"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been" - Wayne Gretzky
The Great One's well-known words are often repeated in corporate corridors during discussions about understanding market trends. That is typically where the conversation comes to an abrupt end, because few can elaborate on how to anticipate these trends with any reliability and predictability.
The reality these discussions generally miss is that people are the puck. If you want to know how to be best positioned for business success, you have to understand where they are going. Everything else is secondary, dynamic, and highly arbitrary. Think about it. Technologies will change, distribution channels for content will change, usage environments will change. People stay more or less the same. They stay the same but are never simple. People (consumers) are both logical and irrational, motivated by opportunity and emotion, full of contradiction, impacted by economic conditions, and often difficult to define.
In spite of these realities, clarity can be achieved and cultural, socio-economic, and political differences mitigated by analyzing needs and aspirations of both individuals and groups. Needs and aspirations are a beacon to understanding what will attract and reward attraction. Whether developing a new venture, managing an internal corporate innovation initiative, or working to develop globally successful product and service designs (my profession), nothing is more important than understanding what people need and desire in context of what the competition is providing. Sounds simple, but the realities of sociology, psychology and politics ensure that what people think they want, say they want, and actually want can (and typically does) differ.
This is often the reason why thoughtful quantitative analysis that incorporates macro-economic trends, market share, competitive strategies, retail analysis and technological assessments so often misses the mark. Remember also that that most macroeconomic and corporate financial data provide only a snapshot on where things have been. MBA finance majors learn early that trying to anticipate equity and commodity markets with such data is like trying to drive a car while only looking in the rear view mirror. Much the same can be said of the quantitative data most business managers are forced to use while trying to make important investment decisions, or while analyzing and benchmarking in a 'gated' product/service development process. In short, when you're relying on suspect data and looking backwards, your 'hit rate' is always going to be significantly diminished. So what do you do?
In hockey if you know generally where the puck will be heading and how fast it will travel you're well on your way to victory through tactics. The same is true for your business initiatives. General heading and speed are sufficient to enter the market with offerings that will be embraced by consumers, and advocated in the age of social media and our experience economy.
Get your headings by understanding consumer needs and aspirations, establishing emotional engagement, and ensuring consumers feel represented and understood with your offerings. Better predict speed of consumer adoption by understanding the behavior changes required, and by focusing on motivations — not demographic history in dissimilar categories. React to inevitable competition by understanding cultural values, then convey a clear value proposition understood on both intellectual and emotional levels. Finally, in much the same way that players can focus intently on the goal during the heights of competition while tuning everything else out, reliable market success requires that you step back and put people at the center while ignoring all other 'distractions.' Only then can you truly evaluate the offering, brand, and competitive dynamics in proper context.
I'll part with five quick tips for better understanding where the puck is headed (understanding people):
1. Ask the right questions, in-person wherever possible: Knowing what you need to ask, in the manner that provides the most insight, is a function of experience, but anyone can see from divergent and inaccurate political polling that 'garbage in is garbage out.' Cultural understanding is about personal familiarity or immersion. Ensure you have the requisite cultural understanding at the outset, or find a trusted partner who does.
2. Benchmark the emotional engagement and dynamic interactivity of products and services as a lens to understand how well they are meeting the needs and desires of consumers. A simple method I've developed utilizes an X/Y mapping grid that measures emotional engagement on the vertical axis and interactivity on the horizontal. This methodology is utilized quickly by professional teams, and lends significant insight to more traditional competitive analysis techniques. It is a process I use frequently and call Psycho-Aesthetics mapping.
3. Understand that consumer needs and aspirations are both hierarchical and grow in complexity over time. My firm has modified Maslow's hierarchy of needs to analyze and categorize these varying levels of basic, enriching, and fulfilling consumer needs. A general rule of thumb is that people want more. They want more, but in this incredible age of technology they don't necessarily want greater 'speeds and feeds' (think printers). Sometimes they seek greater value in terms of simplicity, time, fulfillment, emotional reward, ease of purchase, etc. So, 'more' must be properly interpreted or you'll surely be misaligned.
4. Empathy is the key to being able to change all the variables - industries, objectives, offerings - and still work the process from the eyes of the target audience. Empathy is a function of understanding, and understanding a function of experience. Find people with the right framework and experience for a given initiative. Also realize the value of rigorous debate while analyzing the inherently subjective topic of consumer needs/aspirations within a group setting. The more perspectives speaking intelligently to and for the given audience, the better.
5. Universal needs like self-affirmation and social acceptance can provide value to global initiatives while unifying branding, marketing and related messaging. The common emotional needs we all share, like wanting to be accepted, respected, and loved, change very little with culture and time. While attempting to incorporate emotional engagement into product and service offerings, remember that universal emotional needs can add simplicity while building consumer loyalty. I've learned over time as a design CEO that with emotional engagement, it's not how you feel about the design or experience, but rather how they make you feel about yourself.