Remember Don Draper on Mad Men’s 2007 debut episode, ripping up the focus group report and throwing it in the trash: the gesture establishes his bold, independent masculinity as a character, and also allows the show’s writers to get a dig in at the focus groups they so resent in their own industry. The episode revealed little about the 1960s but much about the twenty-first century context in which it was written and consumed.
Such re-imaginings of history were in vogue during this period. In another personification of this ideal, a made-up version of Henry Ford (who was a real person) emerged, also in the early 2000s. “If I’d asked the people what they wanted,” the iconic inventor of the Model T is supposed to have said, “they would have said, a faster horse.” In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in business circles and in the media, this quote was circulated extensively, always attributed to Henry Ford, and always used to dismiss the idea of focus groups. It was a frequent way to articulate the idea that elite experts know best, and that asking the people anything is a waste of time.
It was a frequent way to articulate the idea that elite experts know best, and that asking the people anything is a waste of time.
Because he invented the first lasting mass-market car, Henry Ford is an appealing mouthpiece for this sentiment.
There’s one problem. There is no evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. Although he died in 1947, the quote itself did not exist until 2002, according to a well-researched essay by entrepreneur Patrick Vlaskovits on the Harvard Business Review blog. The quote surfaced at precisely the time that elite criticism of focus groups was growing particularly shrill.
Vlaskovits noted that it does seem to be true that Ford disdained popular opinion. But rather than simply helping his business, as those retailing the probably apocryphal quote assume, his contempt for consumers eventually hindered his business success. When more competition entered the market, and customers wanted better cars and easier financing for them, according to Vlaskovits, Ford was slow to respond and this hurt him competitively.
Though Vlaskovits doesn’t mention it, Ford also published the anti-Semitic classic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his Dearborn, MI, newspaper, and received a “Grand Cross of the German Eagle” award from the Nazi regime, refusing many exhortations to reject and return this award. (Harvard PhD candidate Stefan Link has argued that Ford’s politics were not developed enough to be actually fascist, and that Ford and Fordism were just as popular with the Soviets and others seeking an alternative to liberal capitalism as they were with the Nazis.) Still, Ford’s anti-Semitism and ties to the Nazis are well known. It is perhaps a disturbing sign of how far we have gone in lionizing elites that these unsavory attitudes and relationships have apparently not made Ford’s contempt for the masses any less charming to the many who quote this fake axiom (nor have many drawn the obvious connections between Ford’s cozy relationship with authoritarians and his hatred of the vox populi).
As political scientist Corey Robin has observed, misattributed quotes of this kind are common, and often better and pithier than whatever the “great man” in question actually said. But because such made-up quotes are often crowd-sourced products of collective fantasy, they say more about the culture at a given moment than about the people to whom they are attributed. The “faster horse” quote is a great example of this: it reveals nothing about Ford, since he never said it, nor about market research, but much about the anti-popular feeling among elites early this century, and their resentment of the ordinary citizen.
The invention of this quote effectively remade Ford into an archetype, not of his own time, but of the last turn of the century: the macho entrepreneur, whose disdain for focus groups demonstrated his independence from the sluggish, unimaginative masses.
This archetype was everywhere, and much celebrated. When Chuck Jordan, legendary car designer for General Motors, died, obituaries remembered his disdain for focus groups, expressed, as such disdain often is, with hostility to the ordinary folks who comprise them. “A good designer doesn’t need Mr. and Mrs. Zilch from Kansas telling him what to do,” Jordan, the artist behind the flamboyant tailfins on the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, said in 2006.
No one has been more lionized for his contempt for focus groups than Steve Jobs.
At first glance, Steve Jobs seems like an appropriate messenger for the don’t-listen-to-the-stupid-masses lesson that Gladwell and others have trumpeted. An Onion headline after his death said simply, “Last Man in America Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” Like Henry Ford, he was beloved. Apple is one of the most innovative companies on Earth, and people adore its products with almost-religious passion.
Jobs did indeed speak out against focus groups, and often, at one point saying,
It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
Saying the same thing another way, when asked how much market research went into the iPad, he said, “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
He often quoted the “faster horse”observation of “Henry Ford’s” in interviews:
So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’”
He appears to have been serious about this. Plenty of people in the corporate world—especially in the technology sector, where such sentiments enjoy a kind of hip cachet—talk tough about focus groups, but don’t manage to put the critique into action. “My research department doesn’t know it, but I’m killing all our focus groups,” Cammie Dunaway, chief marketing officer at Yahoo! Inc., said with typical bluster at a 2005 Silicon Valley conference. Five years later, I participated in a Yahoo! Inc. focus group in a windowless conference room in Manhattan. Because of Steve Jobs, the fantasy of “auteur-driven” tech innovation has been prevalent in Silicon Valley, but the reality is that conventional market research is also prevalent. Just about every Fortune 500 company uses focus groups at least for branding and marketing, and in the tech world they continue to play a role in product development at many companies, too.
But many at Apple have confirmed that Jobs’ no-focus-groups principle was real. John Sculley, who was, in the 1980s, co-CEO with Jobs, remembers Jobs asking, “How can I possibly ask someone what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphics-based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.”
How does Apple innovate? In an excellent essay called “You Can’t Innovate Like Apple,” Nielsen Company product manager Alain Breillatt explains that Apple can get away with not doing market research because of “the cult-like customers who adore them.” They design the products for themselves, and they have customers they know will love everything as much as they do. But how did they get there?
