Anyone who has ever watched me on the Den, or at one of my S4S Surgeries, knows that I have certain questions that I expect entrepreneurs to be able to answer. Who are you? What does your company do? Who are your customers? What problem are you solving for them? How does your product meet their needs? How will your customers find your product and buy it? Who will sell it? Who will deliver it? It is surprising how many people never get past the first two questions.
From these questions it may seem that I think customers routinely make well considered and rational choices about the products and services they buy, that I’m asking these questions because I think these are the questions that customers ask.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m under no illusion that Burberry coats are purchased by people who have done a careful study of all competing overcoats and have, upon long reflection, decided Burberry is the appropriate choice. In fact, I know customers almost never ask these questions. Burberry, like Coca Cola, is a brand that has successfully imbued itself with a promise to the wearer that anyone who sees them wearing Burberry or drinking Coke will understand that they are the sort of people who wear Burberry and drink Coke and all that that implies; whatever that, indeed, implies.
Chances are good that you buy the breakfast food your mother used to make you when you were a kid. You buy shoes based on what you think looks “fashionable” rather than comfort or sturdiness. You choose what car to drive, what day care to send your kids to, and what home to purchase for reasons just as ephemeral and poorly understood. In a sense, a good product that meets a real need is just the opening ante for an entrepreneur. It’s the very least you need. When I ask these questions, I’m confirming that an entrepreneur knows he has a customer, that he’s knows his customers needs, expectations, his buying habits and the competition.
Knowing the customer inside out is almost more important than having a good product. In fact . . . having a good product is occasionally completely optional . . .
In 1928, George Washington Hill, President of the American Tobacco Association, hired the The “Father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays, to make women start smoking cigarettes. There was, in the 20′s, a considerable taboo against women smoking. It was thought to be vulgar and manly(perhaps a bit redundant). Edward Bernays contacted a bunch of dÃ©butantes who were scheduled to march in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City. He asked them to carry cigarettes sequestered on their person and, at a signal from him, to light up during the parade. He told them they were making a statement about the equality of women and their right to be like men. He said they had as much right to smoke as a man. Their cigarettes were “torches of freedom.” Bernays told the newspapers that suffragettes were planning to infiltrate the parade to make a statement about the equality of women. The rest is history. Everything went as planned and woman began to smoke by the millions.
Even more extraordinary, anyone who felt strongly about the equality of women was co-opted into Bernays invidious plan and felt compelled to support womens’ right to smoke! We now know that cigarettes are one of the most harmful products of the modern era. But at the time, that was neither here nor there. And the story seems peculiarly Machiavellian in hindsight.
But we live in a world that has inherited the extraordinary shift to a consuming public that buys in large part on desire rather than need. Bernays understood that our sense of self is in part made up through the eyes of others around us. We become the sum of how we are perceived. And our subconscious response is to adorn ourselves with brands that signal to everyone else how they should see us, so we in turn can see ourselves the same way. Bernays was a master at assigning to products values whether it was notions of equality tied to cigarettes or independence to cars.
An entrepreneur may start with a great idea based on a remarkable insight, he may produce truly exceptional products, but it is paramount that he know his customer’s needs, his buying habits, his expectations, how he sees himself and why he buys what he buys. He must be able to explain, and hopefully demonstrate, why the customer will buy.
I believe we can do well and good. But I am very conscious of that fact that it is very common for people to innocently wrap their products with values that may enhance or limit their products’ appeal.
For more insight into why people buy things, and the practitioners whose work built the world in which we live, look up the work of Edward Bernays online (http://www.bookrags.com/biography/edward-l-bernays/). He worked his strange brand of magic for more than 60 years for some of the worlds largest and most profitable businesses. There’s a great deal you can learn from his work. For more information about School for Startups, our classes, our online TV station and our other resources, visit www.schoolforstartups.co.uk.