business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Longtime MNB readers know I rarely like to draw lessons from the political scene for two reasons. First, politics are so polarizing that too many of us will not listen to anything we disagree with; and second, the state of politics is so vapid that it’s hard to imagine there could be a lesson it in anywhere.

Yet last week I saw an example on the latter point that presents so many parallels for business that it can’t be ignored. Just please forget for a second your political leanings and simply try to consider the point.

It came last Wednesday during an interview on the routinely brilliant “Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Stewart, who skewers all sides of the political and media spectrum, admits to liberal leanings, but his guest that evening, Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine, probably felt otherwise. As Kaine tried to outline what he sees as the successes of the last two years in government, Stewart asked a couple of pointed and sardonic questions.

• What is it about (your) message that is not getting through to humans?

• Can you understand how people don’t understand what (these policies) have done for them?

• Did you see how halfway (through that answer) I stopped paying attention?

Yet Kaine seemed incredibly clueless, explaining again and again how the voters will eventually decide that the Democrats are the better choice to govern. Stewart countered that a campaign slogan of “they (Republicans) suck worse” probably won’t succeed. (By the way, if you have never seen “The Daily Show” be forewarned that while it is both intelligent and insightful, it frequently reaches for juvenile gags and locker room language.)

Put your politics aside for a second and consider what Kaine was saying. Essentially it’s this: “we have a great product but the customers don’t understand it yet.” Now think about your own business and ask if that’s ever happened to you or is even happening today. If you’re honest, you’ll probably find a parallel. I have heard too many discussions through the years of stores, formats, products, categories and more that should have been huge success if only customers would understand them.

I actually found myself there too. I remember a discussion we had in my tenure at FMI, when our non-foods event was losing traction. Internally we were incredulous because we were convinced we had a great product in every way. We knew the event would succeed if only our customers would give it a try. One of our board members reminded us that no matter what you think internally, at the end of the day the customer decides. And while you may think they made the wrong choice, the customer makes a decision and that’s the product that wins.

The bottom line is that seemingly illogical decisions get made all the time. American consumers talk about eating healthier and then do the opposite. Surveys find them wanting to eat home more often for reasons ranging from budget to health to family, yet they still end up eating out. Illogical yes; but they are entitled because they are the customer.

We have to remember that in the battle between intellectual and emotional arguments, them latter wins nearly every time. We have to remember that thinking we are right or thinking we’re doing the right thing doesn’t matter unless our customers get it and respond. Most importantly, we have to stop our internal group-think and actively seek outside voices who might be willing to tell us we are wrong.

So every so often consider Stewart’s questions as to whether actual humans would get your message or whether your customers really understand the benefits you claim? Answer honestly. It may help.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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