Jedi Research Tricks

May the Fourth be with You. The first time that I heard these words, now synonymous with “Star Wars Day”, was about 10 years ago.  My brother-in-law posted the phrase on Facebook, and I recall admiring how clever he was for the play on Jedi words.  And as the years went on, the phrase came to my ears more and more often— moving from a shared greeting among fellow Star Wars nerds to a widely recognized world-wide holiday.

Clearly my brother-in-law, while still quite clever, was not the originator of this wordplay turned holiday.  As I have researched the phenomenon more closely, it appears that the first recorded usage of the expression was on May 4, 1979. Margaret Thatcher assumed the office of Prime Minister in the UK on that day, and her political party placed a congratulatory advertisement in The London Evening News, saying “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations.”

Since that day, several grass roots efforts arose, with Facebook groups appearing in 2008, the first organized celebration of Star Wars Day happening in Toronto in 2011, and Disney (now the owner of Star Wars) ultimately adopting the holiday in 2013.

What started as an ingenious headline, later emerged as a cult following among fans, and ultimately was embraced by the makers of Star Wars themselves.  It is a great example of marketers being in touch with their passionate fan base, becoming part of the conversation, and adopting the holiday as part of their brand experience.

For those of us not working on brands in a galaxy far, far away… 

There is always a tension as to whether the brunt of our new ideas should come from the mouths of our consumers (our “fans”) or rather from the labs of our innovators.  Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘Faster Horses’.”  Similarly, Steve Jobs more recently was quoted as saying, “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.”  Both philosophies boldly claim that consumers are not capable of and should not be trusted with the responsibility of developing new product ideas.

I couldn’t agree more.

We hire and train brilliant marketers, scientists, and researchers to invent, design, and deliver breakthrough new products.  We can’t and shouldn’t count on our consumers to give us all the answers.

Does that then mean that we should stop doing consumer research?

Absolutely not.

It is imperative that we continue to invest time and effort in research with our consumers.  We just must insure that it is the rightresearch.  We should not look to our “fan base” for the answers, but rather for the right questions.  While we can’t expect consumers to invent the automobile, we need to know that they desperately want faster, safer, and easier long-distance travel.  A focus group will never design a smartphone, but ethnographic research can show the benefits of having the internet, a GPS, and a camera all in the palm of your hands.  

We shouldn’t be asking our consumers what they want us to make.  We should be investing in finding out what they need and what will give them delight.

And these don’t have to be (and often shouldn’t be) focus groups. There are so many conversations happening organically online that often our research can come from digging into these discussions and trends.  When I worked at P&G, I once had a team design a new, better Dry Shampoo from scratch (from starch actually), solely from learning from YouTubers about current delighters, frustrations, and “wish for’s”.  It doesn’t take a Jedi mind trick… but some deliberate investment in understanding consumer trends and becoming part of the conversation.

Disney didn’t ask consumers if they wanted “Star Wars Day”, but they tapped into a trend and helped to establish and fuel it.  Our fans our passionate about our brands and out there talking about what they want and need.  It is our job as marketers and innovators to use the Force of our expertise to delight and deliver.

And I would like to pass along our condolences to Peter Mayhew, the original Wookie who inspired us all.

Mike Thomas is the Chief Innovation Officer at Upstream 360 and aspiring Emperor.  He has no affiliation with Disney or Lucasfilm, beyond being a lifelong obsessive fan.

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