Henry Ford was asking the wrong question.

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Henry Ford was wrong.

In addition to having anti-Semitic views, Ford was wrong in his view of asking people what they wanted. It isn’t about asking what people want, but asking the right questions, listening to their answers, and figuring out why they want it. If something (product, service, experience) doesn’t yet exist, how can someone say they want it? Understanding why helps determine what the what should be, even if people don’t know how to articulate it.

With digital brand strategy, it’s not enough to simply see what people are doing online. It’s not enough to understand the functionality, feature sets, online tools, and APIs. It’s thinking about why people will want to invest their time in creating a relationship… digitally, psychologically, and otherwise. It’s understanding why people want to interact. It’s understanding how to concept and create the things that people can’t articulate.

On the flip side of the coin, or maybe it’s the same side of the coin but a different denomination…

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”
Bill Bernbach, ad guy (from Truth, Lies and Advertising, p. 59)

Listening is incredibly important. And (yes, and), we also have the ability to affect change through our ideas and our actions. Ford was wrong to say he didn’t need to ask what people wanted. I think people use his quote as a way to support their ideas to do whatever they want. (In the past, I may have been guilty of this myself…)

I’m not advocating for you to do what everyone tells you, or to not listen to your own ideas. If we’d done that, Substance probably wouldn’t be in business.* Believe in your idea. But make sure you listen. People might not be able to articulate what they want, but if you’re asking the right questions, and taking the time to listen to the answers, they may very well tell you the why to inspire your next great idea. A faster horse? Nah. A faster way to get from here to there, in a four seater version? Now that might be a start to something good.

And as a stretch of a segue from Ford, this month is the Portland Bike Commute Challenge. (Maybe Ford should have focused on a faster bike instead of a vehicle that has contributed to climate change. Shows what people want, I guess. Plus, the faster bike might be possible if I worked on my leg muscles a bit more…) We’re shooting for 75% participation, with 40% of our trips made by bike. A high goal, especially considering the new office preparations and move, but we’re always trying to push ourselves.


We believed in the idea of creating Substance, but it was also founded because we listened… clients, agencies, and people thinking about digital brand and the interactive world needed change, but didn’t know what the answer was, let alone why. So we asked ourselves, “why do we need to start Substance?” And that listening helped us create our vision, drive our passion, and fuel our desire to change the world. More on this next week.

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