Marketing Arrogance vs. Customer Opinion


Share on LinkedIn

My favorite example of marketing arrogance comes from General Motors.

A number of years ago, GM introduced a totally redesigned model sedan. Personally, I thought it was exceptionally ugly; it reminded me of a hearse. And, apparently, I was not alone in that opinion. It was a dismal failure in the marketplace.

Marketplace failures abound, of course. But there is a back story:

GM’s marketing department ran a series of focus groups before the model was introduced. The respondents consistently and overwhelmingly panned it. But Marketing, in its wisdom, decided that the model was, in fact, so innovative that the focus group panelists couldn’t really see its charms. Marketing decided that as people got used to the look, they’d come to appreciate it – and buy it.

It didn’t happen.

The up-side to this story is that police departments across the country did buy them for their fleets. So, for the next several years, it was easy to spot unmarked police vehicles on the highway. The only ones driving these cars were the cops.

Practical Marketing Rule #9: In a dispute between marketing (or product development or the design team or finance or management) and the customer, bet on the customer every time. He’s the guy who decides market success.

Emily R. Coleman
Dr. Emily R. Coleman is President of Competitive Advantage Marketing, Inc., a firm that specializes in helping companies expand their reach and revenues through strategy and implementation. Dr. Coleman has more than 30 years of hands-on executive management experience working with companies, from Fortune 500 firms to entrepreneurial enterprises. Dr. Coleman's expertise extends from the integration of corporate-wide marketing operations and communications to the development and implementation of strategy into product development and branding.


  1. Coca Cola also did focus groups on New Coke and the panelists loved it! But we know what happened when the product was actually introduced.

    I’m not defending GM, but given how unreliable customer input can be, how does a marketer know what to believe?

    Listening doesn’t guarantee success. New products are always risky.

  2. I’m not suggesting that research gets things right every time. Of course, new products are always risky. But so is arrogance. Assuming that your view as a marketer is correct and the customers just don’t get it, may be satisfying emotionally. But it rarely leads to profits. As to the New Coke responses, I’d like to know how large the sample was, the geographic spread of the respondents, the age, etc. Not all research is equal. Companies have been known to do very bad research, by the way. I’ve seen companies that want the research to support their assumptions, not test them.

  3. New Coke was thoroughly researched, according to this entry in Wikipedia.

    Here’s what went wrong:

    Coke spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where it had made a mistake, ultimately concluding that it had underestimated the public impact of the portion of the customer base that would be alienated by the switch. This would not emerge for several years afterward, however, and in the meantime the public simply concluded that the company had, as Keough suggested, failed to consider the public’s attachment to the idea of what Coke’s old formula represented. While that has become conventional wisdom in the ensuing years, some analyses have suggested otherwise.

    Maybe this is another example of marketing arrogance. Instead of really listening, Coca Cola executives had already decided they wanted a new Coke to compete with Pepsi, so they went looking for research to support that strategy.

    I also remember reading an analysis years ago that the taste test itself was flawed. As I recall, in a quick taste people prefer something a bit sweeter. But when you’re drinking a whole can, not so much.

    In any case, I’m just trying to say that consumer research is tricky business.

    CEM expert Colin Shaw recently posted about the most common mistake — “believing your Customers.”

  4. If customer research weren’t a tricky business, everyone would be doing it well. 🙂 As to Colin Shaw, he’s right that what customers say they want and what they actually want can often be different. Once again, it is a matter of knowing not only what to ask – but how to ask it; and then checking your conclusions again. I’d say that not believing your customers is almost guaranteed to get you into more trouble. Show me a company that doesn’t pay attention to what customers say they want, and I’ll show you a company in the process of going out of business.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here