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Through the customer’s eyes

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Empathy with the consumer’s needs is more likely to result in better ideas for products and services.

Tailor your products to the customer’s needs
Tailor your products to the customer’s needs

Radhika Chadha

Innovation begins with an eye. Empathy comes from a deep understanding of life as seen through the consumer’s eyes.

At a large foods company a new products team contemplates launching food products for pregnant and recently delivered mothers.

The team is entirely male, and bar one, none are parents. There is poor knowledge of the stresses faced by a pregnant working woman who needs to snack regularly, or the conflicting pulls on a new mother, who is at once exhorted (by parents) to eat well for good lactation, and to eat carefully (by media) so as not to gain too much weight.

No wonder then, that the ideas generated meet with an unenthusiastic response in the market. To understand what sort of product a customer needs, there needs to be a foundation of understanding and empathy. And that can only come from a deep understanding of life as seen through the consumer’s eyes.

As design consultants Ideo put it, “innovation begins with an eye”. Paras is credited with some of the best marketing ideas in India; yet, while each of its products is seen as hugely innovative, none of them have been radical.

Whether it was observing that Indian women walked with feet shod in chappals, getting dusty and dry and cracked, which resulted in Krack, or that the desire for manageable, straight hair has been hardwired in the Indian aesthetic, which resulted in Livon, Paras has not really come up with any radical inventions. With 20-20 hindsight, these insights seem blindingly obvious, yet few marketing teams have come anywhere close to Paras in zeroing on such seemingly simple concepts.

Some marketing mavens are gifted in their ability to zoom in on ideas just by watching people on a day-to-day basis. For the less gifted, a more structured way of doing this is through consumer anthropology – watching the animal in its habitat. As a story goes, in the early days of cell-phone design, one of the leading phone companies set up a one-way soundproof mirror, through which its engineers could watch their customers using the phone.

As the customers fumbled their way, trying to figure out how the gizmo worked, the engineers hit the mirror with frustration “no, no, you fools, that’s not the way to use it”. Of course, on reflection, it was clear that the customers were not the fools and that it was the software instructions, or what is called the “human interface”, that needed serious rejigging.

In the process, the marketing and the design team got valuable insights into how customers interacted with new technology. This also helped them to plan the interventions, both design and training, that were needed to get better diffusion of the new product.

And then, some concepts don’t die. Many idea teams fall prey to the myth that the evolution of the customer has to always follow an upward trajectory: taking the customer up the “value chain”. Translated, this means offering better products with higher performance at higher prices. Or sometimes, it means offering a more ‘modern” product that replaces a traditional one. Before taking this as obvious, it is important to map this belief against both the socio-economic structure of the market, as well as deep-rooted cultural beliefs. We all know how difficult it has been for cereal makers such as Kellogg to get traction in the Indian market. It wasn’t so easy for a populace devoted to hot, spicy breakfasts to switch to cold, bland cereal-milk combos.

That’s not to say that over time the cereal market will never form a substantial base – the Indian market is so huge that when even a small percentage of meals shifts, it creates a respectable-sized business for at least a couple of companies. Yet, there is a huge difference between nibbling at a share of consumption of the Indian breakfast, and of rapidly changing Indian eating habits en masse.

The hair oil business, according to the makers of fifth-generation shampoos, should have been dead by the early 2000s. So too laundry bars – for years Procter and Gamble has been attempting, through rational ad campaigns, to advocate that the use of bars to remove collar stains is not necessary with new detergents. In 2002, there were schemes offering to refund the cost of bars, giving “an opportunity to housewives to shift from the stressful activity of scrubbing with a bar." Yet, this habit is so well-entrenched in the Indian method of washing that it was simpler to join in with the launch of their own bars. As P&G said in 2004, 95 per cent of consumers in India use a combination of powder and bar, and “instead of trying to change the consumer’s choice, we thought we must leverage on their existing preference”!

Similarly, consider the two-wheeler market. The euphoria in the last few years has been all about motorcycles, with scooters relegated to the status of poor country cousins. Yet, scooters are very much around and kicking. And in fact, as pointed out a few years back, as women become more mobile, their preference for scooters could lead to a resurgence in the category.

New ideas are necessary for companies to grow, but they must have at least a reasonable chance of success.

And the quality of ideas will be much better if they are based on empathy with how the end customer actually behaves and what she actually wants, rather than an isolated perception of what she “should” be looking for. Otherwise, the idea will all too likely end up as just one more entry in the list of failed launches.

(Radhika Chadha is a management consultant. Karate-gy is the proprietary name for strategic management exercises conducted by Paradigm management Knowhow.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 21, 2007)
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