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.