“IMAGINE…” Just saying the word evokes such a range of possibilities. It fills our eyes and hearts with wonder. It opens doors we didn’t know existed. It leads us to the path of progress and new beginnings. It has the potential to change the way we live. Imagination has led to all breakthrough innovations like use of fire, wheel, iron, paper, printing press, electricity, etc. and the list goes on. Few would have imagined any of these things until they came into existence, thanks to the visionaries and scientists of the world. And today we cannot imagine living without them!
However, let’s face it, imagination is a skill rarely practiced and few people nurture it to a fruitful conclusion. Most of the people are not good at imagining the possibilities of life. Even if we are facing hardships, we mostly accept it as a way of life, unless a breakthrough alternative appears before us. We continue to better ourselves in doing those same things differently and making the task more and more efficient. We rightly take pride in hard work, and reward perseverance and diligence. But many a time, it leads to an unintended consequence. It limits the space to truly challenge the status quo. We are engrossed in the daily rigors of life and supporting our loved ones.
Consumers cannot imagine to the extent that Henry Ford is talking about in his quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It is too much to ask of them.
Then is it any wonder that if someone asked us about how they could improve our mode of transportation, we would have asked for faster horses? Were we expected to have asked for a ‘car’ or even a ‘metallic faster animal’?
The problem is not in the answers; it is in the questions.
The problem is not in what we tell; it is in what they listen.
The quality of answers is as good as the quality of questions. Of course, people couldn’t have said, “Cars”. But if Henry Ford had the patience to listen to the tensions in their transportation needs, they would have told him that keeping and maintaining a horse is expensive and tiresome. They would have mentioned that they wished for a faster, maybe even a safer, way to commute. They would have told him that reaching their friends and family faster holds great value to them. They would have told him that they would not mind spending more for this convenience.
Many innovations have come out of uncovering consumer insights. The trick is to understand what their hidden needs are. This can only be done by understanding human nature, their life conditions and ability to empathise with them. The example that first comes to mind is iPhone. Before Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone on the momentous day of January 9, 2007, phones were not ‘smart’. He said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” Instead of direct questioning, he believed in observing. He focused on products that satisfy social and emotional needs of consumers, along with functional needs. This gave him the conviction to push himself and his team till the ‘right’ product was ready. He made sure that iPhone delivered to a consumer and was not just another technological innovation. No wonder there are long queues for every new iPhone launch.
And this is not limited to just the technology space. It will be good here to recall the infamous launch of new Coke in 1985. To address its market share decline, Coca-Cola decide to reformulate its recipe. The new product won blind taste test among hundreds of thousands of consumers. The company launched the new product as new Coke. However, they were not prepared for the consumer backlash they faced. It was so widespread that they had to bring back the old formula as Classic Coke. The reason for this failure was not in the inefficacy of the taste tests. It was the inadequacy of the tests. The company did not assess the bond of consumers with the brand. The consumers felt an emotive connection with the brand and did not want anyone to tamper with their beloved Coke. If Coca-Cola had truly tried to understand both emotional and functional responses, they could have avoided the costly mistake.
Another peculiar example is of Post-It. It was invented in 1974, but it did not start selling for five years. The inventors had come up with the product, but they did not know which problem it solves. It was only in 1979 that once they gave free samples, users could think of uses for it and its demand picked up commercially and gained popularity. Any innovation that aims to make life easy for people will gain acceptance. It must answer a consumer problem.
The lesson that we can learn from such examples is not to put the cart before the horse. A great deal can be learned from consumers. We just need to be willing to empathise with them, read between the lines of what they are saying and uncover true consumer insights.
Henry Ford, Tesla, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk are some of the greatest visionaries we’ve had. Their imagination is what separates these innovators and visionaries of the world from the common public. When the road to innovation is paved by the desire to make life easier for the common public, and is unhindered by their imagination, it becomes a breakthrough.
Human understanding is the strongest currency and hidden power that should fuel this imagination.