A friend asked me the other day if I’m ever surprised by how markets respond to new products or marketing innovations. I hadn’t been asked that before, so I needed to think about it. In retrospect, I think I’m surprised all the time–but usually very early in the development process–well before the tens of millions are spent at launch.

This is one of the reasons I’ve always loved research. It is such a remarkably practical tool. You can learn what’s working and what’s not working very early in the development process; ideally, early enough to improve it.

But what about these surprises? Have they been that significant and have they really made a difference? Let’s see….

–in a study in the late 80’s, I was surprised that mothers would pay $1-2 more for children’s audio stories if the packaging was more attractive. These were often mothers who were extreme budgeters–they were proud of tracking down the lowest price for paper towels. But they’d pony up the extra $$’s for the audio tapes that had high quality graphics on the package. The package that they later threw away….

–in the early 90’s, I was surprised that people would buy products bundled together that they didn’t necessarily want separately. When Microsoft sold Word, Excel and PowerPoint as separate items, few if any used all three. But put them together and discount the total price, suddenly it was desireable.

–I was delighted to learn in the mid-90’s that the reason young girls didn’t play video games as much as young boys was because they found them too boring (the games). Young girls need much more sophisticated stories and social interactions to keep them engaged.

–In 2000, I was surprised by the attraction SUVs had for Hispanic women. Their more traditional background and behavior suggested this was too masculine a car for them, but we found that it came to symbolize a new independence and strength they felt as American women.

–For the last several years, the biggest surprises for me have come from markets outside the US. Currently, China is in the lead for breaking records in number of surprising learnings and insights. This remarkable country is not nearly as homogenous and predictable as we’ve been led to believe.

Not all of the surprises I’ve seen have been significant, nor have they always changed the course of development. But it’s happened consistently enough that I would never personally launch a large scale product, service or market strategy without testing the hell out of it. But then, of course, I’m quite biased.

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