The Product-Persona Trap

Photo Credit: Francis MacDonald

Regardless of the size of your company, one universal applies: we design products for customers. The earliest parts of this process are filled with rapid iterations as you navigate towards “product market fit”. As your company matures, however, products become more complex, releases take more time, and change is too often incremental.

A growing business is a business in flux — today’s state of the art is tomorrow’s legacy. While all change is necessary, the resistance to change can be a powerful force. Before we know it, our nimble, free days are filled with frustration at our inability to change.

Much as our products evolve over time, so do our customers. Companies internalize customer personas and spend millions of dollars bringing these idealized beings to life. Constant research continuously informs our insights, but does it also breed blindspots?

Today’s consumer is constantly exposed and evaluating new tools, technology and media. Their highly connected lives gives them access to an endless stream of new ideas and perspectives. These ideas tilt them off axis, making them not perfectly-stamped versions of our customer template, but unique and unpredictable. We often don’t look closely enough to see these subtle differences, perhaps we don’t really want to know.

Missing the mark here can have significant consequences. Just ask Coca-Cola.

“Sweetie,” the executive said. “Americans love sweet.”
“And I was like… did he just call me sweetie?” Kara said. “I just put the phone down and lost him for five minutes. And then finally, a light bulb went off. He really thinks Americans love sweet.”
“And so,” Goldin said, “I have runway to go and launch this company because he’s not focused on a company with no sweeteners.”
This conversation inspired Goldin. Now, 12 years later, Hint Water is doing $100m a year in sales. And companies like Apple, Facebook, and LinkedIn stock their fridges with Hint’s variety pack of flavors.
Funny enough, 18 months after this conversation with the Coke exec, Kara was told by a friend that Hint was not only on Coke’s radar, but was listed on a slideshow during a Coke meeting on potential competitors. “We can’t let Hint get to the point of VitaminWater,” the slide read.
VitaminWater was purchased by Coke for $4.8B.

Every company can become handcuffed to their customer personas. Our internal processes are designed to deliver products for specific customers. This dynamic often makes innovation extremely difficult to press forward, not always due to a lack of desire or interest, but due to comfort of paths worn by experience.

The more awareness we have throughout our organization, the better our chances to avoid this trap.

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