Hey, Advertisers, You're Asking The Wrong Question

“I can’t tell you how many times a corporate client will say to me, ‘Tell our customers how great we are.’ I always reply that their customers aren’t interested. ‘Tell them anyway,’ they say. ‘TELL THEM.’”

Speaking at The Project conference in Auckland, New Zealand, James Hurman, innovation consultant and author of “The Case for Creativity,” was on a mission: to help us understand that client-agency interactions like that never work because they’re based on the wrong question.

What’s the wrong question? “What do we want to tell our customers?” Or, as Hurman put it, “What do we want to communicate at our customers?”

This question is fundamentally flawed because it’s company-centric, not customer-centric. So what’s the right question? Simple: “What is getting in the way of the customer behaving the way we want?



Consider one example he gave, of Australian pillow manufacturer Tontine. The company wanted to tell its customers that pillows should be changed more often. But what was getting in the way of people changing their pillows more often? Well, most of us don’t keep track of how old our pillows are, and most of us don’t schedule calendar reminders to tell us it’s time to buy new ones.

So Tontine did a very simple thing: It added a “best before” stamp to each pillow -- and pillow sales went up 20% year on year.

Or consider the Toilet Duck. Invented in the 1980s by Walter and Vera Düring, the Toilet Duck (or just “Duck,” as it’s now known) was designed in response to an excellent question: “What is getting in the way of people buying and using more toilet cleaner?” The answer required both observation and insight: Toilet cleaner was difficult to deploy because of the awkward shape of the toilet.

Hurman’s talk reminded me of the development of the Heinz EZ Squirt bottle, as recounted by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker: “A number of years ago, the H. J. Heinz Company did an extensive market-research project in which researchers went into people’s homes and watched the way they used ketchup. ‘I remember sitting in one of those households,' Casey Keller, who was until recently the chief growth officer for Heinz, says. ‘There was a three-year-old and a six-year-old, and what happened was that the kids asked for ketchup and Mom brought it out. It was a forty-ounce bottle. And the three-year-old went to grab it himself, and Mom intercepted the bottle and said, “No, you’re not going to do that.” She physically took the bottle away and doled out a little dollop. You could see that the whole thing was a bummer.’

“For Heinz, Keller says, that moment was an epiphany. A typical five-year-old consumes about sixty per cent more ketchup than a typical forty-year-old, and the company realized that it needed to put ketchup in a bottle that a toddler could control. …

“As a result, Heinz came out with the so-called EZ Squirt bottle, made out of soft plastic with a conical nozzle. In homes where the EZ Squirt is used, ketchup consumption has grown by as much as twelve per cent.”

What was getting in the way of kids consuming more ketchup? Their mothers, because of the bottle -- a problem solved by creating a bottle kids could use themselves. Lucky for the kids, and lucky for Heinz, Keller knew the right question to ask.

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