We Sell Sandals, Not Shoes

When responding to inquiries–or making pitches–to prospective new clients, I am invariably asked to talk about my relevant consumer insights research experience.  Understanding that clients want to hear about studies that are close to their own category of business, I try to speak about past projects that the client might possibly find a thread of connection to.  For example, for a manufacturer of wireless home speakers, I would talk about previous research I’ve conducted on other wireless home products, such as tablets, if I hadn’t done one on the same exact topic. 

Many clients appreciate these “close, but not exact” examples of previous work.  These clients realize that no two research projects are the same and that they aren’t really asking for us to replicate what we have done in a past study. I would like to think that they understand that what makes us good at research is not our current knowledge of their product, or even their target customer, but our ability to discover and learn about their products and customers.

Sometimes I believe it’s important to have a certain degree of expertise in a domain in order to be able to conduct a meaningful interview. When interviewing a scientist or a doctor, it can be helpful to speak enough of their technical language to engage them in a way that will elicit the information I am looking for.  However, there are other times when it’s even more productive to be seen as a “novice” or an “outsider.” When we are not seen as an expert, we can ask very simple questions without a risk of looking foolish or naive.  It also allows the person we are interviewing to explain their point of view in way that is very clear.  When we don’t understand we can ask for more explanation. This is the art of being a good ethnographer.  It is though this dialogue that we build a bridge of understanding.

While some clients are open to research as a process of discovery and learning, I have found that others have a fixed idea of who will be most qualified to conduct research on their products or services. They believe that the particularity of their product requires a researcher with the same background. Here’s a story I often tell to illustrate this predicament: I’m on a first call with a person from a sandal company and they ask me to tell them about previous studies we’ve conducted. I mention that I have conducted 4 studies on shoes, 2 for a major retailer and 2 for a shoe manufacturer.  The client is not impressed.  They say to me, “Well, sandals are not shoes.  We make footwear with open toes. You don’t understand us!  Thank you for your interest, but we are going to look elsewhere.” This story is made up, but the sentiment it expresses is not. Over 17 years, I have had many calls that have gone just like this.

Being laser focused on one’s products and customers has its strengths in certain contexts. But being overly narrow comes with its costs when it comes to consumer insights research.  Everybody talks about “getting out of the box” but most market research cultures do not encourage this exploration and risk taking.  It’s not only that sandals really are shoes (and share a lot in common with them).  The sandal makers are missing a lot if they don’t understand the consumers of shoes.  The same people often wear both sandals and shoes.  The sandal makers also have a lot to learn from other things that people wear like purses and smartwatches. And, even unrelated categories might provide fresh ideas.  Ultimately, it’s the people who use these products and the way they interact with them that are the source of learning, inspiration, and innovation.