Marketing pioneers, driven by the need to succeed in competitive markets, are years ahead of most psychologists when it comes to understanding some important aspects human behaviour, because all that drives most psychologists is the need to impress other psychologists. As an illustration of this, consider chunky tomato sauce.
In a TED talk from 2004, Malcolm Gladwell tells a story (00:42):
…about someone who I think has done as much to make Americans happy as, perhaps, anyone over the last twenty years, a man who is a great personal hero of mine, someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for re-inventing spaghetti sauce.
Howard Moskowitz is an experimental psychologist who has won many awards both in science and in marketing. But the talk tells the story of his first and most famous discovery.
The story begins with Pepsi. In the 1970’s, Pepsi wanted to use a new artificial sweetener in their diet cola, but they needed research evidence to be sure of how much to use. Moskowitz’ attempt to get this evidence for Pepsi failed, and the way in which it failed was revealing (3:04):
…the data doesn’t make any sense. It’s a mess. It’s all over the place.
After thinking about this failure for a long time, he realized that it wasn’t the data that didn’t make any sense, it was the original question that didn’t make sense: (3:58):
…they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for…
I’ll leave aside for the moment about what they should have been looking for.
The point here is that the problem lay in the original assumption about what kind of outcome to expect from the research. The expectation that the answer would be a perfect formula for Diet Pepsi sabotaged the whole experiment.
This is the first lesson that market researchers have learned from Moskowitz’ work, but that most psychology research continues to ignore: the assumptions that researchers make when they design an experiment can make a nonsense of the results.
Moskowitz became famous after Campbell’s Soup, owner of the Prego brand, hired him to design a new tomato sauce for spaghetti. This time, instead of designing the research to look for the single perfect sauce, he designed it to look at the whole range of possibilities. And when he analysed the results, instead of trying to find the perfect sauce he looked for clusters of people with similar tastes (7:48):
…all Americans fall into one of three groups: there are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain, there are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy, and there are people who like it extra chunky.
It was the third cluster that revolutionized the market for spaghetti sauce in America, because at the time no manufacturer was catering for that cluster of consumers. Over the next ten years Prego made $600 million from selling extra chunky sauce.
The second lesson, therefore, is that different people can have different needs. We are not all the same. In some matters there might be no perfect solution that makes everybody happy, and multiple solutions will be required.
Moskowitz’ work on coffee for General Foods illustrates a third lesson (9:44):
Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat, what will make people happy, is to ask them.
But what people say they want, and what they actually like when they get a real choice, can be quite different. For example, most people describe the kind of coffee that they like as (10:49):
…a dark, rich hearty roast…
What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard [Moskowitz], somewhere between 25 and 27 per cent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee! But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want, that “I want a milky, weak coffee.”
Moskowitz does not just ask people their views. He has them taste different products to find out what they really like, not what they say they like.
In clinical psychology these three lessons remain largely ignored:
- Research can produce meaningless results when it is based on the assumption that everyone is the same, yet research in clinical psychology still tries (and usually fails) to validate assumed universal truths that the researchers think apply to everyone.
- Different people have different needs, yet in clinical psychology everyone still gets the same diagnostic criteria and the same treatment goals.
- People do not know what they want, so you cannot find out by asking them, yet (as I pointed out last time in Physics) clinical psychology still relies on questionnaires.
Malcolm Gladwell ends by summing up Moskowitz’ lesson, that (17:15):
…in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.
Here is the whole talk:
The story is retold here in text form, and with a twist: The Ketchup Conundrum