Don’t tell people to eat cake… and other key points for product strategy.

By Jonathan DeVito


Please don’t tell people to eat cake.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

“Let them eat cake” is probably one of the most famous phrases associated with the French nobility’s excesses and disregard for the populace prior to the French Revolution.

Although many attribute the phrase to Marie Antoinette, queen consort of Louis XVI, the phrase actually comes from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography Confessions. Rousseau recounts the story of a “grand princess” that, responding to being told that the peasants had no bread, states “… then let them eat brioche”.

In today’s business environment, businesses often inadvertently behave like Rousseau’s grand princess: they push products to market while disregarding the needs of the people that are supposed to buy these products.

In many cases, new products actually reflect what businesses would like to sell instead of what people are willing to buy (cases in point, see the previous article that discusses companies like Kodak and Blackberry).

Businesses need to realistically align themselves with customer needs. Unlike the grand princess and her peasants, businesses usually don’t have absolute authority over their customers and they aren’t in a position to disregard them.

Below are tips on how to make sure you’re not telling people to eat cake so that you can launch products that are positioned to succeed.


1) How would you feel if you were a customer?

Often times businesses (and people) focus on what they want customers to buy as opposed to what customers are willing to pay for.

I mentor at The Garage, Northwestern’s center for student entrepreneurship. One of the first things I like to ask emerging business leaders is: “If you were a customer, would you buy your product”? It may sound like common sense, but it’s an important question to ask. I find that many people (both entrepreneurs and established business leaders) can’t confidently say that they would pay for their own product. If you wouldn’t buy your product, why would other people?

Looking at a real world example, I’ve conducted countless market research interviews with with restaurant owners. One of the most annoying intrusions is when a manufacturer sales rep shows up to a restaurant at a peak time of the day to sell a product that the restauranteur doesn’t want buy. This is a relatively common occurrence and shows that many manufacturers are charging ahead while not seriously considering what customers are willing to buy or how they want to be engaged. I’m sure many foodservice manufacturers would love it if they could have reps showing up at restaurants at any time to push any product, but in reality things don’t play out this way.

Disconnects like the above should be a moment for pause. Stopping to reflect can help you ensure that your product and promotion strategies are on target… and if you’re a foodservice sales rep it could prevent you from being thrown out of a restaurant.

As a side note, engaging sales reps on a regular basis as a source of customer insights is a useful, and often overlooked step that businesses can take to ensure product-market alignment. More on that topic can be found here.


2) Support the product with the right team.

Products need to be supported by the right people and teams.

It’s not uncommon for businesses to create a product and push it to market with a sales team… and that’s where the strategy ends. In many of these situations, there’s nobody responsible for refining the product or managing product strategy. If the product isn’t properly positioned or needs to be changed, the salesperson is left at sea with a misaligned product or promotion strategy. This is a losing scenario on three fronts: the product doesn’t achieve market fit, the product fails to meet sales targets, and the salesperson winds up losing a job.

In the above example, two groups are actually being told to eat cake: the customers that don’t want the product and the sales person who’s tasked with pushing a failing product without having the authority to do anything about it.

Another area where having the right support strategy is necessary is internal products. This includes proprietary process management software or other products that are designed for the internal operations of a company. Aside from total product misalignment, employee adoption of new tools often remains low for two reasons: lack of systematized training and a lack of product leadership. Employees won’t magically start using a product just because they are supported to. Employees need to know how to use a product and there needs to be mechanisms in place to refine a product if it’s not meeting expectations. Old habits die hard: without proper training and leadership new products frequently fall victim to employees’ old ways of doing things (like using Excel as a catch-all tool instead of using a newly introduced system).

In a perfect world, people would buy or use things because we want them to. In the real world it’s essential to have the right management and support strategies in place to make sure adoption actually happens.


3) Move on to the next one if necessary.

Not every product is going to be a winner. In fact, most newly introduced products aren’t winners.

If a new product isn’t aligned with its market or an established product is becoming obsolete, it may simply be time to discontinue the product. It’s essential to embrace change so that you can focus on launching products that demonstrate potential while shedding products that are no longer relevant.

At the end of the day, promoting doomed products is simply telling your customers to eat cake. It also leads to dead weight in your product portfolio.


The main point.

Focusing on the market and what customers (or employees for internal products) actually need or want is essential. In the modern era, you can’t tell people to eat cake. You need to be have a products that are aligned to markets, teams with the ability to evolve products, and a realistic perspective on culling failing offerings.


About the author:

Jonathan DeVito is the Founder of PIVITAS. He works with a diverse group of clients to help them develop actionable product and pricing strategies.

Featured image source: blambca/