Innovation Opportunity: People Don’t Know What They Want


My First Dr Pepper

About twelve months ago I gave up drinking pop for the third time – or soda, if you’re like my wife Nancy (if you’re from the US, check this out for why this is such a point of contention).  The previous two times I stayed off the wagon for as long as nine months, then fell back into the habit.

This time, it seems to have stuck.  And I think I know why – I finally figured out what I actually wanted.

There are two separate issues for me with soft drinks.  The first is that they’ve always been a treat.  When I was growing up, we never had them in the house.  I still remember the first time I ever drank one – I was about 9, and I was out with my Dad in the wilds of Alaska for most of the day hiking around.  At the end of the day, we stopped at a store and he bought me a can of Dr. Pepper.

It was glorious!

Ever since then, pop has been a treat for me, at least in my subconscious.

What is Coke Selling?

But that’s not why I kept backsliding.  The reason I’ve been able to stay off the pop this time around is that I finally figured out what I was buying – I was buying cold.

The previous times that I started drinking pop again were both in the summer – when it’s pretty hot and humid here in Brisbane.

There’s an interesting post on the NPR website describing how Coca-Cola has been promoting Coke in Myanmar, a country that it hasn’t been in for sixty years.  The first step is to start advertising.  To do that, they’ve resuscitated the original campaigns that they used to launch the product back in the 19th century – the ones that emphasise that Coke is “delicious, and refreshing.”

Once they get peoples’ attention, then they give them samples.  Here is the process:

Myanmar has spotty electricity and bad refrigerators. Coca-Cola was worried that people were trying Coke at room temperature. At the tastings, everyone gets an ice-cold bottle of Coke, and instructions on the proper way to drink Coke — a five point plan for deliciousness:

1) Get a glass.

2) Chill the bottle.

3) Put three cubes of ice in the glass.

4) Pour at a 45 degree angle.

5) Add a dash of lime.

A shorter version of the advice is on the back of the bottle. In fact, all the marketing messages, the slogans, the history of Coke, and the ice-cold mandate are all squeezed onto the bottle.

Think about this for a second.  Coke can probably pass for delicious in a country that doesn’t have a high-sugar diet, but everything else revolves around selling cold.  “Refreshing” = “cold” – and the bottle needs to be chilled, and the Coke served with ice.

People aren’t buying the taste, they’re buying the cold.

I thought of this when I saw yet another spate of articles this weekend about how bottled water is a big ripoff because it’s often just the same as tap water, but astronomically more expensive.  Well, yeah, it is.  But people aren’t completely stupid, so why are they buying bottled water?

Cats aren't afraid of bottled water

Most of the time, they’re buying cold.

People Don’t Know What They Want

There are some interesting innovation angles to this story, including:

  • People don’t know what they want. It was only when I realised that I was buying cold that I figured out how to break my addiction to pop.  I made plans to have access to cold, refreshing tap water as much of the time as possible.  I’ve got chilled bottles at home, in the office, and Nancy & bring them with us to the car every morning.  The entire problem is that I didn’t actually know what I wanted.
  • You can discover what people through design thinking, or ethnography.  If you had asked me in a focus group why I drank pop, I couldn’t have told you.  So if you’re looking for innovation opportunities, what can you do?  Two tools that help are design thinking and ethnography.  These approaches are both designed to learn what people want through observation, rather than analysis.  Or asking them.  These approaches can both be used in the jobs-to-be-done approach.  In my case, the actual job I’m hiring soft drinks to do is to cool me down via a cold refreshing drink.  Once I realised this, I found better ways to get that job done.  If you can identify these better ways, you’ve spotted an innovation opportunity.
  • You can also learn through experiments.  If the other approaches don’t appeal to you, then you can tackle the problem by making small bets, and learning through experiments.  The roots of selling cold go back more than 100 years.  Coke originally took off when the US market looked a lot like Myanmar’s does now. Home refrigeration didn’t exist, so you had to buy cold drinks from a store (it’s no coincidence that Coca-Cola comes from the South of the US).  The market has changed a lot since then, and the original reason for buying Coke has mostly disappeared.  It’s pretty easy to get cold drinks anywhere now. When the reason for an action is so deeply buried in history and habit, it’s hard to figure out how to change that action. It’s a mystery. If you face a mystery, and you need to innovate, then experiment.

