Are You Asking The Right Question?

 I heard a wonderful story yesterday about the extraordinary design firm IDEO who was recently featured on 60 Minutes. IDEO worked with Steve Jobs and Apple for years on product design. The story is packed with a rich lesson about understanding what problem you are really trying to solve.  Thanks to Pat Merrill from Merrill Research for sharing this gem.

Are you asking the right marketing question?  
 A toy company approached IDEO about helping them with a problem.  They had a jet propelled toy rocket that sold for $200 and could go 250 feet into the air. They wanted to find a way to redesign the rocket so that it could rise higher into the sky so they can announce a new and improved version.  But, and there is always a but, the price has to stay the same.  They needed a new design to make it go higher but the price had to be the same --- $200 price.

So the design team found that they could double the height of the rocket with a new motor but it would increase the price from $200 to $400. This wouldn’t meet the criteria set out by the product management team.  One inquisitive engineer said that we should talk to kids who buy the current product to understand this more thoroughly.

So the engineers got some kids out in a field and watched them launch the rockets. And they asked the kids to explain to them how they knew how high the rocket was going.  Like most 15 year old boys, they said….we just know. But how do you know? How are you sure about the height? What is the method you use to measure it?  

Most of the kids shrugged their shoulders and said, we just know.

One of the kids, a pimple-faced 13 year said, the way I know how high it has gone is by judging how long it takes to come back to the ground.


So the problem to be solved isn’t how to get it higher in the air but how to get it to come down to earth more slowly.  Suddenly, the design problem became crystal clear. The engineers figured out a way to get a parachute to open up when the rocket reaches its zenith. Now, the new design has the same rocket, goes the same height but it comes back to earth three times slower. They solved the real problem because they asked the right question: How do you know it is going higher?

What is the lesson?
Do you really understand what problem you are trying to solve with your marketing efforts? Is it clear that what the consumer or trade tells you they want is really what they want?   For years, a company I worked for in the snack industry believed that teenage girls didn’t like or want to eat our product. (The iconic  Slim Jim brand).  

We took an anthropological  approach to the problem and had a female researcher spend time with groups of teenage girls as if she was studying a tribe in the Pacific. She lived with them and spent time in their world. What she found was that we didn’t understand the problem- girls loved the product but they didn’t want to eat the product when they were with boys because it left them with meat snack breath.   

We thought the issue was the taste but the issue was a social one. They just want to eat the product at home or with other girls. With this insight, we stopped trying to develop a new product for girls and focused on a channel approach. Our solution was in focusing on a strategy to get the product in their home so they could eat it in private. 

If you want to smile, watch the great commercial we produced to reach young girls. We had never shown a girl eating our product in a commercial. And, we wanted to make sure that we accurately represent the pink inside of a typical girls stomach filled with veggies. It was great fun but most importantly, we figured out how to reach girls. Sales grew as we learned to ask the right questions. 

                                                                                                                                 Slim Jim Commercial: Eat Your Veggies

Do you know what problem you are trying to solve? Have you asked the right question? Are you ready to launch?

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