Struggling to Sell Products? How Understanding Customers Leads to More Sales

What happens when you create the worst product in your industry? Honda knows. The Honda Ridgeline was the worst selling truck of 2011. They managed to sell just 214 of them in August 2011. The Ford F series sold close to 50,000 trucks in June that same year. Yikes.

So what’s with the crappy sales numbers?

Well for starters, Honda decided to market the Ridgeline as an alternative to full-size pickups like the Ford F-150, Toyota Tundra and Chevy Silverado. Competition is good, except for when you fail to actually compete. It doesn’t help that you can get a more capable full-size pickup truck for a lot less money.

The Honda Ridgeline comes with a V6. The Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado and Toyota Tundra offer the traditional V8. The cargo bed with most full-size trucks is 8 feet. The Ridgeline gives you 5 feet. But hey it’s got a smaller engine and cargo bed so the gas mileage should be a lot better right? Nope. Their EPA numbers aren’t any better than their competitors. Not necessarily a bad thing – until you try to tow or haul something. Do that and the mileage nose dives to 12 mpg.

The Ridgeline isn’t suited for contractors, it’s got horrible gas mileage, less power and less space than its full-size competitors. Bottomline: this truck is designed for the wrong people.

Okay, okay so the Ridgeline is a pretty dramatic example. It’s still reveals a common problem. Businesses all around the world are creating products and services that a lot of people don’t want.

So how do you figure out what your customers actually want? Is there a way to figure out what they need before you blow a ton of money on the wrong product or service?

You bet your sweet bippy there is. Cue Google Insights for Search.

What exactly is Google Insights for Search?

Insights for Search is a service from Google that helps you gauge interest. It shows you the overall interest in search terms that people enter into Google.

Here’s an example:

Not interested?! C’mon!

Let’s pretend that you’re Sarah Palin (humor me) and you’re interested in running for office (doesn’t matter where). You’d probably want to gauge whether Americans were still interested in hearing from you, right?

Well how interested are they?


Sarah Palin? America says Not Interested.

From the looks of things not very. So interest is circling the drain. That’s definitely a bad sign. But there are still pockets of people that are interested in her vision and her ideas right?

No, not so much.

Searchers are looking for Tina Fey's SNL video.

The first 4 search results indicate that people are interested in comedy sketches. It looks like people are more interested in laughing at her than voting for her. Most people don’t seem to be interested in her or her ideas anymore.


A brutal example but you get the idea. Insights for Search is a broad representation of patterns and behaviors – what people search for and what they think about. This information is gold because you can use it to attract the type of customers you want. So the first and most obvious question is…

What can Google Insights for Search tell me?

  • The marketing messages you should focus on
  • How to spot timing and seasonality trends
  • Uncover brand/psychological associations
  • Which new markets to enter and how to set up product launches
  • How to gauge interest over time

The marketing messages you should focus on.

Honda believed they could enter the full-size pickup market. Customers wanted things like more towing power, better gas mileage and more space. But the Ridgeline’s features and focus were totally out of sync with what customers actually wanted. No surprise that they refused to buy.

Here’s what they really wanted:

What truck buyers really want

The Ridgeline offered less of everything but it cost a lot more. You’ll need to spot the problems, risks and fears customers have regarding your business if you want to avoid Honda’s headaches. Are your customers iffy about your credibility? Are they looking for a specific feature that you don’t offer? Are they afraid you’ll disappear after the sale?

Tip: Need a clearer picture of what customers want? Use Insights for Search with Google’s keyword tool. It’ll help you develop a full list of keywords that show what potential customers are actually thinking about.

Alright, so you’ve got the right message in place. When are you supposed to share that?

How to spot timing and seasonality trends.

If you’re running a ski resort, you probably have a good idea about when people start thinking about… well… skiing. But what about the not so obvious seasonal trends?

Take “laptops” for example. Insights for Search shows that searches peak in August and December.

