Faster Horses

It’s fair to say that the business world loves a good cliché.

Spend any time at a marketing conference and you’ll soon hear the same phrases coming round again and again: “outcomes not outputs”, “content is king”, “a logo isn’t a brand”…

On the whole this is harmless stuff. It might not be very interesting to be told for the umpteenth time to “begin with the customer”, but it’s a sentiment that has become a cliché for the good reason that it’s true.

More damaging are the stock ideas for which there’s no evidence at all, yet which plod on regardless year after year, invulnerable to facts.

One of the best known of these is a quote that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in the market research field. It tends to be attributed to Henry Ford, though there’s no evidence he ever said it:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This old chestnut has long been a favourite of speakers on the conference circuit. It’s usually trotted out (ha!) in panel discussions about innovation or creativity, delivered with the air of an important point having been made.

Needless to say, it’s not a maxim that stands up to a lot of scrutiny. Indeed, if it can be said to prove anything, it’s just how much misunderstanding seems to persist as to the way market research actually works.

It’s pretty clear, after all, what Ford’s customers were telling him: they wanted a faster way of getting around. Horses were too slow. His insight team, if he had one, would surely have told him that speedier transportation was the ‘job to do’.

As Theodore Levitt has written, “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. Identifying and addressing needs of this kind is the central task of market research.

This seems such an obvious point that it’s hard not to wonder at the continuing popularity of the fake Ford quote.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the people you’re most likely to hear it from are also those who have (shall we say) a vested interest in muddying the waters as to the value of insight.

To be fair, this will often come from a place of legitimate concern. If you’re in the business of advertising or innovation, then it’s understandable that customer feedback might come to seem like a challenge to be navigated.

But we also need to question the subtext here. The line that’s being pushed is, in effect: don’t bother with research. It doesn’t work. If you want to be a true visionary, like Henry Ford, then save yourself the hard yards of listening to your customers.

It’s important not to let this pass unchallenged. While no research is perfect, it almost always beats the alternative. If you’re looking to create a new campaign or proposition, then it should go without saying that there is merit in checking in with the people for whom you’re designing it. Almost always this leads to better work.

Factoring in time for insight can be a challenge. But thankfully advances in technology mean that this is becoming less and less of an issue. It’s never been quicker to turn around even relatively complex research projects.

So, next time you hear someone on a conference panel talking about “faster horses”, ask yourself what it is they’re really telling you, and why.

You might even feel moved to respond in kind, with your own Henry Ford quote:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own”

That one has the benefit of actually coming from the man himself – straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak