The Kung Fu master gathered us into a circle and frowned.
“The secret to blindfold Kung Fu is to start slowly.”
He took a stance opposite his pupil. They bowed, straightened and blindfolded themselves. The two adepts faced each other and slowed their breathing. We became conscious of the tiniest sounds; cars winding through the London streets three floors below, a church bell striking the half hour. The master and his pupil took up fighting stances. The pupil moved in with a slow-motion punch; his master blocked it with his wrist and smoothly shifted into a low counter-attack. The pupil moved aside and deflected the blow with his wrist. Now they began to move together in an intricate dance, giving and conceding space, detecting each other’s body movements and reacting to attacks before they had even happened.
Within a few heartbeats the movements were too fast to follow. The audience, an eclectic crowd of athletes, product designers, fashionistas and executives backed up to give them space as they spun around our loft. Then the spell broke – the combatants lost contact with each other and they froze, removed their blindfolds and bowed. We broke into wild applause. The master beamed. His pupil distributed black bandannas to us all.“Now it’s your turn,” he said.
Welcome to our world. CEOs, a recent survey claimed, are demanding two things above all others: innovation and customer insight. And who does the CEO delegate to produce this magic stuff? In our experience it’s you, gentle CMO reader. And that’s where the challenges begin.
After years of studies, how do you get customer insight that will inspire really big, disruptive innovation? And how do you validate those concepts when everything we know about research tells us that ordinary people hate really new ideas? (I’ll rant about great products that died in focus groups in a future blog post.)
So we go searching for the kind of people that regular researchers would run a mile from. We seek out these obsessives, maniacs and eccentrics because they can help us get to big, breakthrough ideas. Some of them can show us how mainstream consumers will behave in a few years. Some of them have extreme needs that no product on the market can meet – so they modify what’s available, or make their own.
Some of them reject a whole category. You can learn a lot about mobile phones by talking to a power user. You can learn even more by talking to somebody who’s just got out of prison after 20 years, and handing them an iPhone.
These extraordinary, creative, rare, often difficult and prickly people are perhaps your company’s most precious resource. They can become your muses, the ones who push your designers to rethink their most basic assumptions. They can form the most receptive audience to those beautiful, shiny concepts that lie around any smart company, the ones everybody wishes they could make if only they could prove there’s a market.
Working with extreme consumers is often unnerving, uncomfortable and sometimes downright weird. It usually involves colliding worlds: we’ve taken a CEO into fetishists’ dungeons, brought healthcare executives together with drug addicts and have a surprising number of teddy bear collectors on our books. One thing: it’s never boring. Working at a top innovation company is the best job in the world if you have an attention span as short as mine.
And then there was the blindfold Kung Fu master. When he switched off one of our senses, he opened up all the others. Fighting an invisible opponent was a revelation for those highly visual designers and communicators. It helped them to rethink balance, communication, texture, sound and even smell in their work.
Our adventures in Extreme Consumerland introduces us to some amazing characters, immerses us in some very odd worlds, and inspires us to think differently about the future. As sci-fi writer William Gibson once said, ‘The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.’. Come and see it.