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Recapping Malcom Gladwell: Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce

Ted Talks are great but sometimes you don’t have 15-30 minutes to listen to them. Here’s a recap of a popular ted talk that anyone interested or involved in marketing should hear about.

Malcom Gladwell presented told story of a man named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz was a consultant in the 1970’s and 80’s who made a revolutionary discovery in the subject of marketing and product development.

This Ted Talk discusses his story and what he discovered throughout his career.

I became so engrossed in the story of Howard Moskowitz that I almost forgot that I was listening to a Ted Talk based on marketing. Gladwell is a journalist, author and speaker; his professional occupation makes this speech become an engaging story while still packed with important marketing strategies and lessons.

The story of Howard Moskowitz began when he was approached by Pepsi with the request to create the perfect beverage, a beverage that wasn’t too sweet but also not too bland. The goal? They wanted him to find out what everyone preferred so that they could offer a beverage that everyone wanted. Imagine yourself in his shoes, how would you figure out what every person preferred in their Pepsi? If it were me, I would make a wide variety of Pepsi options all with different levels of sweetness, I would gather a large group of people to have them taste the different varieties and give me their thoughts on each one. Howard did exactly that— he gathered thousands of people, conducted the tests, gathered the data, and plotted the results on a curve to further analyze. In a perfect world, the data would come back, it would be a flawless bell curve and he would be able to effortlessly see what most individuals preferred.

The problem here is that Marketing is not a black and white subject, so when the data came back the results were all over the place and it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Turns out, the mistake that Howard made happened before the survey even began. The mistake was thinking that everyone, or at least a strong majority, would agree on one particular Pepsi flavor.So what went wrong? The test follows the typical research process so the data should have easily given Howard the answer that he was looking for on a golden platter. Right?

It may seem like a simple solution but it took Howard years to figure out that they were looking for one perfect Pepsi when they should have been looking for the multiple, perfect Pepsis. When Howard made this discovery, he felt that he had hit the jackpot. He went from conference to conference and gave speech after speech letting everyone know that they were thinking about this all wrong; the perfect product does not exist. Well his audience wasn’t exactly sold on this idea; everyone wanted to believe that with enough time and research that they could create one perfect product.

Finally, Howard caught the break that he had been waiting for. He was approached by Vlasic Pickles with a request all too familiar; help us create the perfect product. Despite the negative feedback that Howard received from his numerous attempts to share his discovery Howard said, “There is no perfect pickle; there are only perfect pickles.”

He explained that it is not enough to improve your regular flavor of pickles; you need to create zesty pickles and other varieties to cater to a broader market.

Campbell’s Soup was the next company to contact Howard. Campbell’s Soup had the brand of pasta sauces called Prego. Well Prego was in direct competition with Ragu and they were desperate to create the “perfect” pasta sauce so that they would become the preferred pasta sauce brand over Ragu and other competitors.

Can you guess what Howard did to help?

Howard worked with Prego and created a grand total of 45 pasta sauce varieties. These pasta sauces varied in flavor, texture, ingredients, even the way they were produced. They took these 45 varieties and traveled all over the country and gathered thousands and thousands of people in different places and gave them ten bowls of pasta with different varieties of pasta sauces. After each bowl they simply asked them to rate the pasta sauce on a scale from zero to 100. They did this for months and months and at the end, Howard was left with a massive amount of data that he then had to analyze. But how did this data differ from the data received from the Pepsi trails?

Well, the answer is that it really didn’t, what changed is the way that Howard analyzed the data. He was no longer looking for the perfect product; he was looking for the most popular elements of the pasta sauces. So, he looked at the data with the goal of grouping the sauces to figure out the common denominators of the most popular sauces. By doing this, he was able to come to the conclusion that everyone seemed to fall into three major categories. Some people prefer a plain pasta sauce, some wanted a pasta sauce that was spicy, and there were some that enjoyed their sauce to be extra-chunky.

Imagine their surprise when Howard showed them the data which revealed that one-third of Americans craved extra-chunky tomato sauce. As of that time, no other company had extra-chunky tomato sauce so this was a heavily desired product that no one was offering. With this data, Prego came out with an entire line of extra-chunky pasta sauces and within the next ten years they made $600 million just off of that line.

Here is what everyone should take-away after listening to this Ted Talk:

  1. This world is full of different tastes, preferences and opinions; there is never going to be one perfect product. This variety in strategy means you must understand the service(s) you are selling, who you are selling to and what the client/customer needs/wants.
  2. It is not enough to ask people what it is they want to see in a product or service. It takes a lot of time and research to truly understand what consumers are looking for. Develop relationships with your clients and start asking the important questions! Get to the bottom of their needs in order to determine how your company can serve them better.
  3. As a Marketing professional it is essential that we trust the data that we are given; the data isn’t wrong, we may just be looking at it the wrong way.

Carly Bonar 
Marketing Coordinator, Logan Simpson

Carly entered the A/E/C industry right out of college and has been working as a Marketing Coordinator for Logan Simpson for the past year and a half. She’s an active SMPS member, blog contributor and vegetarian since she was eight years old. In her free time she loves to spend time with her family and three dogs; Cookie, Cotton and Bella.

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