From Rain Man to Spiderman: A Follow-up

mr suicide.jpg I wrote an article recently for the weekly column that my employer, frog design, has on Gizmodo, the gadget and technology blog, called "From Rain Man to Spiderman" which used the two films to talk about different corporate styles and capabilities of decision making.

Briefly, the argument was that most corporations tend to be like Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man: they have lots of data but don't know what it means or why it's important. This hinders their decision-making process about what new products to make because the data can only tell them about the past, and it locks them in to a predictable product roadmap. By contrast, Spiderman is driven by instinct, which means he is great at spotting danger but doesn't know why, and can't consciously control it. But it allows him to react quickly to dynamic situations. I used a couple of products - Gillette's 5-bladed Fusion razor and Alessi's Mr. Suicide bath plug as examples of products from, respectively Rain Man and Spiderman companies.

In the article I painted a rather black/white picture, making it sound like it's an either/or situation. Scott Hirsch emailed me and quite rightly argued that both have their place, it's a question of finding the right balance between them. The challenge of course is deciding when to bias towards one or the other. I stand by my original sentiment, however, that in most companies today there's too much Rain Man and not enough Spiderman.

In mature markets, a Rain Man attitude is ideal for honing core products but can be counter-productive at identifying new opportunities. 

In the case of the Gillette Fusion, it's a product in a mature category which has been evolving incrementally for a long time. The market demand is proven, the customer base well established. Gillette aims for products which can appeal to as broad a population as possible, as verified through quantitative methods such as focus groups. It's in these circumstances that assumptions tend to get hardened about what people like and dislike, as each product enhances the echo-chamber of design and feature attributes. Because consumers keep reacting to what they see on the shelves and don't have an alternate point of reference, things tend to go on a continuous path.

The liquid soap market was much the same in terms of saturation and incrementalism: On the one hand highly-perfurmed hand soaps in generic looking bottles with flower-covered labels. On the other hand, more austere "medical" looking bottles with anti-bacterial soaps that smelled like something your dentist would use right before your annual check-up. It took an outside entry, Method, to show that cool, innovative bottle design, fun colors, and more subtle, sophisticated odors could satisfy a latent desire that was half way between boutique soaps such as from Body Shop and mainstream pricing and image of Proctor and Gamble.

By going after what somebody like Gillette would have seen as a small niche market, Method has become a breakout hit, and Target has picked up distribution of the line. That tells you something right there, as Target has developed a great Spidey-sense for emerging categories over the years, combined with a tough as nails data-driven approach to what works in the market.

It's much easier for a start-up such as Method to do this, as they have fewer preconceived notions about right and wrong ways to do things. A large company such as Gillette obviously can't abandon the mainstream for purely going after niches, and it should continue its Rain Man approach to refine and develop its core products.

But it's just such core products that are vulnerable to disruptions at the edges, such as what Method has done with soaps. In these cases, a Rain Man attitude can be counter-productive, while Spiderman can keep you aware of new opportunities. Inevitably these will be small, and large companies tend to ignore such opportunities, but it's from these modest beginnings large things can grow.

In 1903 an inventor sold a grand total of 51 units of his product, eight years after first inventing it. A year later he sold 90,000. That inventor was King Camp Gillette, the inventor of the disposable safety razor blade.