Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Companies That Know Our Needs Before We Do

Why did the iPod and Kindle create an appetite in consumers while the Zune and the Sony Reader didn’t? Why do grocery buyers regard visiting Safeway a chore, but look forward to shopping at Wegman’s? Adrian Slywotzky investigates these questions in Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It. But he overtalks the point and, unfortunately, blurs the line between business writing and advertising.

Consider: did you have any idea you were unhappy with Lackluster Video before Reed Hastings launched Netflix? Did you feel the need for constant social networking before you signed up for Facebook? Of course not. Yet the creative minds behind these breakthroughs recognized needs so completely unmet that we hadn’t even noticed we had them yet. Now we can’t imagine our lives without these cushy conveniences.

Slywotzky admits from the beginning that he has no simple formula for what he calls “demand creators,” those producers and vendors who sell what we never knew we needed. Though he identifies several areas where future developments will happen, he can’t give you a step-by-step guide to creating demand. Demand creation relies on creativity and insight. Our best hope is to learn from those who have done it before.

It may seem that many demand creators have their leaps only once. Slywotzky published this book before Netflix’s recent flame-out. While Reed Hastings had a good idea, his follow-through hasn’t been exemplary. He had one idea that revolutionized the media distribution business, but he has peddled a great deal of confusion lately. Can we really learn anything from someone who misjudged his audience so badly?

Yet remember how many times Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos hit the nail on the head. Each correctly anticipated not only what customers wanted, but how developing technology made fulfilling those wants possible. And technology isn’t even necessary. The Wegman’s grocery chain has stayed ahead of the competition for decades by simply making their stores a destination, and by not expanding faster than economic realities permit.

Some demand creation requires routine awareness. Jeff Bezos recognized the Kindle’s potential when he saw a Sony Reader, which was well designed but poorly pitched, and realized it could benefit from’s infrastructure. Other demand creation is more studious. California-based CareMore delivers managed medical care to the elderly at steep discounts while improving quality because market research returned results that appear downright counterintuitive.

For all their differences, though, demand creators share an ethic of recognizing their customers as real people with real needs. Even non-profits like Teach For America or the Seattle Opera recognize their audiences, in very real ways, as customers. The institutions have something people need—such as education or culture—and their first responsibility is to match their product with others’ needs.

But I have difficulty understanding the mental habits Slywotzky wants me to gain because his segmented structure doesn’t let me spot patterns. He discusses two or three companies per chapter, from profitable industries to philanthropic institutions, but by the next chapter, those examples vanish. I’d love to know how Zipcar embodies Slywotzky’s various virtues, but once he’s done with it, he never mentions it again.

And his praise of companies he admires goes on at length. His praise, in particular, of Tetra Pak and the Kindle go well beyond what we need to understand these products’ success. Slywotzky’s stories mount up, with such unflagging praise that he starts to sound like a PR flack. Is he paid by the line? My eyes glaze over, and I find myself wondering whether I’ve really learned anything in the last fifteen or twenty pages.

Business writing must respect that business innovators lead busy lives. They generally exceed forty hours, and time spent reading should be remunerative in some way, whether by teaching something useful or providing needed psychological refreshment. Writers must put every anecdote, every discursion, every rumination on trial for its life. Anything that doesn’t advance the point must go.

This relatively long book could use a firm editor. It’s nearly a third longer than similar business books, and even at that length, feels disjointed. Much as I appreciate the individual points, and as much as I they advance ongoing discussions, this book doesn’t go nearly as far as it should. Inquisitive readers can gain plenty from reading, but it simultaneously goes way longer than it should, and doesn’t do its topics justice.

I’ve identified a demand I didn’t know I had. I demand this necessary book, with the numerous kinks worked out.

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