Tom Webster, writing and speaking

How To Know You're Asking The Wrong Questions

Added on by Tom Webster.

HamburgerMy brilliant other half, Tamsen, recently brought this article to my attention, which details recent menu changes at Burger King. Do read the article--but the gist of it is this: Burger King has introduced a number of "new" items to their menu that are directly cribbed from the menu of their arch (see what I did there?) rival McDonalds. Burger King has perennially been the second-largest fast food restaurant in America, but they recently lost that position to Wendy's, and now occupy the #3 spot. The article reveals that Burger King did some consumer research, and discovered that what consumers wanted was essentially the McDonald's menu - or, in the King's own words:

"Consumers wanted more choices," said Steve Wiborg, president of Burger King's North America operations. "Not just healthy choices, but choices they could get at the competition."

Critics of Burger King's "me, too!" strategy will no doubt point their scolding fingers at market research. "Research only tells you where you've been, not where you are going," or so the proponents of the "golden gut" would have you believe. However, I'd posit an alternative viewpoint here. When Tamsen pointed this out to me, she noted that it sounded like a case of "asking the wrong questions," and that "of course people are going to say they want to see McDonald's-like things on Burger King's menu. But that might not (and likely is not) where Burger King's real opportunity lies."

See, this is why she's my other half. Burger King did, indeed, ask the wrong questions--but it's an easy trap to fall into. It certainly wasn't asking questions that got Burger King into trouble, and asking questions is surely the way out. But asking the wrong questions is more dangerous than not asking questions at all. How could Burger King have avoided this trap--and how can you ask the right questions going forward?

Three Types Of Research

I've been in the question-asking business for two decades. There are essentially three kinds of research:

1. Comparative research. Categories are set, and you want to see how you measure up.

2. Fire-Fighter research. Your comparative measures didn't go so well, and you've dug yourself a hole.

3. "Blue Sky" research. You want to redefine your market and occupy a brand new positioning ladder.

It is the latter type of research that is most fulfilling from my perspective, and also what Burger King should have done in this instance. No doubt their comparative measures found their offering wanting (demonstrably true from their declining market share) so the powers that be took a conservative approach, and did a little "fire-fighting" research." I have no doubt that, when asked what kinds of foods they wanted, fast-food consumers spat back answers like "snack wraps" and "caesar salads" and "smoothies." These are all items on McDonald's menu, and, given the clear #1 status of McD's on the fast-food chain, they've set the agenda.

But here's the thing: when you ask customers what menu items they want, and they tell you all the items on your competitor's menu, this is the sign that you've asked the wrong questions. Whatever ladder McDonald's occupies, they are at the top of that ladder, and merely replicating what they do will doom you to the lower rungs. As soon as Burger King got the results of that research--the research saying, in essence, that when it comes to fast food, McDonald's has set the agenda--Burger King should have filed that particular study next to the Lost Ark, and gone right to research type #3: Blue Sky research.

Features Vs. People

Comparative research and Fire Fighting research both have something in common--they assume that the playing field has been set, the game selected, and the criteria for success in that game (in this case, the menu items and prices) are set. The game is wide open, in flux, and there is value in trying to out-hamburger the other guy. So you research features. How many chicken strips should be in a box? How large should a milkshake be to not engender guilt but not feel like a rip-off? What combination of side orders will make the best combo meal? And so on. When the game is in play, you research features and benefits, and you win on those.

But when Burger King got their research back, and saw that the fast food market was not in flux, they should have changed the game. The fact that the game is no longer in flux is demonstrably true from their research--when market research tells you that the specific things they want are the specific things your competitor offers, you've lost that game. Trying to replicate those specific features and benefits forces you to compete on taste (do fast-food patrons really value this???) or value--which, in this business, is price, pure and simple, which is the last refuge of the marketer.

You compete on features when those features are important to the game, and the outcome of that particular game is in doubt. But when Burger King got the McD's menu back in response to their "features" research, that should have been a clear sign that they were, as Tamsen noted, asking the wrong questions. When "features" research merely spits back your competitors' menu, it's time to stop researching features, and start researching people.

Better Questions

When Lexus launched in this country, they didn't play the "features" game. Had they done so, they would have tried to out airbag Volvo, or out cylinder Jaguar, or be cheaper than BMW. They didn't research features (or if they did, they didn't make that research the crux of their decision-making process). They researched people. They didn't ask people how fast they wanted their car to go, or whether or not it had anti-lock brakes, they asked people about their lives. They interviewed scores of affluent Americans about their day, and tried to learn how they could solve the problems of their customers, not fill a menu of features on ladders that other car manufacturers already occupied.

If they had merely asked prospective customers what features they wanted, Lexus would have build a Jaguvolvercedes. Their target market was affluent, and what they learned was that affluent market typically had long commutes from exurban mcmansions to urban offices, and that their lives were stressful. They launched not based upon how many cylinders their customers required, but on what would solve their most pressing need: quiet.

So Lexus launched in the US on one word: quiet. This word not only informed the marketing of Lexus, but the engineering of Lexus. They built the car around this insight--they didn't take an existing pig and apply lipstick. In short, when they couldn't sit atop the same ladder that BMW and Mercedes occupied, they didn't optimize rungs. They moved ladders.

They researched people, not features.

The Path To Irrelevance

So, two take-aways from this example. First, if you ask people what they want, and they tell you that they want what your competitor is already giving them, you asked the wrong questions. You researched features, when you should have researched people. But second--and more importantly, from my perspective--it isn't market research that got Burger King into this predicament. It was asking the wrong questions. When you are the #3 fast food restaurant in the country you might have some issues, but you aren't going to overcome those issues by not asking questions. Not asking questions is the path to irrelevance.

Ask better questions.

And if you'd like help asking better questions, I know a guy.