When the leader or strategist of a company or organization, such as either political party, decides to preface the answer to a question with these words: “Well, market research says….,” prepare for the explanation as to why a mediocre product is being introduced. When someone in a leadership position willingly depends on the opinions of others to make a decision – a decision that could just have easily been made using one’s own discretion, two questions arise: is a company or organization about to make a bad decision? And if so, are the participants in that research about to become scapegoats for that bad decision?
The 1985 decision by Coca-Cola executives to reformulate their most recognized product has become the textbook example of how discretion should sometimes override what may appear to be popular public opinion. From radio stations to car companies, flawed market research has produced some big mistakes in terms of new products. These mistakes tend to be relabeled as “compromises.” A compromise, however, tends to be a decision that both sides reach, but neither side wants.
In all fairness, referring to outside opinions before making a decision isn’t a bad thing, as long as those opinions were reached with thorough questioning and analysis. But, the total dependence on outside opinions, along with leaders who have little or no love or knowledge of the products, renders every step of the fact-finding process useless.
When a substandard/failed product, such as a radio station that confines itself to a one hundred-song playlist, or a new car that cannot find a buyer without the help of deep incentives, is dumped into the free market, the responsible parties must be asked if they have any love for their industry and/or product. This scenario also applies to political strategists who insist on promoting the “most electable” candidates during an election campaign.
During his stint at the former WLUP AM, talk show host Kevin Matthews would occasionally discuss the workings of the radio industry, especially the process used to determine a radio station’s playlist. For someone who enjoyed listening to their radio, this was as close to touring the proverbial sausage factory as one would want to be.
As a result of his insight, it was easy to conclude that most program directors had sacrificed their ability to exercise discretion. Playlists were formed using the most recognized songs that may have been determined by people in a city hundreds of miles away; one guest on Matthews’ show brought up an example of how one thousand people in Houston could determine what one million people in Chicago would listen to.
The misuse of other people’s opinions is not confined to intellectually-complacent program directors – carmakers have had more than their share of mistakes, with GM making some of the most obvious.
Back in 1986, Ford ran a successful commercial for the Lincoln Town Car called “the Valet,” which showed Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac owners having a difficult time trying to tell their cars apart in a parking lot. How successful was this commercial? The higher-ups at GM reportedly asked their counterparts at Ford to pull it from the airwaves.
In this commercial, Ford had taken advantage of a major flaw in GM’s newly-downsized sedans: they were too identical. Throughout its modern history, GM’s divisions had shared many common parts and platforms. However, the mid-eighties offerings from those divisions had taken this practice to a new low.