Apple’s design decisions, under Steve Jobs, were made not solely by one very smart guy, but by its workers.
It turns out that the Apple experience doesn’t prove what the elite market research haters would like it to prove. If anything, Steve Jobs’s Apple shows that more consultation can lead to even more innovation. It’s just that in Apple’s case, the consultation took place within the company. Apple’s design decisions, under Steve Jobs, were made not solely by one very smart guy, but by its workers.
It was Apple’s working conditions—for engineers, not, infamously, for Chinese factory workers making Apple products, whose conditions have often been awful—that made innovation possible, not its bold indifference to the opinion of its customers. In fact, a little piece of Jobs’s Apple suggests the way the world should work: the company listens to (some of) its workers, whose tastes and interests are quite similar to its market.
Apple under Steve Jobs apparently enjoyed more, not less, input from customers than most companies: they allowed their own employees—who were also Apple consumers—lots of influence. The employees were the focus group. This is a strategy known as “market immersion,” having employees who are deeply immersed in the firm’s markets, or are customers themselves. The fact that Apple’s employees—from designers to salespeople—are exactly the type of people who would buy its products made formal market research unnecessary.
As Steve Jobs has explained, Apple’s product developers do not assume that their customers are so very different from themselves. iTunes, and the iPod, he told Fortune magazine, came about because
we all love music. . . . Then we all wanted to carry our whole music libraries around with us. The team worked really hard. And the reason that they worked so hard is because we all wanted one . . . the first few hundred customers were us . . . [I]t’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.
Of course, as Breillatt explains, Apple owns its entire system—its operating system, software, and hardware—so it is able to conceive and execute the whole consumer experience in a way that few companies can.
But Apple also invests in innovation. Breillatt points out that
the vast majority of CEOs who say, “I want to be just like Apple,” have no idea what it really takes to achieve that level of success. . . . they want to be adored by their customers, they want to launch sexy products that cause the press to fall all over themselves, and they want to experience incredible financial growth. But they generally want to do it on the cheap.
That last cannot be done. Apple’s teams under Jobs were given plenty of time to work, and if their work wasn’t perfect, it was rejected. (In addition to his managerial virtues, Jobs was a temperamental maniac, and a total perfectionist: after the iPod was designed, Jobs complained there were features he still wasn’t “in love with” and sent them back to work harder.)
Apple recruits the very best people, and Breillatt explains that the company’s designers are paid 50 percent more than their counterparts at other companies. But that’s not the only reason they stay with Apple. As Jobs has also said, employees love Apple because they get to do amazing things there. As Breillatt puts it, the rewards include “being able to do challenging work that satisfies the mind and allows the creative muscles to stretch.”
Breillatt has, of course, a material interest in defending consumer research. His livelihood depends upon it. But his argument should be compelling to those who would like to see a more democratic world, as it suggests the answer is more consultation, and more egalitarianism, not more snotty elitism of the kind that so many media commentators use the Steve Jobs legacy to advance.
Far from showing that we should all defer to a few elite, rich geniuses, Apple’s success demonstrates instead how productive a little bit of horizontality can be. If focus groups have been driven by the past century’s divide between the experiences and sensibilities of the elites and the masses, the iPhone is the product of something else: a sense of commonality between the creators and the consumers. If focus groups have emerged as a necessary way to make both consumer capitalism and democracy work despite vast inequalities, the Apple workplace under Jobs hints at the necessary conditions for its abolition: a flatter and less divided world (and again, let’s remember that Apple surely doesn’t look this way at the manufacturing level, to the Chinese worker losing his fingers to make the creatively brainstormed iPad). Apple’s privileged Silicon Valley employees—and their innovations—suggest that the world might work better with more consultation. Indeed, in contrast to the elitist moral that persistently emerged from the Steve Jobs obituary, the Apple experience suggests that consultation is not enough: that sometimes those affected by decisions improve the outcome not just by being heard, but by participating.
There are other companies besides Steve Jobs’s Apple that have avoided getting bogged down in market research—but again, through more consultation rather than less. Such companies are, as one marketing professor recently observed, “increasing in number and so successful they can no longer be viewed as lucky exceptions to the rule.” Tupperware has long relied on its most enthusiastic customers to sell the products. There are other companies that do conventional market research, but engage in extensive formal consultation with employees first. Kraft, for example, uses an online community of some two thousand employees to test preparation methods, ads, and even product names.
Such subtleties were easily lost in the early twenty-first century’s cultural worship of the unique wisdom of the entrepreneur.
The facts don’t support the mythology around the genius entrepreneur and his disregard for focus groups. Most of the companies discussed above don’t reject the culture of consultation—they improve upon it. They have succeeded because of the collaboration of many creative minds, not the solitary inspiration of one man. Companies like Apple, upon close examination, suggest the value of horizontality and listening—in sharp contrast to the lesson that mainstream elites would have us draw from them. Such subtleties were easily lost in the early twenty-first century’s cultural worship of the unique wisdom of the entrepreneur. Indeed, so great was this worship that the machismo of not listening to anyone was elevated into politics, becoming a cornerstone of political, especially conservative, rhetoric.
Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation by Liza Featherstone is published by OR Books.