Spinning Steve Jobs

Arts professionals who have limited marketing expertise are fond of repeating this quote from Steve Jobs:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

It’s only part of the original statement and it has nothing to do with the arts, but cultural community insiders love this quote because it comes so close to expressing one of their most cherished foundational attitudes:

“We know what people should want.”

It’s easy to see how arts professionals might identify with Steve Jobs and believe that they’re in the same business – that of deciding what’s best for consumers – but that’s not what’s happening here at all. Jobs wasn’t deciding what consumers should want, he was anticipating what consumers would want and the difference is monumental.

Jobs actually cared a great deal about what consumers wanted, but he was impatient with research methods that told him what people thought was possible based solely on what they already knew. Here’s the original quote:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Jobs was talking about the development of wildly popular consumer products that anticipated human desires and satisfied them before people had a chance to imagine what could be done. He was incredibly good at this because he had a genius for knowing what people would want before they wanted it. There were no ‘shoulds’ in his business vocabulary; it was all about giving people exactly what they wanted. It was about selling the most products to the widest possible audience. It was about fierce business competition and making money irrespective of whether the products he sold had intrinsic value that transcended the utility, novelty or entertainment qualities for which they became famous.

Arts pros who embrace this quote, however, aren’t talking about what consumers want, they’re talking about knowing more than consumers do about what’s desirable. They’re talking about the universal superiority of their products and a fundamental belief that giving people what they need is more important than pandering to their base appetites. They’re assuming the quote means “people have to be educated about what they want by people who know better” or “people aren’t capable of wanting the right things without us to guide them” or “the things people want when left to their own devices are irrelevant compared to the things we think they should want” and that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with what Steve Jobs was talking about.

Does it matter if arts folks go around misapplying quotes from world-famous tech entrepreneurs? From a marketing standpoint it matters enormously. Marketing is all about knowing what people want so we can best describe how our products will make them happy. If we don’t bother to find out what new audiences want, we’ll never be able to convince them that the products we sell are worth their time and money. We don’t necessarily have to change the art we’re producing to satisfy their most mundane appetites (not yet, anyway), but we do have to isolate the place where what we sell and what they want come together so we can at least communicate in a persuasive language they understand.

Many arts pros find this Steve Jobs quote irresistible because, in their interpretation, it gives them permission to remain dismissive of consumer desires and focus exclusively on the superior attributes of their products. Unfortunately, the language these folks speak to the world around them tends to be self-important, condescending and utterly unconnected to the desires and expectations of the people on whom their futures depend. Look at the promotional materials produced by just about any financially troubled arts institution and you’ll find the sort of untethered bombast that happens when arts administrators haven’t bothered to get to know the new audiences their organizations are talking to.

We’re an old-fashioned niche industry that’s experiencing steadily diminishing consumer demand for products that don’t change all that much. Steve Jobs rode a tidal wave of worldwide popularity by developing innovative products that were designed to feed the market what it was most eager to consume. It would be great if we were using innovative business methods that a genius like Jobs could validate, but if he didn’t actually say something that was applicable to our situation, and we’re not interested in what he actually said, we should avoid claiming him as a kindred spirit.

UPDATE: June 19 at 2:30pm: I published this post this morning and then just happened to see this clip this afternoon. Not totally on point, but nonetheless interesting.

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9 thoughts on “Spinning Steve Jobs

  1. Demonstrating once again our capacity to get to the same place from diametrically opposed directions–http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2013/02/r-e-s-p-e-c-t/:

    “Prior to the iPod and iPhones, who knew we all needed palm-sized juke boxes and computer/phones? Apple didn’t give us things we asked for. It gave us things we would come to want (and OK, now “need”) and it made them with style. The company considered the way people used and responded to entertainment and data and created things that would meet the needs, not necessarily the current wants. However, the rubric for success (the outcomes assessment) is that upon understanding what these things were, people developed incredible ‘wants.’ The fact that Apple became the biggest company in the world is a fairly self-evident demonstration! If no one (or very, very few) had bought the products, their assessment of the need would have been proven to be wrong.

    “The key is to respect people. Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know ‘them.'”

  2. I think part of the problem comes from the assumption that market research all boils down to “asking people what they want”. This is a very simplistic view but nonetheless persistent view. I’ve been reading Philip Graves’ consumer.ology (http://www.philipgraves.net/Consumer.ology-the-book.html) which points to the dangers of simply “asking people”. A lot of our needs and wants are either unconscious or poorly articulated in artificial questionnaire or focus groups scenarios, and so tend to lead us astray.

    The point is, there’s a big difference between “studying our audiences to understand their needs and wants, and framing our offer accordingly” and “asking people what they want and giving it to them”. It’s easy for people to assume you’re doing the latter if they don’t really appreciate the subtleties of in-depth audience research.

  3. Trevor,
    In all do respect this post is just playing with semantics. It’s not really true and the end result is disparaging to artists and their ideology.
    If. and I stress if, your theory on want and desire is true then those clunky, problematic, ugly Microsoft products were what people desired because they bought them in droves, all while Apple was around suggesting a new alternative which people rejected for ugly and clunky. Yes Apple’s early marketing probably failed or Microsoft’s succeeded. But that doesn’t explain why so many people blindly kept buying clunky and ugly. Nobody desires clunky and ugly.

