Before We Teach, We Have to Learn

There’s a saying that you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.

Which got me thinking about the social organization of undergraduate students in dormitory communities. Who you live with, who you choose to be friends with, will affect you a LOT. So when I’m looking at study abroad programs, the first thing I do is check housing options. My top priority is to live near local students or in a homestay. Everything else (course offerings, cultural excursions, etc) comes after.

I think it’s this insight that is also behind why “customer development” is a hot topic within startups now. The following is an excerpt from a Fast Company article, “Want To Sell Product? Sleep With Your Customers”, which describes why consumer insight in adapting products across cultures is so important:

Here’s the truth: I have come to spend a large part of my time living in consumers’ homes. It began a few years ago when I was asked to the Philippines to help an ailing coffee brand. For years the major coffee manufacturer in the region had attempted to run an advertising campaign during the rainy season. It’s traditionally a time of celebration, and if a coffee brand could “own” this, it would be a license to print money. The coffee company had run an expensive television campaign featuring smiling people drinking the brew in the shelter of their homes while rain pitter-pattered down on the roof. To everyone’s surprise, it seemed the association with the rainy season was a major turn-off. Sales decreased, and in turn left everyone baffled. Just before the annual rains were due, I headed off to Manila to work out why.

To everyone’s surprise, the first thing I requested was to move in with a local family. Over the next 10 days I spent time in five different family homes, singing, talking, eating and, of course, drinking a lot of coffee. My agenda was to understand the psychology of the rainy season.

One night, as the rain hammered against the tin roof, it occurred to me that the sound of the rain in the commercials had been misrepresented. In the ads that went to air, the rain was created from stock sounds, great in Hollywood movie, but far removed from the realities of the average Filipino family. The sound wasn’t right, and so the emotional stirrings the brand had hoped to evoke, simply did not occur.

I immediately set out to record the very sound I was hearing beating against the tin roof. I emailed it to the production company and played the revised commercial for the next family. It brought them to tears. Sound was the missing piece in the emotional puzzle, and the following rainy season, coffee sales increased by 19%.

I regularly ask CEOs when they’ve last spent a day in the homes of their core consumers. The best I can usually hope for is that they’ve intended to but have never found the time. In reality, most executives operate from large offices where they function with all the information that technology can provide. This was the experience of a CEO running one of the largest hi-fi manufacturers in the world. He was having doubts about a new product that had been in development for years. He showed me a prototype of this product–a stealth remote control he planned to unleash on the Chinese market.

I was curious about the reasons for targeting China. He had done his research, and it showed that Chinese families embrace new technology, have the resources to purchase it, and generally like to impress friends and family. I inquired if he or any member of his team had spent any time in a Chinese home. As I predicted, not a single member of the development and marketing teams had even spent 10 minutes in the field. If they had, they would have learned that Chinese families tend to wrap their remote controls in transparent plastic to keep out dust. So, under layers of protective plastic, one remote looks just like another.

The planned release of the product in China was cancelled. The money was moved to Northern Europe, where the new remote proved to be hugely successful. But success aside, the organization now demands that everyone involved in the development and marketing of a product must spend at least two days in a consumer’s home.

This is a lesson that Procter & Gamble learned quite some time ago. Before they came up with one of the world’s most popular stain removers they spent months observing women tackling their laundry. They discovered that it wasn’t the big stains that disturbed, because they could be tackled head on. It was the tiny small obsequious stains that were most feared, the insignificant ones that can fly under the radar and then be noticed by the world at large. This became the foundation for Procter & Gamble’s next big stain-removal innovation: “Tide to Go” Instant Stain Remover.

This article really spoke to me because my long-term career goal is to work internationally in the private sector. Sometimes I meet professionals who do that, I hear them speak about locals where they work and I can tell that they spend their time looking up market research reports instead of talking to customers.

What I loved about being in India was the chance to work with locals. I wasn’t just traveling, I was working and I was the only foreigner on my team. My team took me to movies, showed me how to drink coffee the South Indian way, and took me to shops frequented by locals.

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Wherever you go (not only outside the US, within as well), take every opportunity to surround yourself with locals. If your organization is trying to target youth in South Bronx, figure out a way to get involved in which you’re there solely as a “student” and a “learner”, not a “tutor” and being praised often for “being such a good helper”. Think of it as culture shadowing, the anthropological sibling of job shadowing. Before we can even begin to advise organizations on how to reach out to communities, we have to learn from those communities. Before we teach, we have to learn.

*This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my friend Ruben, who is working on starting a charter school in Holyoke, MA.

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