Henry Ford’s “Faster Horses”​ – a lesson in how consumer insight fuels innovation

Good old Henry Ford is oft touted about as an example about the dangers of relying on consumer input in the innovation process. “If I had asked my customers what they wanted,” he is supposed to have derisively scoffed, “They would have said a faster horse.”

Now we can argue the whole day long about whether or not these very words passed his lips. But I think it perfectly illustrates the way consumer insight should be used in the innovation process – as inspiration for innovation. That is, providing solutions that meet real consumer needs.

Consumers, on the whole, can’t envisage new products for us, and asking them to is unlikely to get you anywhere particularly exciting. But, if we opt to observe, listen and learn from our customers (and our competitor’s customers), and interpret what they say – they can show us what their needs are, where they are being met and where their frustrations lie. By observing and listening to consumers we can see the problems that provide opportunity for innovation. This lies at the heart of a human-centric design process.

But it is our job, not our consumers’ job, to come up with ideas and solutions that can meet those needs. We have access to experts and information about technology changes and trends, we know the capabilities of our factories, and can see what competitors are doing locally and abroad, in our own categories and in related ones.  We know what our brands are about and how far we can stretch them, and what internal business problems we need to solve. We, as marketers, are armed with the tools to come up with solutions to meet these needs far better than consumers themselves can. All we need to do is make connections between the bits of information at our finger tips, and apply imagination to leap to new ideas that unlock opportunities. 

Henry Ford knew in his gut that the idea of “faster horses” would be a winner. He understood his audience and knew his business, and could envisage a future unhindered by the problems of the current reality. Consumers can’t do that – but if we understand their pain points, and we apply imagination we, as businesses, can. And that is the power of consumer insight – inspiration.

(To get a better handle on your customer’s pain points – try customer journey mapping.)

Leap Insight

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The Australian Market & Social Research Society Limited (AMSRS) is a not-for-profit professional membership body of over 2,000 market and social research professionals who are dedicated to increasing the standard and understanding of market and social research in Australia. The Society assists members to develop their careers by heightening professional standards and ethics in the fields of market and social research.

1 Comment on Henry Ford’s “Faster Horses”​ – a lesson in how consumer insight fuels innovation

  1. Thanks for the blog post on this hoary old chestnut.

    I did once spend a couple of months researching it, and there is no definitive evidence that Henry Ford ever used the term “faster horses”.

    Ford did however carry out ‘research’ in the sense that he used to observe his customers and potential customers and talk to them about his ideas for improving mobility, although he was convinced that he had the engineering solution so a lecture with feedback was more likely than a deep listening exercise. A ‘faster horse’ was a concept that will probably have been implicitly tested, and Ford certainly understood that greater speed was needed but with safety and reliability.

    At the time Ford was launching his first models onto the market, reliability was a huge issue and, for some journeys, it was still ‘faster’ to use a horse as a horse would be more likely to complete the journey without breaking down several times on the way.

    Eventually, over time, reliability started to improve and the benefits of greater speed were realised and the agenda shifted to comfort (early models were not comfortable and the quality of roads provided a constant engineering challenge) and then the agenda finally shifted into areas like status.

    Early mass market approaches (there is evidence that Ford did say “any colour so long as it’s black”) were in a context of a focus on reliability and safety and then speed and quality, before branding and consumer choice around category reliability had to inevitably force change.

    It says a lot about the world we live in today, that Henry is often praised for something he didn’t say (“faster horses”) and criticised for not doing something he did actually do, i.e. carry out ongoing research with his customers and potential customers. His research just wasn’t in the form ‘what do you want?’ which we researchers know is always inadequate – as the blog post emphasises and elaborates.

    Also, at the beginning of his manufacturing career, if Ford has asked people what they wanted it is likely they would have said “to get from A to B as quickly and as safely as possible” and a smart researcher or research user would have interpreted that as a combination of safety, reliability and speed, not just ‘faster’.

    No doubt before you ‘retire’ (if anyone does such a thing in future generations) you will see or hear that Ford misquote many, many times. Think about how you will react, and whether you will reply. It used to annoy me intensely and I would leap into print or a passionate speech defending the honour of the research profession. These days, I tend to let it go because there are many better uses of time or oxygen. But thank you for prompting me to respond on this occasion.

    Paul Vittles

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