
So consider this article research done for when research doesn’t need to be done.