Then there’s unmet needs…

There’s been so much said about ‘understanding users’, ‘discovering their unmet needs’, using design to satisfy those needs, innovating for the market and most of us would agree that it’s great when we see examples of this in the market. But are we taking it too far? Has the essential message of listening to your customers now become another peg on which to hang your marketing PR spin on?

Here’s the snippet that triggered my rant,

"We’re constantly
examining our product pipeline to develop innovations that will satisfy
the unmet needs of our consumers," said Meena Mansharamani, senior vice
president of innovation and insights, Pepsi-Cola North America. "With
the introduction of Dole Sparklers, we’re providing a light,
invigorating sparkling juice that’s low in sugar and calories, but
indulgent on taste. Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash is the ideal beverage
for the holiday season, when consumers tend to seek more variety. From
its crisp, unique flavor right down to its festive graphics, it will
make its way to the top of plenty holiday shopping lists this year."

All the right words are there, used in the right order. Just the sense of emphasis given seems a little misplaced to me. Maybe its just me. But come on, this is an unmet need? I mean, it might have been. But something just doesn’t ring true here… what do you say?

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14 Responses to Then there’s unmet needs…

  1. I think you are bang on target here.
    Add to this the fact that 99% tasters and smellers fail miserably on blind tests.
    We are all simply in the grip of a grand maya conjured by highly brilliant minds and methodologies.

  2. My unmet needs are legion. From a computer that actually repairs itself, to a simple recycling system, to a toaster that actually toasts properly, to a government undistracted by calls to make English America’s official language…pretty diverse set of unmet needs. Beverages that are low in sugar and calories, yet indulge my taste, are in another category altogether. Might be nice, might actually be enjoyable, but don’t get on my unmet needs radar. Trying to put them there makes a SVP of innovation and insights sound like an idiot.
    Nice catch, Niti.

  3. I’m sure I’ve railed against this in the past (although I can’t find any specific posts of mine – ahh, archive search doesn’t work nor does memory) – the ridiculous language with which companies justify whatever new thing they are doing in the name of customer-centricity. If the airline starts charging for pillows, they can justify it. If a new crunchy snack is introduced, they’ll justify it. And it’s all with pretty much the same language.
    “Our customers tell us they are interested in value for their money and they believe this initiative properly acknowledges their hard-earned travel dollar” “We heard from our customers that they are seeking both refreshment and energy from a mid-morning portable snack combination” “Our consumers have told us that the convenience of packaging is extremely important to their busy lifestyle.”
    You can see this crap in every press release-generated news story in the media. Over and over again. It’s horrifying and dehumanizing.
    I had this idea to start collecting them whenever I saw them and blogging them, but I’ve fallen behind – so far that I can’t even find one on my blog (although I know one or two is there somewhere).

  4. niti bhan says:

    Hi Tom, that’s exactly how I felt on reading it.
    Steve, I knew you’d been following this kind of stuff, but didn’t realize just how bad it sounded till I read this bit yesterday. I was horrified. I’d never noticed it really before. You really should catch them on your blog, at least the big name ones.
    Tom’s right, it puts carefully crafted yet totally unreal words in the mouth of the SVP and makes her sound like an idiot. Though I don’t know if I would go as far as to totally agree with atrakasya’s comment however.

  5. Then let me put it simply (ie. no distracting caser studies) – Firstly, do keep in mind that all of us are unsatisfied creatures, in one way or the other. This may seem like a blanket statement of hyperbole, but it is not – it is a fact.
    Now, this sense of discontent is often unknown to us, even to the best of introspectors among us. Thus, we go through life trying to figure out what exactly will fulfill us. Some try sex, some try drugs, some try shopping, and others blogging or worcoholism.
    In this state of looking for fulfilment, the maya-of-the-ad-agency comes to us and says, “dude, THIS new gizmo is what will satisfy you!”.
    Or, we catch sight of a well-styled product in a shop window (and the stylist has very carefully embedded formal cues that press your buttons), and we say – “Ah, that’s what will make me feel good – better than that other gizmo which doesnt address my needs”.
    How many of these needs are genuine and how many are projections of our mind? Naturally, the manufacturer/advertiser is not really interested in promoting your identification of real needs – he is only promoting your needs and the further discovery of further needs, and how he can benefit in this cycle.
    Forget consumer products, niti – even in a field like medicine, hard evidence has emerged that manufacturers collaborated with doctors to create artificial diseases, so that they can sell their medicines. You seriously don’t think it happens in consumer products, where things are not so black and white?
    Hence, when you say “…something just doesn’t ring true here…”, chances are that you are unwillingly glimpsing this phenomenon of the subversion of man’s discontent/needs by the product-seller.
    Or, I could be wrong and it could be that you only objected to someone putting unreal words in the mouths of the consumer.