Back-to-school and Christmas. A manufacturer's bread and butter

What’s going on in Aug and Dec? Ooo ooh I know! Back-to-school season and Christmas! This example seems so obvious doesn’t it? When you look at the data it makes sense – yet it’s easy to overlook. What makes this kind of research difficult is that it can be tedious to do – especially if you sell a lot of stuff.

Let’s switch gears. What about food? Insights for Search shows that searches for cream cheese spike in December each and every year.

The Cream Cheese circle of life.

I’m guessing it has something to do with the holidays – that much seems obvious. But what are they using the cream cheese for? I find it hard to believe America desperately needs a holiday bagel fix. Let’s look at top searches for the answer.

During the holidays we use it for everything except bagels

Ah, I see now. Cream cheese sales spike because we’re busy making dips, frosting, Jello and cakes with it. We’re spending more time with loved ones and we’re stuffing our faces. Good times.

Okay, is all of America loading up on cream cheese or is that happening in certain places? Well, it looks like the heavy searches are coming from pretty specific locales but America is definitely interested.

Cream cheese used nationwide

Does this mean people don’t search for cream cheese in other states and countries? Nope, here’s what Google has to say.

Insights for Search shows the likelihood of users in a particular area to search for a term on Google on a relative basis. So, just because New York isn’t on the top regions list for haircut doesn’t necessarily mean that people there don’t search for that term at all. Consider the following scenarios. It could be that people in New York:

  • Don’t use Google to find a barber or hair salon
  • Use a different term for haircut-related searches
  • Search for so many other topics unrelated to haircuts, that searches for haircut comprise a small portion of the search volume from New York as compared to other regions

Okay back to cream cheese. So with a quick search I know a few things:

  1. Cream cheese searches spike during the holidays
  2. People use it in recipes mostly
  3. Certain states generate more interest than others
  4. The people searching for cream cheese are probably the ones using it

Remember it’s more about trends and less about exact numbers.

Let’s pretend that I’ve got a special cream cheese recipe that I think will sell. It’s tested well and people really like it. What I don’t know is whether or not a market leader like Kraft is waiting to destroy my little cream cheese company. That means I need to…

Uncover brand/psychological associations

When I hear the word cheese I think Kraft. I grew up watching their Mac and cheese commercials and the brand/food association stuck. Finding brand associations like these are helpful; the downside is that they’re usually held by market leaders with deep pockets and a huge head start.

This kind of research can be really discouraging at first glance. If you go head-to-head with the leaders in your market you’re probably gonna lose. But make no mistake this is good news. Wait what?

Why is that good news?

Because market leaders are generally best known for one thing.

Quality (whitens whites, keeps colors bright)

Variety (cheese, cheese and more cheese)

High performance

Search (just google it)

These companies are well-known for something, not everything. So while Kraft is known for their selection and all things cheese (an area that they dominate), you’re free to own and dominate niche areas too. You can be the savory cream cheese, homegrown cream cheese, organic cream cheese, vegan cream cheese or anything else you can imagine. If people are looking for it you can use it to differentiate.

Okay so in my fantasy, things for my little cream cheese business are going well. I need to know where I should expand next.

Which new markets to enter and how to set up product launches

Let’s say that I want to expand and that I’d like to start selling my Jalapeno cream cheese in other markets. Is that something America is interested in?

Southern states interested in spicy food? Go figure!

Looks that way. Apparently Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma are among the states that are really interested in Jalapeno cream cheese. We’ll need to do some more research to figure out just how interested they are.

Southerners want the poppers and dip.

How will they use the cream cheese? Looking at rising searches, I see that people are primarily interested in cheese dips, poppers, and recipes that call for Jalapeno cream cheese. This raises some red flags for me; I’d like to sell it but I’m not sure if a lot of people would buy it. I’ll need some more research to confirm that.

Gauging interest over time

The data from Insights for Search show that cream cheese sales have remained strong. The sales cycle is both cyclical and seasonal. There’s no indication that demand is decreasing. My imaginary cream cheese shop is safe.

As I’m taking pictures of my new cheeses I start to think about how digital cameras are doing. My brother’s a whiz kid and he’s preparing to launch a startup that will sell component and replacement parts for digital cameras. I enter “digital cameras” in to Insights for Search and check things out. What I find is not good.