    But more to the important issue. Art professionals aren’t “talking about knowing more than consumers do about what’s desirable.” We know more about what most consumers do about the field we work in, it’s history, it’s materials, it’s potential to do different things. Just like you know more about marketing than the average person on the street.
    Artists don’t “belief that giving people what they need is more important than pandering to their base appetites.” We believe that searching and developing for the greatest potential of art, some call it truth, some call it purity, is more important than pandering to base appetites. It’s more important because it leads to greater heights of enjoyment and achievement than pandering to banality does. There is no denying the fact we live in a society filled with base appetites.
    Artists aren’t “dismissive of consumer desires.” Good artists are focused on their field, their work while they are making it. The other side of the artistic business, the business side is a demanding and difficult aspect of the business that every artists is concerned with. You error in suggesting the two sides of the business are one and the same, they are not.
    And when you demean the language artist’s use as “self-important, and condescending” you exonerate the individual’s responsibility to educated themselves about a vital and important field. I can’t expect to learn a new language unless I put some effort into learning. One cannot expect be marveled by the intricacies of astronomy or fine culinary cooking until they put some effort into learning the basics.
    I don’t really care what Steve Jobs said or didn’t say. I like your synopsis of what marketing is, what it does, and who it serves. It’s just not what Art is. It’s not the same thing and you do the Arts a big injustice to suggest it needs to act and be more like what marketing does.

  4. I agree with your core argument about the value of art, Richard, and the fact that artists and institutions are not the same thing. Art is transcendent and it does lead to greater heights of enjoyment and achievement; that’s why I’ve spent half my life promoting it. And artists should probably be considered independent of the fallible institutions we create to support them (although many of those institutions are run by artists).

    I cannot agree, however, about the individual’s responsibility to learn our language. Audiences are in steady decline throughout the sector. We’re not winning them back by speaking a language that new audiences don’t find relevant or persuasive. And it’s a crap language to begin with – one that was made up by amateur press agents and preening arts insiders sixty years ago to speak to people who wanted our products no matter how presumptuous or overblown our rhetoric was.

    The world isn’t coming to us anymore, Richard. That era is over. If we want audience support we’re going to have to earn it by going to them, speaking a down-to-earth language they understand, and giving them really good reasons for buying what we believe is so worth trying to sell.

  5. Well then you won’t have a creative culture worth a damn.
    We’ve already seen it play out in the movie industry. Movie studios are producing an endless stream of trite teenage comedies and futuristic what ever you want to call them, all the while too afraid to be creative and too often thinking the solution to making money in film is to give people what they think they want.
    Movie studios use to make tons of money in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s making and showing what today we consider fantastic, often thought provoking classics. Were people smarter, better able to comprehend and speak a more thought provoking language back then? If those studios were chasing what the public wanted and if they are doing the same today why are so many movies crap? If we apply your theory it must mean people are more stupid today and the movie corporations are just giving the audience what they want. An endless circle of banality which your industry has to put a happy face to.
    And I am more and more puzzled where your derogatory attitude about the language of the arts comes from? “Crap language”? The roots of Modernism and Post-Modernism go farther back than 60 years and history shows us that Modernism introduced one of the most intellectually stimulating and challenging era in world history. Our most cherished modern developments owe their existence to the Modernistic language that you call crap. I mean no disrespect but now your just being ignorant.

  6. I don’t know the straw man you are fighting, Trevor, but it is certainly not me.

    I very much think that Jobs understood that with the Henry Ford “faster horse” statement, that Ford very much understood the desire for faster autonomous travel that people wanted. They both understood their market. They understood in a sense to trust people’s take on the problems but not necessarily the solutions. To me this is best put when an Architect and Client together meet a need. Or as some one put it- Theater is what happens between an actor and the audience.

    Jobs spent a lot of time trying to understand how people “work”. He was very much at the forefront of UX design. He watched people the same way that Disney watches people. The same way that Paco Underhill at Envirosell watches people. I am a big proponent of Dan Arielly and Chip Heath for the same reasons, along with Amos Tversky. If I have any complaint of Jobs, it is that sometimes he failed to quantify into knowledge those areas which he had a real feel for. If you don’t think that people are the starting point for me, you haven’t be listening.

    I am also a big proponent of iterative design. I look at game designers as an area that other artists could learn from. I am about as far away from a Romantic ideal of artists that you can get. I actually believe that the silo between art and marketing should be broken down so that artists actually can learn to make more engaging, better art, with an audience that is more participatory in the process. I am really more of JSMill exploration and experimentation type. More a Schumpeter “Creative Destruction” type. I’m really more with Dave Hickey on art than many.

    In my mind great design has every place in great art. I actually believe that intrinsic value to the audience is a large part of what matters. As really quite a materialist, I actually think these things actually matter in art. (I might add communal link, but I digress) I think that Jobs was in it for more than the money. I think that Walter Issacson biography actually shows that. Further, the corporate mantras for Apple and Pixar go far beyond that. Shakespeare was probably more into it for the money, more a driven capitalist than Jobs. But then I don’t think that there has be this division between a sanctified art and everything else. I believe that using the perfect colors for the google icon logo was Jobs engaging in art as much as anything else.

    Forget transcendence- you might luck out if your self pleasuring creation has resonance for others, but I honestly think that art has better chance to succeed with a wider audience if it is less masturbatory. I actually think art will continue to move towards creations more like science in being less the discovery of one, but a shared movement with many co-authors on the papers.

    Maybe this will help you understand part of your audience, since you most surely up this point don’t. (And yes, I find that more than slightly condescending on your part, and somewhat insulting.)

    RICHARD-

    Sturgeon’s law- “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
    Always has been, always will be. The movies of the past, same percentage. I would say a larger, more diverse, vibrant arts community makes more “better” art, just because of the exponential value of more.

  7. Thanks for your input, Edward. I hope you don’t feel that I was singling you out. Arts pros trot out this quote frequently.

    My point is that arts organizations have a habit of condescending to audiences when they should be approaching them with deference and humility. Misapplying the Jobs quote reinforces the thinking that supports this habit.

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