What “Paint Your Wagon” Taught Me About Customer Needs 

One of my best friends since second grade is a playwright.  Jon is extremely smart and talented: Pulitzer Prize finalist, Guggenheim Fellow, and so on. For the past few years, Jon has collaborated with the Foundation that owns “Paint Your Wagon” to write a new version of the show.  Same great songs and core story, but updated lyrics, dialog, and characters.  I saw the show at The Muny, St Louis’ oldest and largest outdoor theater; it was an event in and of itself to see this 11,000 seat theater!   

Of course, the show is great.  The songs are memorable. I sang the lyrics in my head for days following the show. My most hummed lyrics were ‘Where am I goin’?  I don’t know!  When will I get there?  I ain’t certain.  All that I know is I am on my way!!!’; this pretty much describes how I approach many things in life. 

With “Paint Your Wagon”, we have something decades old, but the version is new and memorable and the message useful.  Sound familiar?  Do you strive for innovation in your current products so that your customers and consumers consider them new, memorable and useful? 

image of a covered wagon

The Message Matters

When Jon works on a play, he starts with the message he wants to convey and the point he wants to make.  He weaves the story around the messaging and develops the characters through dialog and lyrics.  Jon knows he needs a strong, clear message to engage the audience. 

Jon’s update of “Paint Your Wagon” is similar to a product renovation. Whether you are creating a new product or updating an existing product, it is critical to ask what the customer or consumer needs. 

Technology Push Versus Pull

Often, as a product nears the end of its lifecycle – either an under-performing new product or one that’s been available since “Paint Your Wagon” first debuted – the questions asked are ‘what could we make on our current lines’ or ‘what should we make that’s profitable’.  While the answers might help get a profitable product out faster, the approach is inwardly focused The risk becomes creating what we think the customer needs, or emphasizing the technology we have, rather than understanding and responding to actual needs.

Human-centered design can help

How can you get a better understanding of customer needs to create new products or update existing products?  You can get closer to customers through human-centered design. You can explore customer needs through ethnography or voice of the customer, or watch customers use and comment on a product in order to identify missing attributes or features.  You can define core value propositions and messages, incorporate them into the product and reinforce them in messaging and marketing to engage customers in a new way, even with an existing product. 

Good innovation starts with asking what the consumer needs.  Then you design the product experience to meet that need starting with your product knowledge, production lines, brand names, and packaging approaches that make sense to fit that need.  To meet the consumer or customer need you might have to change some of your approaches – just as Jon added new songs and changed some characters to tell the story in a way the audience needed to stay engaged. 

My advice? Stay focused on the consumer need and you’ll be ‘on your way’. 

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About the author

Susan Mayer is our technical food industry leader, with great problem-solving, strategic, and communication skills. Our clients rely on her experience in product development, product lifecycle management, and public-private food industry partnerships to understand how technology, research, and the right suppliers can create innovation opportunities. How does her work with us benefit food companies? Susan believes that our human-centered design perspective makes all the difference. ‘Product developers always believe they are thinking about the consumer, but our human-centered design approach to considering technology brings an entirely different perspective.’ Susan applies her love of food science to her hobbies; she and her husband formulate and brew beer, much to the delight of their friends and neighbors. Susan has an M.S. in Food Science and a B.S. in Foods from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a Certified Food Scientist.

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