Commentary: Baseball, Cowboy Hats, and Marketing 101

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 07.01.2005


Fitting Products to Customer Needs


Have you ever wondered why baseball players aren't wearing cowboy hats? I mean, at the turn of the century and in the formative years of our national past-time broad brimmed hats were ubiquitous and Stetson was to hats what Xerox is to photocopying today. So what happened? And what the heck has this got to do with “green” business?


Today we often question the public's interest in “green” products, and the marketplace is filled with economists researching consumer's “willingness to pay” and marketers measuring consumer's attitudes. What we consistently hear is that consumers are concerned about the environment, but that the average consumer isn't willing to pay anything to help out.


Let's debate that a little. First of all, as every marketer knows, there is no such thing as an average consumer. Everyone gets their own niche, and my niche may be smaller than your niche, but this is America so almost EVERY niche is big enough to support a wide variety of businesses. Take, for example, stamping (the rubber kind - with wood handles and cute images); who would have thought that would be a mega-million if not billion-dollar business? Or, how about bottled water in vending machines? Who would have predicted that you could put 16-ounce bottles of tap water in vending machines across the hall from water fountains and charge more than for root beer? I don't hear any economists or marketers making statements like, “the average consumer is unlikely to pay more for bottled tap water than drinking it free from the fountain.” You know why you don't hear that? Because who cares? As long as enough people ARE willing to pay to make it viable - that's all that matters!


But let's get back to the baseball hats. The key to any product, especially a new one, is that it fits a specific need; and the better it fits that need the better it succeeds in the marketplace. When baseball players started shopping for hats, they had some specific needs – the hats needed to be light weight, stylish (you're going to be on TV – someday), shade your eyes from the sun on both ground balls and fly balls, and they shouldn't hinder throwing the ball or swinging the bat in any way. What do you get? Voila! The now universally recognized “baseball cap,” although we now see it on soccer goalkeepers in Germany (with a snugger fit), rap stars in Hollywood (sideways), welders in machine shops (backwards) and truck drivers in general (with popular catch phrases).


So how does the history of baseball caps apply to marketing green products today? Well, the key is still the same. Green products need to fit specific needs, and the better they address those needs the better they fit the marketplace. Let me give you an example. Recently at a presentation on hydrogen power cells, the presenter was describing a new bus that had been developed which ran on hydrogen power. In his story he described how they substituted the bus for a traditional one on a route in a neighboring community, and how at the end of the route they told the passengers they had been riding in a new state of the art, super-efficient bus that got more than twice the gas mileage of a regular one. Then they asked the passengers for comments. You know what the most common response was? The seats are too hard! Now at the presentation this provoked a lot of laughter – as well it might. But there is a real lesson here too. The average consumer is generally very practical, and carries with him or her a very personal list of expectations for anything they spend money on. Understanding that list is the goal of marketing research; but that list is often nothing like we think it might or should be (hence the need for research). There is significant likelihood that the primary “need filters” for the bus passengers included: destination, reliable schedule, comfort, and price (not necessarily in that order). Other factors could be construed as benefits, but only to the extent that they either improve on primary concerns or that those primary concerns are already well addressed.


The point here is that consumers have a host of interests and concerns that manufacturers need to recognize if their marketing efforts are to be successful. Some of the customers concerns are very simple and others may be extremely complex.


In the market for environmentally friendly products, many approaches have clearly missed the mark with vague and often confusing messages. This “striking-out” with a marketing message suggests a lack of awareness of the customers' true interests and concerns.


To begin the process of understanding the customer, we learn in Marketing 101 that potential consumers of any new product can be broken into groups based on their likelihood of purchasing new products in general. Each of these groups requires significantly different types of information to trigger their purchasing behavior. The following categories are often used to represent sequential adoption segments of the population:


  • Innovators – small segment of risk takers and generally non-influential
  • Early adopters – slightly larger group that includes opinion leaders and is thus quite influential
  • Early majority – one of the two largest groups and is more deliberate in choice, needs more communication inputs, and seeks less risk
  • Late majority – similar size to early majority, tends to be older, tends to be more skeptical
  • Laggers – smaller segment of population that is risk averse and even suspicious of new products


In today's marketplace it would appear that organic foods have moved from the innovators to the early adopter groups, and that this is beginning to influence the early majority. Thus organic foods are starting to show up in traditional grocery stores rather than just specialty stores. What remains to be seen is the impact on the organic or “green” premium as this spread occurs. Often, the innovators bear the cost (willingly) of introducing new products, and the early and late majority groups assume that increased competition and efficiencies in the system will make those products more competitive over time (thus justifying their “patience”). A key to the growth of organics across consumer groups is an increasingly common understanding of what “organic” is in general and how “organic” addresses consumer concerns and interests.


The identification of a language and terminology that appropriately suggests the benefits consumers are looking for in an environmental-friendly product is the most significant opportunity in the marketplace today. As yet, few green products, including wood products, have developed a common message of any sort that the public can grasp and relate to their concerns. Thus far forest products are leaning on “certified” as the key term with all its regulatory connotations and baggage.


To be successful environmental messages need to address the emotional appeal of green, rather than the business side. The public wants to hear that Bambi, Smokey-the-Bear, and their forest homes are safe, not that they are conserved in a business like manner (e.g. well-managed)! They want to know we are growing big old trees, not that we are planting two for every one we cut down. And they want to know that all the beauty, diversity and benefits of forests are protected, not that there will be enough stuff for “everyone else.”


Imagine back to the discussion about cowboy hats. Would a cowboy hat certified as being produced from materials generated in the most environmentally responsible manner possible have made a difference back in the 1800's? Of course not! Those ball players had some very specific needs to address, which meant a different solution than broad rimmed hats. Some things never change!


Dr. Jeff Howe