Yesterday I visited the Marketing Week ‘Insight Show’ at London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre.  I was underwhelmed.

For the most part the market research companies who were exhibiting were pedalling the same old methodologies in the same old ways – all the stuff that doesn’t really work but makes companies feel better.

A number of firms were presenting themselves as excellent at helping clients with innovation: I’m not convinced that this is something market research can help with: as Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”  Or perhaps they would have said they wanted the same horse cheaper.

I have no problem with talking to consumers – it’s a very worthwhile thing to do: there’s a small chance that one person might say something that sets an idea off in your head and leads to create something amazing.

But the problem with market research is that it thinks it can find consensus: it can’t resist asking people to come up with ideas and then gauging how interesting people think those ideas are.  That’s pretty pointless.

Firstly, a concept expressed as words can take on a myriad of forms once developed and it may be the form that determines whether consumers take to the idea or don’t.  No one would have said they wanted an iPod: there were already MP3 players around that performed the same function or that were technically superior: but none of them looked half as good as the iPod did.

Secondly, people are hopeless as predicting what they want in the future: context is perhaps the single biggest influencer of behaviour, and if you see a product everywhere you’re far more likely to want one.  If a friend tells you it’s great, that can make you want it too.

Thirdly, for the average product to be successful how many people out of every hundred need to like it enough to buy it?  If you have a group of eight people coming up with ideas it probably only needs one of them to love it for it to be viable – but who launch a product that seven out of eight people hated?

So, by all means talk to consumers, get them coming up with ideas and listen to the things they say spontaneously when they are buying your products or talking about them naturally if you can: but don’t pay thousands of pounds to a market research agency for this. 

In fact, don’t let somebody else do it.

Do it yourself.  Do it with your product experts and product designers.  These are the people who have the base knowledge and existing expertise that might be sparked into a new dimension by what one person says.

And, for the most part, as Henry Ford realised, it will be ideas from the experts and enthusiasts inside a company that will see the opportunities and develop the best innovations.

For example, perhaps you ride a bike.  If you do, I sincerely hope you have a bike helmet.  If you don’t, please get one!

I expect you think your helmet is fine, that it fits reasonably well and will do the necessary work in an accident: I hope you’re right.

But, the chances are, that your’s doesn’t fit very well.  You just don’t have a good fitting helmet to compare it to, because most helmets don’t fit well.

Yes, they’re tested; but they’re tested on dummies for impact protection not people with funny shaped heads who sweat and move around.

Yesterday I discovered the Kask brand of cycle helmets.  They fitted my head like no other.  They stay in place.  They don’t slip up if you gently push the front.

I looked around on-line and found out that lots of other people had discovered the same thing as me.  I also discovered what I consider to be the best product review I’ve ever read.  It was in the comments at after the website’s official review.  Some chap called Mark Liptrot said the following:

“£155 for a piece of polystyrene that the excellent innovators at Kask have had the genius to make head shaped.”

Sometimes innovation is simply about not settling for the status quo: consumers aren’t going to help much there because they, for the most part, rather like things as they are.  But when you show them things can be better, you can charge rather a lot for not very much and they’ll be happy to pay.  My Kask helment will be arriving soon.

Philip Graves


  1. Anthony

    I like what Mr. Ford had to say. If people don’t know there is something better or that will improve their life or experience in some than they won’t want it. Out of mind, out of out of the realm of their emotional cravings/desires.

    Funny you mentioned bike helmets. I finally bought one that fits my head well. It is a Gyro and it fits so well that I can leave the chin strap totally loose…not that I do!


  2. Philip Graves

    I liked some of the Gyro helmets (or is it Giro?). Of course, not all heads are the same shape, so there’s no substitute for trying them. That said, I was surprised by how many shops only sold helmets by one or two manufacturers.

    I’ve been over the front handlebars of a bike with toe clips on (before the days of helmets unfortunately) so I’m very sensitive to their potential to slip backwards if you push up at the front.

    Glad you’re keeping that important brain of yours protected!


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