I was walking with a friend in a residential part of New York City recently and we passed a girl running a fresh lemonade stand. Her father sat on the stoop of their brownstone watching her. I give a boost to a budding entrepreneur whenever I can so my buddy and I each bought a paper cup of the drink. Besides, it was hot and we were thirsty. All it took was one sip. Wow.
"This is pretty strong stuff," my friend said.
"Not much sugar in it, is there?" I asked, thinking she had made the lemonade herself and didn't realize she hadn't added the required sweetener to make it palatable. The dad piped up.
"People have too much sugar," he said, "We only added a quarter of the usual amount to our lemonade."
I doubt that little girl was going to have much repeat business, and the following day when I walked by the brownstone again, I noted her packing up the stand.
"Not much business today?" I asked sympathetically. She shook her head in disappointment. The father just glared.
He didn't know the best-kept secret of effective marketing: Play into consumers' existing behaviors and expectations. Lemonade has such a firm imprint on our minds that something so surprisingly sour only disappoints.
Most of us have made the same mistake this dad made. We come up with ideas we think are "good for" the consumer or that they "should" want, without taking into consideration what they actually already want, expect, and do on a daily basis.
Trying to change people to accommodate your product is a recipe for failure. If you think you can change customers' behavior, think again. Here are four things to avoid when developing and marketing your business:
1. Don't toy with beloved traditions. Stove Top Stuffing has seen years of flat sales, the majority taking place between October and December as stuffing represents the celebratory nature of traditional seasonal feasts. In an effort to change this convention, Stove Top tried various advertising campaigns to convince consumers to prepare stuffing all year round, including summertime. It didn't work. Better to create new bread-based side dishes for the brand that feed into peoples' desire for variety, convenience, and seasonal habits, like a "just add fruit" summertime bread pudding mix.
2. Don't stray too far from reality. Remember blue ketchup? The Heinz Company came up with an EZ Squirt brand of the familiar condiment, turning it shades of blue, green, and purple, basically the colors of mold, and completely alien to the color of most ripe tomatoes. People just didn't want weird ketchup. However, Heinz did have success with its "upside down" bottle, which is designed with the opening on the bottom of the container instead of the top. This went to the heart of an annoying reality consumers regularly face: a condiment bottle running low that needs to be turned upside down, which makes a mess.
3. Don't push a lifestyle that people no longer have -- or want. If stock price and flat sales are any indication, Talbot's, the women's retailer, has become a victim of the recession, a competitive marketplace, and changing workplace dress standards. Its styles are more conservative than classic, and don't match the needs of most working women who feel more comfortable in casual clothes. The brand seems to have limited appeal to executive females, who favor luxury brands like Burberry and Hermes.
On the other hand, fashion retailer J. Crew Group nearly doubled its full-year profit this past March thanks to soaring sales and gross margins. It provides business casual clothes that meet the customer's desire to transition from work to play and back to work again with ease and style.
4. Don't add to the workload. The standard answer to "How are you?" is almost always "Busy." As a culture, we believe we have less time. That's why products that make people work harder to get a job done fail. The more you can streamline any daily process, the better. For example, Johnson's 3-in-1 shampoo, conditioner and body wash for kids has fared well in the marketplace because it replaces several products with one.
If only the father of the lemonade entrepreneur had been less insistent on his sugar mandate, and more aware of the importance of expectations, authenticity and being true to what is deeply ingrained in our culture. His daughter might have done quite well advertising “half the sugar” which would appeal to people's desire for healthier drinks while still delivering something familiar and closely connected with happy summer memories. You can stay true to your principles and expand your marketing possibilities without leaving a sour taste in your customers' mouths.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.