July 26, 2012

Marketing Myopia: Understand the mind of your customer first

The customer is always right, we’re told.

But the customer didn’t build your business. He or she doesn’t stay up late at night, reviewing sales figures. He didn’t pour blood, sweat and tears into developing your latest product.

He doesn’t know your industry, or your company’s history. He’s not an expert.

Or is he?

Theodore Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia,” published by the Harvard Business Review in 1960, provides excellent perspective on the mind of your customer. More than forty years later, the essay is still relevant and insightful, ripe with ideas about sales, marketing, and reinvention.

Most important, Levitt provided an idea so brilliantly simple, it may just inspire you today.

It’s that pesky customer. Turns out he actually is an expert, and his perspective and experience is what defines your success.

The customer’s experience defines your product, his perspective alone describes your value. Ultimately,  his decisions derive your success. He buys from you not because of the ink spilled developing your shiny new product. He buys from you because that product delivers specific value to him.

Levitt winds this example throughout his essay, available as a printed, commemorative edition for your bookshelf or iPad. In 1960, Marketing Myopia was a manifesto that upset the status quo. Today, the concepts remain remarkably relevant for business strategy, yours, ours, and everyone’s. For example:


Marketing or Production Success?

Levitt criticizes the notion of Henry Ford as a manufacturing genius. Sure, Ford invented the assembly line to perfect and ship thousands of cars. But this invention was born of Ford’s marketing genius. He correctly forecast he could sell millions of cars for a modest price to consumers. The assembly line and production innovation proved the means to Ford’s end. It’s how he sold; not why customers bought.

Today, we’re bound by more supply-chain and production infrastructure than Ford. But the central notion remains: understand your customer and his or her point of view first, and the process chain second. Understanding your processes defines you as a seller. Understanding the customer defines you as a marketer.

Marketing speaks directly to the customer – talking to them, understanding their preferences, and delivering a message that supports those preferences.

When was the last time you talked to your customer?


Products, Services or Experiences

Levitt ponders the car further than Ford’s success. Even today, we’re inundated with specifications, features and ad images of new cars. But Levitt’s central notion is that customers don’t buy the car as product. They buy the experience. They buy transportation. Particularly in 1960, customers bought the open road. Today? Comfort, status, capacity and efficiency layer atop the buyer’s decision. But he’s still buying the best way to get from A to B; he’s still looking for the experience with the least hassle.

Complacency sneaks up on companies when leaders become too invested in tweaking the features and bells and whistles to a certain widget. Rather, leaders should focus on the experience of customers. Why are they satisfied? What’s next? The service is what the customer buys. The product is replaceable. In Levitt’s example, this extends to gas stations, mechanics, and more. “People don’t buy gasoline. They buy the right to continue driving their car.”

Is this still true today? What business is your company in? What experiences do you provide?


Creative destruction

Levitt selects petroleum, automobiles, and electronics as examples of 1960s industries tied too closely their current success, too slow to emerge from self-congratulation. Marketing myopia occurs when business leaders assume an audience for their products will forever grow, that competitors will forever fail to re-assess the product’s necessity. Levitt uses railroads as an example, but today, examples are everywhere. The newspaper. The magazine. The telephone. The video store.

Innovation most often occurs when an outside competitor correctly anticipates the customer’s next need, often from outside the industry. The petroleum industry was first saved by kerosene lamps. Then heaters. Then, of course, internal combustion engines. Now? Plastic production, electronic production, and more.

To take advantage of the world’s tectonic shifts, businesses must be ready. Not prepared to defend their product – but to react by listening to customer preferences; to understanding the mind of their customers, why they bought, what they bought, and why they’ll buy again. Companies that succeed aren’t afraid to scrap one product to deliver the next, or destroy what they built to best serve the customer.


Levitt’s essay provides eerie parallels to the success of Apple. Imagine the billion-dollar company insisting a faster clickwheel or brighter display was the next must-have feature for the iPod. Instead, they invented a new customer need: the personal music player in tandem with communications hub. And then, the iPad, incorporating consumption. What’s next?

More than forty years later, Marketing Myopia is as relevant today as 1960. An essay brilliant in its simplicity (and brevity), featuring ideas about growth, customers, and marketing that we can build on. In 1960, Levitt’s ideas rocked the status quo. Today, they inspire.

For us, we’re in the design, marketing, and idea game, for sure. But in reality, we’re in the communication business. We can help you listen to your customers, observe your customers, and talk to your customers.

In 1975, Levitt commented on the pervasive success of his article, “An idea is not responsible for who believes in it.” That’s true. When we connect with our customers, and understand their perspectives, we’ll be able to understand the ideas that resonate, that take shape, that inspire. Focusing on the mind of your customer puts you in the right place to capitalize when that idea surfaces.


What do you think? What business are you in?

We’re really asking! Let us know.
Who is your customer?
Where have you run into “Marketing Myopia,” as a customer?


Email us or leave a comment below!

We’ve got several copies of Marketing Myopia to give away, and we’ll draw from our responses.

Your next idea may be just an email or comment away!





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