Building a timeless business.

The problem with customer research is purely tactical

“A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”

When BusinessWeek published that quote from Steve Jobs in 1998, it sent ripples through the market research community, and continues to emerge in provocations and blog-posts even today. And yet, Jobs was merely rephrasing a far older sentiment, one echoed in the quote attributed to Henry Ford almost a century earlier: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

What people say they want is invariably coloured by what they’ve come to expect; their imagination constrained by what’s available, rather than what could better meet their underlying need. The narrative behind the Ford quote is that he interpreted their need as the ability to move people and goods more quickly, hence the value proposition of motorised transport.

It’s possible, had he probed further to uncover why that ability was so important, he may have drawn out deeper aspirations: greater efficiency, faster communication, the ability to instantly satisfy a customer, to spend less time travelling and more time at home. The same aspirations, in fact, that are still driving many of the commercial, technological and social changes we see today.

The problem with customer research is not that doesn’t have value. It does. The problem is when it’s used in a purely tactical manner – canvassing the wants, and maybe touching on deeper needs. Wants are like fashion, transitory and ephemeral. Needs are circumstantial and constantly evolve. Aspirations may be generational, shaped by the culture and context of youth, but many are timeless, or as near as makes no difference.

Legend has it that Cleopatra took baths in donkey’s milk to reduce her skin’s wrinkles. Roman historian Pliny the Elder disputes that, claiming Nero’s wife Poppaea was the first to bathe in milk to keep herself looking young and beautiful. Whoever started the craze, the desire for milk baths has certainly waned over the centuries, but the aspiration, encapsulated in Dublin and Warren’s eponymous 1933 hit, to “keep young and beautiful”, has more than stood the test of time.

The most successful businesses over the long term are built squarely on those timeless aspirations. When they start to go off the rails, it’s almost always because they’ve got themselves locked in to satisfying a temporary, specific need or chasing the latest, fleeting wants. The pressures of shareholders and the pace of most markets will always drive those temptations, but they’re rarely a viable route to sustained success.

Steve Jobs was vehemently against range proliferation, famously slashing the number of projects and products on his return to Apple, a year before that BusinessWeek quote. He refused to develop multiple variations, or to incorporate the latest technologies for their own sake. Instead, he focused Apple’s entire development capability on creating a tiny suite of iconic, deeply aspirational products.

What is the deep, timeless customer aspiration that underpins your business? And how do you intend to relentlessly and single-mindedly focus on realising that aspiration, whatever your customers happen to say they want today or tomorrow?