Exercises in Innovation #3: Observe customers in the wild

Going out and observing customers is something you should really try and not just as a thought experiment. I have often advised business leaders that to be truly innovative, they should test out anthropology for themselves.

That’s exactly what Gillette did. Gillette was one of the first big enterprises to consistently hire anthropologists right from the university. More recent years, some other big names who followed suit include Google, Microsoft, Intel, and Ford Motor Company.

The value of putting market research in the hands of anthropologists is that they are trained to observe without interfering and keep careful notes about anything out of the ordinary. They know people often don’t know the truth about themselves or can’t tell the truth.

A good example is shaving. Gillette asked men to estimate how many times the drew the razors across their faces in the process of shaving. Most estimated 20 to 30 times. It seems reasonable, but Gillette didn’t stop there. By observing people actually shaving, they found that the average number of strokes was 135. Obviously, that answer makes a vast difference in elements like blade shape and length of use. For this same reason, they have had consistently positive results with their advertising. Even if the backlash against their 2019 video ad “The Best Men Can Be” opened up a social dialog that kept the Gillette brand relevant and active in the public consciousness.

Even with all their anthropologists, though, Gillette didn’t foresee the subscription razor business model coming, which has started to erode their dominance in a stagnant market. While they have matched the subscription model of Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s Razors, what they need to prepare for what’s next is to start testing out new hypotheses.

Look out for exercise #4.

Ps. Download the complete paper here Ds.