Liquid Behavior

Anybody who has tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or train for a marathon knows that creating a new behavior or getting rid of an old one can be very, very challenging.

But it’s not hard to pour a behavior from one container into another, and this has implications for anybody trying to launch a new product or service. Here’s an example: the Center’s Future of Transportation Project turned up a trio of numbers — 86, 80 and 60 — that tell an exciting story about how Americans’ opinions about car ownership are changing. We asked our respondents — a statistically representative snapshot of the U.S. population — if they would give up driving altogether. Eighty-six percent said they would not.

That seems definitive, but it’s not.

We changed the question and asked if Americans would give up owning a car– that is, they’d retain the ability to drive but wouldn’t own or lease a car. That 86% dropped to 80%, or to look at it from the other direction, 14% consideration rose to 20%. That’s not a big difference, and there’s still a vast supermajority of people who would not give up their cars.

But then the story changes.

Instead of looking at our entire population, we focused on the people who use what we call “get a ride services” (GARS) like Lyft, Uber, Getaround, Zipcar or Car2Go, either frequently or sometimes. Only two percent of our respondents use these services frequently, while 14% use them sometimes (84% use them rarely or never– which many find surprising given how often Uber is in the press).

Sixteen percent is a relatively small slice of the population, but the impact of GARS on people’s transportation views is profound. The 80% of people who would never give up owning a car drops to 60%. Or, to reverse the picture, the 20% consideration for no longer owning a car among the general population doubles to 40% among the GARS-using population!

With an ousted CEO, a sexist bro culture, and aggressive takeover movements from Softbank in Japan, Uber has more than its fair share of problems right now, but that’s Uber the company, Uber the noun.

Uber may not last as a company (and I’ll have more to say on this topic in a future column), but uber the verb (as in, “I’ll uber there after my lunch meeting”) isn’t going anywhere.

In other words, it takes surprisingly little to make giving up car ownership thinkable: all you have to do is try GARS sometimes and you suddenly see the hassle and expense of car ownership in a stark new light. This is bad news for car manufacturers, and particularly for the people marketing new cars, because if you look at any recent car ad the thrust of the message is “buy this car.” But the argument that the manufacturers need to be making first is “buy a car” because they can no longer take for granted that Americans know they want to own a car.

Even before we put the survey into the field, I was surprised when more than one of my suburban neighbors speculated that there might come a time when they could reduce the number of cars they have and rely on Uber (or a similar service) to fill in the gaps — this in a neighborhood where the nearest bus stop is a mile away.

Focus on Verbs, not Nouns

This isn’t a column about transportation: it’s about how little it takes to move a behavior, to pour it from one container into another like pouring orange juice from a bottle into a glass.

Previously, I’ve written about how smart phones absorbed the functions of cameras, email, notebooks, calendars, and MP3 players to become the everything-Swiss-Army-Knife devices that we can’t be without. We can extend this list to include flashlights, videogame devices, social lives, banks, zippo lighters, and more. But in this week’s column, let’s flip this phenomenon and look at it from the other direction.

What the GARS data show is the people don’t want to own things per se, they want to achieve their goals — getting around — and they’ll choose a tool — a car — to accomplish that goal, particularly if people commonly associate that tool with the goal in question. But if there’s another tool that’s easier or cheaper and achieves the same goal, then people will migrate their behavior to the new tool as soon as they understand that they have the option.

This is a big deal, because companies often focus on their product features and their competitors rather than on their customers’ needs, and that can make companies blind to new competitors that come from different angles to help customers achieve their goals faster, cheaper, or both.

This notion of liquid behavior connects to classic business thinking. In “Marketing Myopia, a famous 1960 Harvard Business Review article, Theodore Levitt wrote that companies need to ask themselves, “What business are you really in?”

Using railroads as a key example, Levitt argued that the railroads stopped growing because they presumed that they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. In other words, they focused on the noun (trains) rather than the verb (transportation). In Levitt’s view, transportation companies would have extended trains into trucks and airplanes, but trains weren’t going to disappear.

More recently, business professor and innovation theorist Clayton Christensen has argued (in the book Competing Against Luck) that companies need to ask their customers, “What job did you hire that product to do?” and iterate product development accordingly. This moves the Levitt question from the corporate level to the individual level. Christensen’s focus on what he calls “Job Theory” helpfully refocuses attention on the actions people want to perform rather than the tools that other people have used previously.

Liquid behavior is different from both the Levitt or Christensen questions because it presumes that today’s products and services will go away but that the actions people perform with those products and services will stick around. Only serious photographers now buy single lens reflex cameras; most people just use their phones to snap pictures. The market for typewriters is vastly smaller than it was forty years ago because most people use word processing programs on their computers to “type” things up. Travelers who want to make their own breakfast now have the option of choosing AirBNB over a traditional hotel.

For a new product or service to succeed, it’s easier to pour an old behavior into a new shape than to create something entirely new. Facebook is a terrific example of this: the service skyrocketed after it allowed its users to share photos. People had already been sharing photos since before the Polaroid, but Facebook made it easy to pour that photo sharing into a new virtual container. Early Facebookers didn’t automatically understand poking or throwing sheep (if you’re old enough, you just got hit by a wave of nostalgia), but photo-sharing was a no-brainer.

The big takeaway here is that incumbent companies are always more vulnerable than they think they are if they delude themselves into thinking that people are loyal to the brands and to the particular products that they use today to achieve their goals. Apple is vulnerable. Google is vulnerable. Facebook is vulnerable. Walmart is vulnerable. Amazon is vulnerable, and so on.

People aren’t loyal. People are busy and often don’t have the mental energy to make a change (this is different than laziness). The chance to save time and money can nudge people to give something new a try, particularly if the new thing doesn’t require a steep learning curve. That’s liquid behavior.

To survive and thrive, companies need to focus on verbs instead of nouns, on behavior instead of brands or products.

[Cross-posted at the Center for the Digital Future website.]

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