Marketing’s enthusiast problem

When you think motorcycle rider, you might think of a dentist on a big Harley cruising around on the weekends. But your average motorcyclists live in India or Southeast Asia and have a 250cc or smaller motorbike as the primary transportation for their household. The American motorcycle market consists almost entirely of enthusiasts, and they’re visible. But manufacturers, if they want to sell anything in volume, need to keep the meat of the market in their sights.

Automakers have a similar enthusiast problem: Their most dedicated fans are not, in fact, their best customers. And focusing on their most enthusiastic customers can lead them into serious trouble.

Honda, for a while, wanted to be the cool car company. So they made some cool cars, and they courted the aftermarket tuner crowd. The next thing you know, their brand was tainted by things like this:

Your typical driver is not a car enthusiast. Your typical driver has an appliance that takes them places. Jalopnik and the other car media may hate beige, but the enthusiasts are merely the most vocal segment of the market. If the average driver buys a car magazine, it’s the Consumer Reports car issue. And they only buy that when they’re in the market for a new car.

When you look for the enthusiast problem, you see it everywhere. Home electronics, video games, PCs, you name it. The enthusiast audience thinks it’s the real audience. In many cases, the industry leaders are enthusiasts themselves – that’s why they went into the industry, after all. But that means they often fail to understand that their audience doesn’t love their products the same way they do.

The average college student is not a 19-year-old fraternity brother. The average video-game player is not playing FPS games on a console and drinking Mountain Dew. The average car-buyer is not looking for an engaging drive. The average PC buyer is not actually chasing clock speed.

Obviously, you need to know your customers. And when you think you really understand them, you’re probably wrong.

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