Taobao, or a glimpse at the limits of research

One of my favorite random websites to go to when I have nothing else to do is It has nothing except images of weird products sold on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay.


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The question that most companies try to answer with their products and services is this: what do people want? Apple frames? Goats that look like they’re choking?

In 2007, Universal McCann posed that question to 10,000 people around the world. More specifically, people were asked how much they agree with the statement, “I like the idea of having one portable device to fulfill all my needs.” Researchers tallied the results, and found that consumers in Mexico or India would like something like the iPhone, but not consumers in affluent countries.

Of course, as it turns out, consumers in the US and other affluent countries did want the iPhone. Steve Jobs famously said that one should never design by focus groups, since consumers don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Yet we see many companies, sprinting along the holy grail of data, towards what they believe to be the shape and substance of public demand. Netflix reverse engineered its way into a hit TV series. Amazon is surely thinking of ways to churn out publishing hits (the 4-hour Chef aside).

Why is it inherently difficult to assess and gauge consumers’ reactions. Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen, on Quartz, rightly point out that consumer reception these days tends to be influenced by a variety of information sources – price comparison sites, user reviews, friends’ opinions, mass media hyperbole, instead of what traditional market research tends to measure: preferences, beliefs, and experiences, all rooted in the past and shedding little insight into products/services that are radically different.

To dismiss research as unnecessary is the wrong conclusion to draw from this – to know “what is” is a necessary step towards asking “what if”. The challenge of research can never point out what the next big product can or should be, but it can take steps towards understanding and making better predictions about how actual purchase decisions are made. The aim is not to reverse engineer products/services, but to know better how to market them. The fact is that most products in the marketplace are good enough. A blouse, a notebook, a coupon website, is often just as good as another. Sometimes it is about improving the product/service itself to provide a better/different proposition – smaller, slicker, faster, lighter, brighter. Many times, however, and more and more, it’s a game of fashion, and knowing how to market better. Samsung spends money improving its phone, and probably spends as much money putting them into the hands of celebrities. Some startup out there is thinking not how they can be the best phone maker/insert-product, but how they can be the best marketer. The competition is not so much the next brand in the same consumer space as it is the next cool thing anywhere.

It may be Apple frames. It may be a hat and tie, studded with LED lights.

1 comment
  1. Hey thanks for the share. I loved the reference to Steve Job’s “infamous” quote. The fact is though, that he was onto something. Innovation requires thinking beyond what the average consumer thinks they want. Dreamers and engineers need to work together.

    Your post and reference to this idea stands in stark contrast to much of Microsoft previous stance on research and development. Their stance has almost always predominantly been that unless the R&D somehow fits into their current product lines, it really does not need to be talked about or put into active marketing. Their new CEO faces some pretty tough decisions on whether to purse this line of thought, or steer the ship into the waters of Google and Apple by disclosing more of their heavily guarded R&D and considering options beyond their current product line.

    The likelihood of his doing so is minimal though, with current stockholders pushing to axe many of their existing product lines in favor of devoting more attention to their more lucrative business line products.

    Found it very interesting to read your post having previously read this one by the Washington Post:

    My thoughts: Steve Jobs new what he was doing, so does Google, but so does Microsoft. They all have different business models and different reasons for it. That said, if Microsoft unleashed a little more of their brain power and potential and created a more open environment (think Google Circa 2004-2010) – I think that they could gain some massive momentum. The problem is they need to start thinking like young men and not old stock holders. They also need to consider the consumer more when developing products (XboxOne “always online” fiasco and Windows 8 struggles) and when communicating product information (XBoxOne fiasco where they basically told customers who did not have access to be “always online” to pound salt).

    I digress. I enjoyed your post and will be visiting Taobao as I am now intrigued. Thanks for the share!

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