Marketers often feel like second-class citizens in their companies because people think new products and services come first and marketing comes afterward.

Maybe you've heard something like this from colleagues or friends: Assuming that people know what they want and need for a product is a mistake, because they simply don't—just like nobody knew that we needed an iPhone before the first iPhone was launched. Just like nobody knew they wanted Alexa until Alexa was born, or Ring Doorbells until it was launched, or PowerPoint until Microsoft came up with it, etc.

The list goes on and on and always has the same point: People don't know what they want until someone makes it first.

When a reporter asked what market research went into the iPad, Steve Jobs replied: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." (Lohr, S. "Without Its Master of Design, Apple Will Face Many Challenges," NY Times, 08/25/2011)

If that's true, then focus groups, surveys, or any other market research won't make a difference since people can't tell you what they want—except for specific features of already-developed products.

What if customers do know what they want?

In your company, most likely engineering (or some other group outside of Marketing) comes up with new products, and Marketing has the responsibility to sell those products—whether they are good or bad.

It's easy to see why marketers might think they don't have much power over new products: They spend their time marketing other people's new products.

But what if I told you people do know what they want. Then I imagine your world would change completely. Marketing would be a seat of power and you could then talk to customers and help engineering design new products that solve real problems.

Well, the fact is, customers do know what they want!

Customers know what benefits they want vs. features or attributes

Let's start by looking at the iPhone. Here is Steve Jobs' introduction of the iPhone when it first came out in 2007:

Well, today we're introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. The third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.... These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

What were the benefits of the iPhone when it first came out?

Mobility, media storage, being connected, etc. But also benefits like "I'm cool" or "I'm part of a group" or something that feels great and makes my photos look great. Even benefits like "something I can just touch" (like the touchscreen—which was first introduced in 1994 by IBM Simon, 13 years before the iPhone). Was the benefit of convenience (where a phone, music, Web access, and touch are all combined in one device) invented by Apple?

Did the iPhone create those benefits? No. Those are benefits that relate to basic human needs, goals, and desires. They already exist.

So, yes: Nobody knew that we needed an iPhone before the first iPhone was born, but everybody already knew they wanted all those benefits but there were no products before the iPhone that delivered them.

Let me give you another example: Before Uber came around, there were taxis. Uber (and the others like them) offered more control—I can order an Uber on my phone and see where it is on the road—and ease of payment. Did Uber create the benefit of wanting to have more control in your life? Do people want payment to be difficult?

The point is that people cannot tell you specific features and attributes, but they can tell you what benefits they are seeking.

So, ask customers what problems and challenges (both large and small) they have or what resources (time, money, physical, psychological) they are trying to conserve.

Know your customers' needs and desires, and you'll know what they want

Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • First, listen to customers—even unhappy ones.
  • Second, watch customers in real situations. You can also use focus groups and social media, but pay attention to the benefits customers are looking for (not the products).
  • Finally, you can let customers develop new or ideal concepts for your products.

Now, you might think customers can't do this. But as Eric von Hippel revealed in his research on "lead users," about 82% of all commercial scientific instruments he studied were developed by end users, not companies. Often, component suppliers develop products as well.

Why does that happen? Because customers know what benefits they want—and if no company has come up with a product to satisfy those desired benefits, some customers create the products for themselves.

If you focus your attention on benefits rather than the product features, characteristics, and attributes, you will see marketing in a different light. You will point your company toward new products and services that actually solve customers' real problems.

More Resources on Knowing What Your Customers Want

Know Your Customers (And Reap the Rewards)

If You Create, Will They Buy? How to Go From Insights to Products Customers Want

What Do Your Customers Really, Really Want?

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is MarketingProfs founder and CEO, positioning consultant, and emeritus professor of marketing. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.