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Andrew Stanton on how (not) to listen to customers

Wall-E
If Pixar had listened to customers, Wall*E would have been Predator vs. The Little Mermaid instead. Or worse: Shrek IV.

It is a canard as hoary as any of the most common barrel-aged business proverbs: “You must listen to your customers.”

In the heady early days of database marketing (I was there), that’s what we promised clients big and small, a better way to listen to customers . . . in spades. Seth Godin has made two or three fortunes off of that ancient little ditty about listening to customers and will probably make another fortune by helping brand owners “listen in” on and “manage” the conversations about their brand in social media and blogs.

However, every entrepreneur should print and paste the following quote to their computer screens, just in case they’ve drunk a bit too much of the Godin-laced Kool-Aid. In an interview in this month’s Empire, which features a six-page lush pictorial on the history of Pixar Studios, Andrew Stanton, the director of the phenomenally original and even more phenomenally successful movie, WALL*E, has this to say about listening to customers:

I’m also a firm believer that you can’t take it literally when audiences [read: customers] tell you what they want. Our job as storytellers [read: entrepreneurs] is to know what the audience wants before they do. So an audience member will typically tell you: ‘Well, what I want is . . . ‘ and they’re just gonna use examples of stuff they’ve seen before. You can’t take that at face value. What they’re really saying is: ‘I wanna feel as great as I did the last time I had a good time at a film, but in a new way. I don’t know what that new way is, so I’m gonna give examples of old ways.’ So to me, the best thing you can do is give them a movie like WALL*E. . . . I didn’t go to Raiders, or Star Wars, or Jaws, because I thought there were other movies like that beforehand. . . .”

The fundamental to disruptive innovation and successful entrepreneurship is figuring out what people want before they know it. Ten years ago, I had zero need for an iPod and, had you presented one to me, I probably would have laughed you off the continent. Twenty years ago, a cell phone would have struck me as absurd — why would I want to talk on the phone when I’m driving, shopping, or walking down the street? Isn’t that a bit, well, get-a-life-ish?

Andrew Stanton goes right to the very core of the matter when he says, “what they really mean . . .” The “this is what they really mean” can’t be taught in any class and no bestselling marketing guru of any stripe can help you arrive at that insight.

Which is one reason Pixar continues to teach entrepreneurs of all stripes exactly how the game is played.

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