There are plenty of good reasons to stop drinking pop.  I only managed to do it once I figured out what I was actually buying.

Of course, the other aspect of this was the emotional one.  Fortunately, I’ve done lots of great stuff with my Dad over the years. So I don’t need to drink a Dr Pepper to remember them.

Although, every time I drink one, it reminds me of that first one.  I can’t even figure myself out, so how can I figure out what other people are going do? That’s an innovation challenge.

I think I’ll head over to my refrigerator, grab my bottle of cold water, and give it some thought.

(Photo from flickr/Felix_Idan under a Creative Commons License)


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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13 thoughts on “Innovation Opportunity: People Don’t Know What They Want

  1. This is one of my favourite things to rant about…! You were buying caffeine with your cold there, as well. And sugar, of course. Both addictive. But with respect to the cold thing, it seems to me that here in Oz, cold – and by cold I mean ‘ice-cold’ – isn’t valued the way it is in the US. Witness the cafes where self-serve water is kept in a big ceramic jug/dispenser which, thickness of the walls of the vessel notwithstanding, means you get water more or less at room temperature. Also, the near-total absence of drinking glasses that hold more than about 250 ml. Why? Well, you don’t need a bigger glass when there’s no ice taking up space in it! And it’s no different in Europe from my experience.

    Don’t even get me started on the appalling lack of _real_ iced tea. Now there’s refreshing; the perfect hot-climate drink – caffeine without the sugar (or with only the amount you want, not what Lipton think you need). But strangely, it’s as hard to find as a pronounced final ‘r’ here, except at our house, of course. Of all the iconic American stuff that’s found its way across the Pacific, somehow they missed this one. Ah well.

    • All great points Maryann! I was well aware of the caffeine aspect to all of this. That’s actually the part to my success this time – I’m drinking coffee now, which only started a couple of years ago. And sugar I kicked in one go back in 2002. I switched from regular pop to diet that year. But I was still drinking way too much.

      The Iced tea situation here is definitely peculiar…

  2. I made a similar discovery when trying to quit smoking a couple years ago. There’s a subconscious rebellion to anything we feel we’re forced to do. The surest way to discourage someone from doing something is to tell him he has to do it. Most smokers, when discussing quitting, will tell you they have to quit – it’s not healthy, they smell bad, they feel bad, it’s expensive, and so on. The struggle, then, is that they still WANT to smoke.

    Why is it easy for us to quit bashing our toes into the coffee table or spilling hot coffee on our laps? Because we don’t want to hurt our toes or get burned! Methinks nobody has any trouble quitting things they genuinely do not want to do. This is where I think Coke – and many other not-good-for-you-in-any-way products – step up their marketing game. You’re not buying the thick, syrupy concoction of “natural flavors,” you’re buying chilled refreshment.

    Billions are spent on chemistry to make junk food (and cigarettes) the most chemically rewarding thing you can pick up. When we figure out why we keep picking them up – and take steps to find healthy alternates – we stand empowered to leave them behind.

    PS: The artificial sweeteners in diet soda stimulate the pancreas just as much as the diabolical high fructose corn syrup in regular soda. Thing is, the corn syrup hasn’t been shown to destroy brain tissue. Diet Coke is probably worse for you than regular coke. Just saying. 😉

    • Thanks Brian. I think you’re right in looking at the desire angle here, it definitely plays a role, as do the chemically rewarding components of the bad stuff. & I’m with you on the diet coke angle too – that’s why I quit!

      Hope things are going well with you these days.

      • Bet the Diet Coke formula down under is different from the one here in the States. I suspect Australia has tougher laws regarding chemical additives.

        Things are going well, if not entirely busy.


        • I know that the formulae for regular Coke & Pepsi are both different down here – less sweet among other things. Not sure about the diet versions though…

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