Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Pay Attention To Your 'Extreme Consumers'

Jill Avery and Michael Norton explain what marketers can learn from consumers whose preferences lie outside of the mainstream

Published: Aug 18, 2014 06:33:04 AM IST
Updated: Aug 1, 2014 06:08:18 PM IST

What do Porsche fanatics, a video game hater, and a person who cooked two weeks' worth of meals in a rice cooker have in common? They are all "extreme consumers"—those whose tastes are so out there that mainstream market researchers tend to dismiss them as "noise" when trying to figure out how typical consumers think.

That's fine if you only want to keep making incremental improvements to your products, says Jill Avery, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a former brand manager at Gillette, Samuel Adams, and AT&T. "Traditional market research is all about studying the average consumer, which gets rid of the noise in an effort to study the majority of customers, but also gets rid of people who are potentially leading the category," she says.

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By understanding those consumers who lie "in the tails" of the bell curve, says Avery, product designers can discover truly innovative breakthroughs. "Only by looking at consumers who fall within those tails of the normal distribution can you understand the extremes," she says. "And they often influence the middle, spilling over into what the average consumer believes."

Along with Michael Norton, professor of marketing, Avery explores those extremes in a recent HBS teaching note, Learning from Extreme Consumers. The researchers developed the concept as part of the Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) course, a required course for first year MBA students , which immerses them in global research projects to produce a new product or experience, often in an emerging market country.

To prepare students for their global immersion and help them practice market research techniques, FIELD professors first asked students to interview consumers of their type of product in neighborhoods near the Harvard Business School campus. Boston. Frequently, however, they found that students would only seek out people much like themselves, such as middle-class students in Harvard Square. The insight derived from these conversations was often predictable. The concept of talking to extreme consumers was developed to push students out of their comfort zone.

"There is an enormous gap between chatting with your friends and chatting with people on the streets in Vietnam," says Norton. "This exercise creates a bridge for talking to people who are very unlike you."

As former marketing manager for female shaving products at Gillette, Avery often utilized principles of "design thinking," moving beyond surveys and focus groups to do ethnographic research into how people really interacted with products. Often, she saw a big disconnect between what people said they did and what they actually did.

In focus groups, for example, women would say they changed their razor blades regularly. Only when researchers visited consumers in their homes, however, did reality—and a product opportunity—come to light. Women frequently forgot to keep their blade supply restocked in the shower.

"The last thing you want to do in the middle of a shower is get out and look for a razor blade," says Avery, who spearheaded the launch of the Venus razor with in-shower blade dispenser, making it more convenient for consumers—and selling a lot more razor blades.

Such hidden opportunities can become even more apparent by investigating "extreme consumers," since they can overemphasize thoughts and behaviors that all consumers of a product may share. Avery has studied extreme Porsche fanatics-men who might keep four Porsches in the garage and who join online brand communities to share in their love for the brand. When Porsche tried to appeal to female consumers with its Porsche Cayenne SUV, these fanatics howled in protest about the "feminizing" of the brand.

Such protest risks endangering the brand identity if it spills over to general consumers. "Often the lovers or haters of a product can be the canary in the coal mine—an early warning system that can alert managers to problems or identify areas where a competitor could come in and take away the bulk of the market," says Avery.

By investigating what extreme adherents of a brand like about a product, designers can identify features to emphasize for all consumers. "A lover of a product can help identify aspects that are providing value, helping managers understand what's working and what's not," says Norton. At the same time, designers can gain valuable insights into a product by talking to those who hate it—or even don't use it at all.

Such was the case with Nintendo when developing its Wii game console system. In interviewing people who hated playing video games, researchers found that they tended to avoid games that were too complicated, and found controllers too difficult to maneuver. In response, they designed a game system with intentionally simplified graphics and controllers that mimicked real-life motions. Wii was an instant hit, revolutionizing video games and forcing competitors to play catch-up with their own systems.

Another way designers can gain fresh insights into their products is by observing consumers whose physical impediments make using them difficult. Engineers with Ford wore bodysuits that mimicked the vision and range of motion of the elderly to redesign the Ford Focus. "One of their biggest insights was how difficult it was to reach up across their bodies to reach the seatbelt," says Norton. "Until you are actually in the car in that situation, it would never occur to you."

By donning the suits, designers essentially turned themselves into extreme consumers. "The suits are the physical embodiments of ethnography, immersing the engineers in their customers' life experiences," says Avery. The resulting redesign of the car not only made it easier for those impaired consumers to use, but it also improved accessibility and visibility of important features for everyone.

This past year, when it came time for students in the FIELD course to perform market research in advance of their trip overseas, Avery and Norton urged them to look for their own extreme consumers in order to obtain out-of-the-ordinary insights. Some students investigated websites of extreme lovers or haters of their products. A project developing new menu items for a fast food restaurant chain in Malaysia, for example, used websites that were critical of the fast food industry to design healthier alternatives.

Others sought out more extreme users in person. A team researching ways that a Vietnamese bank could encourage customers to save more went to the mall on a weekday to interview "unbanked" consumers—those without bank accounts at all. "They would cash their paycheck and spend it on basic needs," says Norton. "If they had an extra five dollars, it seemed like such little money, it wasn't worth saving." What these consumers did do, students found, was spend those extra few dollars on the lottery.

When it came time to develop the strategy for their client, the students experimented with including elements of gambling into the savings—giving customers a very slight chance to win a jackpot, which increased as they saved more money. "They had not thought before that gambling might be a way to get people to save," says Norton. "Their insight was that you might be able to combine risk and savings in a way that people who were mainstream users of banks might appreciate as well."

Finally, some teams went the extra mile by making themselves extreme consumers. A group of students working on developing a new rice cooker conducted the usual surveys of consumers in Harvard Square and found only mild interest in using the product. For some families in Asia, however, a rice cooker is often the only means of cooking meals. To simulate that the experience, one student went two weeks eating only what he could cook in a rice cooker—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

After only a few days, he got sick of eating rice, and began experimenting with different recipes and ways of cooking to improve his culinary offerings. "He not only identified the problems with existing rice cookers, but also opened up new opportunities to think about what else you could cook in a rice cooker," says Avery. As a result, the students developed a more multipurpose rice cooker that featured a revolutionary design.

Research into extreme consumers doesn't have to stand in opposition to traditional research methods. In fact, it can be a valuable complement. "I get a lot of pushback from people who say this is a biased sample, and that you can't generalize," Avery says. But that misses the point. Rather than helping researchers estimate the habits of ordinary consumers, the data from extreme customers can uncover new consumer motivations, promoting different ways of looking at how products can be used.

"We spent too much time in our market research on answering the what, where, and when questions associated with consumer behavior, and not enough on the how and the why questions," says Avery. By looking at the hows and whys of those consumers on the fringes, we can discover new ways to think about the hows and whys of the rest of us.
About the author

Michael Blanding is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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