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Henry Ford's Faster Horses - how consumer insight fuels innovation.


Good old Henry Ford is oft touted about as an example about the dangers of relying on consumer input in the innovation process. "If I had asked my customers what they wanted," he is supposed to have derisively scoffed, "They would have said a faster horse."

Now we can argue the whole day long about whether or not these very words passed his lips. But I think it perfectly illustrates the way consumer insight should be used in the innovation process – as inspiration for the development of innovative solutions. That is, providing solutions that meet real customer needs.

Customers, on the whole, can’t envisage new products for us, and asking them to is unlikely to get you anywhere particularly exciting. But, if we opt to observe, listen and learn from our customers (and our competitor’s customers), and interpret what they say - they can show us what their needs are, where they are being met and where their frustrations lie. By observing and listening to consumers we can see the problems that provide opportunity for innovation. This lies at the heart of a human-centric design process.

But it is our job, not our consumers' job, to come up with ideas and solutions that can meet those needs. We have access to experts and information about technology changes and trends, we know the capabilities of our factories, and can see what competitors are doing locally and abroad, in our own categories and in related ones. We know what our brands are about and how far we can stretch them, and what internal business problems we need to solve. We, as marketers, are armed with the tools to come up with solutions to meet these needs far better than consumers themselves can. All we need to do is make connections between the bits of information at our finger tips, and apply imagination to leap to new ideas that unlock opportunities.

Henry Ford knew in his gut that the idea of “faster horses” would be a winner. He understood his market and his business. He could envisage a future unhindered by the problems of the current reality. Consumers can’t do that – but if we understand their pain points, and we apply imagination we, as businesses, can. And that is the power of consumer insight - to inspire meaningful product and service design.

(To get a better handle on your customer’s pain points – try customer journey mapping.)

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