Are digital cameras on their way out?

The industry looks like it’s dying. This sales slump is pretty bad and it looks like it’s only getting worse. Wait a minute. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Maybe there isn’t a slump. Are there any new stories that confirm the data?

My stomach sinks, yeah there are lots of stories. I head over to ZDNet and see that Kodak issued a panic warning over the digital camera sales slump back in 2011 – things haven’t gotten better. I should show this to my brother; he needs to think long and hard about taking out a second mortgage to fund his new venture.

So at this point I’ve learned a lot about the approach I should take with my fictitious cream cheese business. I know which marketing messages to use, where to use them, and the features or product lines customers are interested in. But there’s one area that still needs attention…

How do I use Insights for Search to get customers?

If I’m selling my specialty cream cheese I can create and share recipes – focusing on the specific types of foods people are looking for. I can share recipes on my blog, post those recipes to sites like and I can create helpful how-to videos that I can share on sites like YouTube and Vimeo.

I know that money can be tight for families around the holidays so I can entice people to buy my specialty cream cheeses by offering buy-one-get-one promos on cooking, baking and recipe sites.

I can run ads for my promo on facebook, targeting people who are interested in cooking, baking, recipes or even just eating (isn’t that everyone?). With a little bit of research I know what people want and how to give it to them. I can create offers exclusive to facebook, twitter, Google+ or any other social network and I can share these offers automatically. Score.

Now you’re obviously not limited to food. Insights for Search works for any business or organization, any product or service.

When it won’t work

Insights for Search won’t work if people don’t know that your product or service exists. Now I’m not talking about situations where you start a new business in an industry that people already know exists e.g. a new dental practice.

I’m talking about situations where what you’re offering is so new that people don’t even know what to call it. The kind of situation that Pando ran into. Pando is a file sharing service that allows people to send huge files to each other via email or IM. The problem? In 2005 most people didn’t even know it was possible to send 1 GB files as email attachments. This made it hard for them to gain traction (though they did).

If you’re coming up with something new you’ll need lots of impressions. That means banner ads, video ads, content or some kind of display advertising that introduces people to the concept your trying to share. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, it needs to be explained simply.

How do I know that Google’s numbers are accurate?

You don’t. But that’s actually not the right question to ask. What you should be asking is whether or not Google’s data is “Normalized” and the answer to that is yes. Here’s why Normalized data is so important.

All the results in Google Insights for Search are normalized, which means that we’ve divided the sets of data by a common variable to cancel out the variable’s effect on the data. Doing so allows the underlying characteristics of the data sets to be compared. If we didn’t normalize the results and displayed the absolute rankings instead, data from regions generating the most search volume would always be ranked high.

So if they didn’t normalize the data, New York city would always rank higher than Durango, Colorado for any and every search simply because there’s more people in New York city than there are in Durango. That makes it tough to get any sort of meaningful data. You know, the kind of data you use to get new customers.

As far as accuracy goes, there’s really no guarantees. The data could be wrong. Google *could* be making things up. But there’s no conflict of interest here that I can see. Giving you accurate information means it’s easier for you to spend your money with Google. The more successful you are with Google, the more money you’re likely to spend. Its almost like they meant for this to happen – wait.

Isn’t this research method incomplete?

You’re right, it’s imcomplete without good keyword research (additional research wouldn’t hurt either). You need a well developed list of keywords. Those keywords should tell you about the circumstances a potential customer’s dealing with, what they’re thinking about, what they’re looking for, what their buying cycle looks like, etc.

For example:

What they’re thinking about, they’re probably at the beginning of their search.

Their circumstance: they’re health conscious

Looking for a recipe with or without certain ingredients?

They know exactly what they’re looking for. Crap! It’s not my cream cheese.

Using a few keywords gives you a few chapters. Using a full developed list of keywords gives you the whole book. True story.