  6. niti bhan says:

    Atrakasya, I was referring, quite tongue in cheek to this sentence of yours:
    >>We are all simply in the grip of a grand maya conjured by highly brilliant minds and methodologies.<<
    simply because with my background in advertising, marketing, design, writing, I know the power of that maya and wonder how much a part of it I am, hence, how can I comment on that?

  7. 🙂
    Ah, yes – the designer or the advertising creative is definitely in the position of very bluntly seeing maya in all its manifestations. Perhaps I am guilty of participating in the creation of maya, too. Mea culpa – maybe not maxima, but certainly mea culpa.
    On a tangent, Niti – something that I wanted to say…
    I’m not a gandhian by any stretch of imagination.
    Yet, while writing my last comment it struck me how fantastically relevant Gandhian thought can be to design and manufacture.
    I’d even go so far as to say that Gandhiji could have been the most perfect design strategist to Dell, in its current scenario – taking an unabashed minimal ornamentation, maximum value approach, promoting an austere and functional technology that performs beautifully, without any glitter.
    “The gandhian techie/tech-user” is a prototype of a mind that simply begs to be created and addressed.
    And God knows – the US could really really use some old-fashioned Gandhian ahimsa and swadeshi right now.

  8. Wow! This is very heavy lifting for so early on a Sunday morning, but quite fascinating.
    Steve, your economically written post about US Airways’s focus-group-rooted rationale for penny pinching captures the essence of what we know about focus groups: you can say they’ve told you anything and be “intellectually honest,” ’cause focus groups are such a methodological mess. How much better for them to have said, “we need to save money to save jobs so we dropped the pretzels.” They might have actually garnered some respect by doing so.
    The illusory nature of “need” is one of the great conversations of our age. Grant McCracken writes brilliantly about the attacks against “manufactured need” waged by post-War academics. We came to view Packard’s “vast wasteland” of American culture as a kind of original sin; materialism became our guiltiest of guilty pleasures. But as the dynamism of capitalism has spread, the argument’s become more nuanced. Tom Barnett, another brilliant writer, powerfully points out the relationship between a nation’s integration in the global economic system and the likelihood of that nation being an exporter, or importer, of terrorism. Many will argue about chickens and eggs in that regard, but I believe Barnett’s analysis is sound: the less a culture participates in the global flow of capital, the greater the chances it abuses the rights of its citizens, its women in particular.
    And, like it or not, capitalism hinges on enticement; on pointing out that there are things available that you might want, that you might come to feel you need. But capitalism also hinges on discipline; on recognizing that, like Mick said, “you can’t always get what you want.” Advertisers, marketers and designers (in the main) are definitely on the “enticement” side of that equation.

  9. niti bhan says:

    Tom, it’s interesting that you bring up Grant’s post – I was reading that and contemplating it as well. I’ve been influenced by Vance Packard and see patterns in the environment today whose roots can be linked to the observation he made in his books. I can’t say where I stand on it wrt what you are saying and what Grant is saying. I can’t bring myself to support ‘manufactured need’ – perhaps because I have seen it being ‘manufactured’ – for example, when the Indian economy opened up and I was in the advertising industry working for brands entering an undefined landscape and attempting to use the same tools to create ‘consumerism’ or ‘need.
    I would appreciate a link to Tom Barnett’s writing, I’ve not heard of him. Because while what you say in this comment regarding the link between a culture’s participation in the global economy and it’s abuse of rights of it’s citizens, particularly women, seems to make sense on the surface; I can’t say as yet that it is as simple as that, when I look around me, as a woman, and one who is not in the mainstream culture, of the society in which I participate.
    I cannot support that view at this point, having seen many different roots of why the rights of women are overlooked, in a variety of cultures. I need to dig into this further.

  10. The best place to start on Barnett’s thinking would be a video of his 2004 presentation at Pop!Tech. The audio of that presentation can be found here:; the video’s even better. This was an absolute classic.
    His 2005 TED Conference offering wasn’t bad, either. That’s harder to find.
    As a supplement to these, read his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map. It’s just excellent. So’s his blog,

  11. Sorry about the links…the damn semi-colon got in the way:

  12. niti bhan says:

    atrakasya, I’ve never been a designer or an advertising creative, I’m afraid.

  13. I Want You, I Need You, I…

    My bloggin’ buddy Niti Bhan put up a provocative little post the other day on customer-driven design focusing on unmet needs. She quotes Meena Mansharamani, Pepsi’s North America senior vice-president of innovation and insights, who said:We’re constant…

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