I was cruising through one of my new favorite blogs: the Inner Circle blog on AboutPeople.com, and found a great post featuring a video by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell, author of bestsellers Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, most recently published What The Dog Saw, a compendium of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. One of the articles he includes is called “The Ketchup Conundrum.” It details the work of a psychophysicist named Howard Moskowitz, and his work helping food companies create the most satisfying foods.

The article features a video from TED, which I highly recommend watching. The video is of Gladwell himself, speaking on this topic. Here is the video:

The most important lesson we can take away from Moskowitz, Gladwell tells us, has to do with human variability. All science, including food science, has for most of its existence “been obsessed with finding universals.” We want to know universal laws. Physicists want to arrive at a Grand Unified “Theory of Everything.” And this idea of trying to arrive at universal causes and forces has applied to psychology as well.

However, for the last fifteen years or so, science has trended away from the search for universals in favor of understanding variability. Genetics is a big contributor to this trend; for the first time, we can understand that this cluster of people will be affected in a different way than that cluster of people. Through understanding how certain people cluster together, we can improve how we deal with them.

Howard Moskowitz was ahead of his time in understanding that variability needed to be understood not just in the world of science, but in “the world of tomato sauce.”

And really, not just in the world of tomato sauce, but in all the worlds in which companies make products that aim to be the most pleasing.

Now, this is the point where most people say, “Oh, we already have that. It’s called segmentation. We have products for rich people and poor people and young people and old people…”

But much like Gladwell says about the success of Grey Poupon mustard, that’s the wrong takeaway.

Behaviors and preferences do not exist on neat little socioeconomic or demographic hierarchies. When Moskowitz got his data back from his foray into the world of tomato sauce preference, they were a complete mess.

Only after thorough study was he able to conclude that people clustered around traditional tomato sauce, spicy sauce, and extra chunky sauce. These clusters fit no distinct demographic. No cluster shows more culture or sophistication than any other.

Here’s the correct takeaway: human behavior does not follow universal rules, but will tend to cluster in ways that might not be easily predictable or demographically defined. We can only find these patterns by studying the behaviors and preferences directly (as opposed to asking the customers what they want). Once we understand the clusters, then we can tailor that which we bring to the world.

As we continue to look at rules of behavior and influence, we will of course look at some ideas that generally apply. Cialdini’s weapons of influence, for example, are general rules. There will always be general rules. In the world of tomato sauce, it will generally be true that everyone will prefer that tomatoes be the central ingredient. Fine.

Now, what happens when we look deeper? Where do people tend to cluster in terms of how their behavior reacts to stimulus? Not all people respond the same way to the same tactic. Not all people are attracted to the same traits and behaviors…we have “types.”

This data is mess, just like tomato sauce preference or anything else pertaining to humans. But how can we look at it so we can find our distinct clusters?


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