To Sum Things Up

There’s no reason to live with the label “worst product ever” and there’s no reason to live with a product or service that isn’t selling. Google Insights for Search gives you a backstage pass. It takes you behind the scenes, giving you a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those you’re trying to reach.

Use it to uncover brand and psychological associations and measure interest over time. Figure out what to say, when to say it and where to share it.

Since we’re talking about what customers want, do you think they know what they actually want or is it our job to be like Apple and tell them what they want? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Lamborghini Commits Brand Suicide (Again)

Miura. Countach. Diablo. Murciélago. These names are so legendary that even if you don’t know a thing about high-performance sports cars, you probably recognize a few of those. You hear the name Lamborghini, and you think of some of the most epic cars the world has ever seen. The name practically means “supercar”.

That’s what Lamborghini has done so well for so many decades. They have defined what a supercar is: the fastest, the coolest, and the most expensive. It’s the core of their brand, and it defines them as a company. That’s why their most recent unveiling is so puzzling.

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How to Create Advertising that Works (Without Spending Money)

So there’s this really snazzy restaurant in town called Maranges*. It’s attractive, the food is awesome, and the service is great. They’ve never really had to rely on marketing because most of their new customers came to them via word-of-mouth. Things were great for awhile. It seemed like they’d always have plenty of customers and their restaurant would always be full.

Along Comes the Great Recession.

2 months later and word-of-mouth is no longer bringing in enough business for Maranges to stay afloat. The restaurant goes from consistently full to consistently empty. People aren’t buying and the owners are getting nervous.

So what do they do? They start marketing.

They’re not entirely sure who they’re marketing to, but they’re gonna put themselves out there.

They start by shelling out a few hundred dollars to join a local networking group. They even offer to host the weekly meetings in hopes that members in their group will try the restaurant out for themselves. Unfortunately for Maranges, the members in their group weren’t interested.

Rick, one of the owners panics.

“We’ve gotta get our brand out there. If people try our food and they taste the quality, they’ll like it. If they like it they’ll come back. We have to get our name out there.”

So that’s what they did. They poured thousands of dollars in to TV, billboards, flyers, and radio ads as they worked to get their name “out there”.

Did getting their name out bring in customers?

Nope. All that hard work and their push to get their name out there failed to bring in a single customer. Their restaurant was still empty and they had nothing to show for their marketing efforts.

Maranges was in serious trouble.

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When Shoppers Won’t Buy: The Importance of Meeting Expectations.

It’s Christmas 1992. I’m really excited. So excited I’m dancing on air. I’m going to get a Super Nintendo.

6 months earlier I told my dad I wanted a Super Nintendo for Christmas. I knew what I wanted and I was direct. My dad chuckled and gave me a sly grin.“okay” he said.

I wasn’t sure if I’d get it but I hoped that I would. About a month later Dad started dropping hints. Then I noticed both my Dad and my Aunt were dropping hints. As Christmas drew closer the hints became more obvious. “We think you’re gonna like your Christmas present” they said with a wink in their eye or “its gonna be big”.

Sweet sassy molassy! I was getting the video game console of my dreams! Man was I keyed up.

So it’s Christmas morning. The box is huge, the proportions look right. “I wonder if they got me a couple of games to go along with it”.

I opened all of my smaller presents first. “Gotta get the opening acts out of the way” I thought. “No way are socks gonna be able to beat an SNES!”.

Finally. The moment of truth. My heart was beating fast. I slowly started to open “the box”. I carefully peeled off the wrapping paper, making sure that the box would remain intact.

And then I saw it.

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Why Do I Need Market Research Anyway?

Not too long ago Tian Yu Gao opened a toy store in the South China Mall. He was told the location he had his eye on was “prime real estate”. “This Mall will attract 70,000 shoppers a day. Your toy store will be one of the shops in our Mall that stands to make a lot of money”.

“70,000 shoppers, wow that’s a lot of people.” He thought.

So he went for it. He signed the lease, ordered all of his inventory, and opened for business.

Then he waited.
and waited.
and waited.
and waited some more.

One week and he hadn’t even seen a single customer, much less made a sale.

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