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Tomato Sauce and Tablets – What Tech Companies Can Learn from Grocery Stores

by Sage Lane | September 18, 2011September 18, 2011 6:00 am PDT

iPad Tomato Splat

Not so many years ago, a man named Howard Moskowitz fundamentally changed a very important industry. His name may not sound familiar, but I assure you that the impact he has had upon your life and mine has been profound. Howard is a psychophysicist, and during his career he made revolutionary strides in the field of market research. One of his most important contributions is illustrated beautifully by his work with spaghetti sauce. Yes, spaghetti sauce.

In the 1980s, the supermarket’s spaghetti sauce aisle was dominated by Ragu. Despite having superior ingredients and an overall higher quality sauce, Prego was unable to loosen the grip Ragu had on the industry. To solve this mystery, Moskowitz was contracted and tasked with finding a solution. After an exhaustive battery of tests, he made some very telling discoveries. Moskowitz determined that Americans fell into three distinct sauce groups: Plain sauce, spicy sauce and extra chunky sauce. There was not one answer to Prego’s problem, there were three. The data was both surprising and scintillating. For at that time, there was not one extra chunky sauce stocked in supermarkets, which meant that 1/3 of American tastebuds were not being satiated. Acting on this, Prego introduced an extra chunky line of sauces, one that immediately soared in popularity. Over the next ten years, Prego made 600 million dollars from this spaghetti sauce. Author Malcolm Gladwell summarized Moskowitz’s work in a TED talk in 2004:

But what does Maskowitz’s work in the food industry mean, and how is it applicable to the gadget industry? Maskowitz provided a very simple solution to the problem of what people want. Simply put, there is no one product that satisfies everyone. The food industry thought that if you gave people the average of all desires, then you would be able to capture the maximum number of consumers. They were wrong, and so are several companies that are applying this outdated ideology in the technological space. To illustrate this example, and for the sake of simplicity, I’d like to compare two companies, the Prego and Ragu of our generation, Samsung and Apple.

Obviously, the battle between Samsung and Apple does not involve crushed and puréed tomatoes, but rather slate devices. Tablets are big business, and while you could reason that Samsung and Apple have a similar design language (perhaps a little too similar), these two giants have two very differing ideologies when it comes to size. Apple’s stance is strict and simple. Their iPad has a 9.7-inch screen, and if Steve Jobs‘ past comments steer the future of this company, that is unlikely to change:

 “7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad.”

This brings up a valid question. Why would Apple want to change direction at this point? They are absolutely killing it in the tablet space. Occupying a vast majority of the market, they seem to have no reason to worry. That is where they are wrong. Just like Ragu was lulled into complacency with their dominance in the supermarket, Apple sees little reason to change. If only they knew there was a Prego lurking in the next aisle.

Lurking isn’t exactly the right descriptor for Samsung. Its tablets have taken front and center stage, and with the current lawsuits, even more attention is being paid to Samsung’s design. I don’t know who makes the final decisions on the sizes of the devices, but I think Mr. Moskawitz is greatly appreciated in Seoul. The Samsung tablet line is impressively robust, boasting devices with screens of 5.3-inches, 7-inches, 7.7-inches, 8.9-inches and 10.1-inches. Much like Prego learned to offer plain, spicy and extra chunky, Samsung bets that offerring small, medium and large sizes, and a few in between, is a good way to capture consumers’ attention. With this wonderful array of choices, Samsung is primed to make major strides in the market.

Tablets are not tomato sauces, I understand that. But there is a metaphor here we can learn from. It’s not just the variety that both need to achieve their potential, but they also need to have the right ingredients. Samsung may have the variety figured out, but if Google cannot make Ice Cream Sandwich a solid experience, it will not matter. No matter the variety, putrid tomatos make putrid sauce.

Ultimately, the lesson that we should take away is that we cannot trust ourselves to know what we want, and more importantly, that companies cannot hope to glean this kind of information from consumers. We cannot articulate what we want, because we cannot envision what it is. This has been proven time and again by failed products such as the Kin and the Veer. We may think that we want a 9.7inch screen, but until we have the opportunity to hold a 7.7-inch device, we cannot say that with certainty. What I do know is that there is a market that is not being served. What is the 1/3rd of the tablet market that’s not being reached? What is the extra chunky sauce that we’re subconsciously salivating for? The food industry, as Gladwell puts it, had the platonic notion that there was only one correct answer. Many technology companies are mired in that same idea. To make people happy, you need to make a product that suits them personally, and in order to suit them personally, you have to offer variety. Samsung has this part of the equation figured out. The question is if the software will be able to make up the difference.

On a related note, enlivened by the success of Prego’s extra chunky sauce, Moskowitz was soon approached by another suitor. Moskowitz worked his magic again, and today, Ragu has 36 kinds of tomato sauce in six different varieties. Perhaps we’ll see a similar change of heart, in a different industry, in the future.


Sage Lane

Sage is a wandering vagabond currently based out of Seoul. When he's not busy scouring the web for the latest tech news and gossip, he does his best...

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