The Curse of Knowledge


In 1990, a Stanford University psychology graduate called Elizabeth Newton ran an experiment.


She recruited people to play a simple game. In the game she assigned people to one of two roles. The “Tapper” or the “Listener”.


The tapper was given a list of 25 well known songs (e.g. “Happy Birthday”). They had to pick a song and tap the rhythm on a table. The listener had to guess the song.


Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that the listeners would guess correctly.


They predicted 50%.


During the experiment 120 songs were tapped out. The listeners only guessed 3 of the songs correctly.


A success rate of 2.5%.


Why such a difference? When a tapper taps, it is impossible for them to avoid hearing the tune in their head. To them, the tune was obvious. But to the listeners it was just a random series of taps.


This is the curse of knowledge. We assume that what we know is what other people know.


Why are we talking about this? In our industry we play a version of the tapper and listener game.


We are the tappers. We think about our categories and brands all the time. We know everything there is to know about them. Because we know, we assume shoppers know.


Research often suggests this. Your latest awareness figures say your brand has 80% prompted awareness. Your latest concept test results say that 75% of respondents are likely to buy your new product. This gives you confidence. But it is often false confidence.


Shoppers are the listeners. They rarely think about your category or brand. They might have heard of it when prompted, but that doesn’t mean they know anything about it. The respondent might have said they are likely to buy your new product, but you’ve just asked them to spend 2 minutes reading a well-crafted concept.


There is a BIG difference between what we know and what shoppers know.


So, how can you change this?


You need to focus on the 5 fundamentals. The key things shoppers need to know about any product.


WHAT IT IS. Shoppers need to know what the product is. If you’re a snack tell them you’re a snack. If you’re a hard seltzer tell them you’re a hard seltzer. Then tell them what a hard seltzer is (well done Topo Chico “Alcohol, meet sparkling water”).


This is particularly important for new products or low penetration categories. But it’s often as important for well established categories. Coca Cola thought that shoppers knew what Coke Zero was. Then research told them 50% didn’t realise it had zero sugar. So, they changed the name to Coke Zero Sugar.


WHY IT’S GOOD. Shoppers need to know why the product is good. If you’re a mouthwash you need to tell them why they should buy (and use) you. If you’re a drink you need to tell them why you are better than all the other drink options.


To do this you need to (a) say something that is important – something that matters to shoppers not just to you (b) say something distinctive – something that you can say that your competitors can’t say. Then say this consistently. Over and over. You will get bored much quicker than shoppers will.


WHEN TO USE IT. Shoppers need to know when to use the product. If you’re an ingredient it could be telling them to use it when making X or Y dish. If you’re a snack it could be leading with the mid-morning occasion. If you’re a personal care product it could be “use before shaving” or “use after every shower”.


A clear “when” gives your product a role. If you don’t have a “when” try to identify one. Then once you’ve identified it keep telling shoppers about it.


HOW TO USE IT. Shoppers need to know how to use the product. If you’re a food, it might be how to prepare it. How do you cut up a mango…? If you’re a personal care product it might be how you apply it. How do you apply Dry Shampoo…?


The most important thing to do is to make it EASY. The easier you make it the more chance shoppers will buy and use it (& potentially pay more for it). Nice one microwaveable rice.


WHERE TO FIND IT. Shoppers need to know where to find the product. If you’re a healthcare product, are you in drugstores and grocery? If you’re a plant-based product, are you in the plant-based section or the home category?


You need to prime shoppers. Tell them before they get to the store, so you are already on their radar. You need to be specific. There are a lot of “chillers”. So, if you are in a chiller next to milk say, “find us next to milk”.


Shoppers need to know these 5 fundamentals.


If they don’t, you need to tell them.


Make sure they can recognise the tune you’re tapping.


Feel free to forward. Have a great weekend. Speak to you in a fortnight.