I have a love/hate relationship with these two paragraphs from Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt’s classic 1960 Harvard Business Review article. Noting Detroit’s struggles (in 1960) he wrote:
The industry has hitched its fortune to the relentless requirements of the annual model change, a policy that makes customer orientation an especially urgent necessity. Consequently, the auto companies annually spend millions of dollars on consumer research. But the fact that the new compact cars are selling so well in their first year indicates that Detroit’s vast researches have for a long time failed to reveal what customers really wanted. Detroit was not convinced that people wanted anything different from what they had been getting until it lost millions of customers to other small-car manufacturers.
How could this unbelievable lag behind consumer wants have been perpetuated for so long? Why did not research reveal consumer preferences before consumers’ buying decisions themselves revealed the facts? Is that not what consumer research is for—to find out before the fact what is going to happen? The answer is that Detroit never really researched customers’ wants. It only researched their preferences between the kinds of things it had already decided to offer them. For Detroit is mainly product oriented, not customer oriented.
Oh my. How many of us are really paying attention to what our customers are actually asking for? Or like Detroit in the 1960s, are we continuing to produce what has already been voted off the island; scratching our heads wondering why our product no longer sells?
In many ways Levitt was an unheard voice crying out in the wilderness. You can’t read him now without seeing the halogen handwriting on the wall. Calls to mind the great line from Eric Shineski, Former Chief of Staff, United States Army:
“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”