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The Latest “Market Research” Freakout

Several weeks ago, Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) served up this comment about “market research.” Many in our industry became defensive (literally “hair on fire”) rather than using this as a teachable moment.

Here’s the quote.

“No customer was asking for Echo.  This was us wandering.  Market research doesn’t help.  If you had gone to a customer in 2013 and said ‘Would you like a black, always-on cylinder in your kitchen about the size of a Pringles can that you can talk to and ask questions, that also turns on your lights and plays music?’  I guarantee you they’d have looked at you strangely and said ‘No, thank you.’”

In my humble opinion, Mr. Bezos should stick to his day job.  First, Mr. Bezos is describing an innovation assignment—not solving a marketing challenge.  Furthermore, market research  is about understanding the size and dynamics of a market.  Marketing research is a more scientific process of optimizing the marketing mix.

Since he’s really referring to innovation, let’s dig deeper. In the context of innovation, Mr. Bezos is right. The first rule in innovation is that you never, never, never, (did I say never?) ask consumers the types of questions he’s proposing.  Dumb idea.

Clearly, the Echo innovation team was trying to meet some underserved needs among consumers.  I would bet my Amazon stock that “market research” is valuable in understanding the prevalence and priority of consumer value drivers, especially when the institutional knowledge is low.  Instead of asking people what they want (as Mr. Bezos suggested), it is far more valuable to focus on questions like:

  • How often have you had your hands full and wished you could turn on the room lights hands free?  (Validates demand for the idea.)
  • Describe a situation when it would be helpful to search the Internet using your voice?  (Helps describe features and usage occasions.)
  • If you had an affordable computerized assistant, what would be some ordinary things you’d like for it to do?  (Helps describe features and usage occasions.)

Arguably, the questions above are easy to answer.  If the innovation team knows the answers, fine, you probably don’t need “market research.”

Good for us, the questions, answers, and synthesis into unmet needs are not as clear cut and easy.  In that instance, you may need to invest in some “market research.”

In short, Mr. Bezos is right.  He is misinformed in his context and word choice.  As it relates to my “market research” colleagues, let’s “chill out” and use this as a moment to reassert the value we bring.

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