How Pillsbury Won Back its Defiant Customers

In 2019, more than 188 million Americans used mixes instead of flour to make cakes. This was up from 60 million users in 2016. But when invented, the cake mix was not an instant hit. On the contrary, it almost flopped.

And the reason was unexpected.

By the late 1940s, baking mixes were available across all grocery stores. People simply had to add water to the mix and the cake was ready!

These mixes made their way into people’s carts and ultimately, their homes. But while the mixes to make piecrusts and biscuits sold like hotcakes, sales of cake mixes (which used the same ingredients) stagnated.

Marketers speculated that the cakes tasted artificial (which was partly true thanks to the dried eggs). But there was more.

A team led by market research pioneer, Dr. Ernest Dichter, discovered that women found that the cakes baked from the simplified cake mixes didn’t feel like “theirs.”

Unlike biscuits and pie crusts, cakes are a self-contained course. They represent a special occasion and carry great emotional significance. Cake mixes made women feel guilty for cheating their family out of the specialness of a home-made cake. Women also risked disappointing their guests who would feel as though they were not treated to something special.

Dichter’s solution? Just add an egg.

So Pillsbury left out a few ingredients from the premix. When women had to add fresh eggs, milk, and oil along with water to the mix, sales shot up. The advertisements also read, “Betty Crocker Cake Mixes bring you that special Homemade goodness because you add the eggs yourself!” They implied that the women were still in charge.

When the process of baking a cake felt unchallenging, women resisted cake mixes. When women had to put in “extra” effort, they became more comfortable with cake mixes.

Then, premade frosting and elaborate decorations came in. Bakers could demonstrate their love by turning their home-made cakes into castles, football fields, and churches. And that changed the fate of cake mixes.

“You don’t have to lift a finger.”

Brands often market their wares as products that make customers’ lives so easy that they don’t have to lift a finger. Brands expect customers to love these products since they spare them work.

Rationally, this makes sense. But humans are not a rational species.

We’re driven by intense, innate fears and desires that we’re not consciously aware of. The pride of ownership, which often is a result of us putting in something, is one of these innate desires.

Behavioral economist Michael Norton noted, “People have this strong, internalized notion that effort equals quality.” Ergo, when they put effort into something, they build a meaningful connection with the end result.

Here are some examples:

IKEA earns customers’ kudos despite outsourcing the labor to them. When people put effort to build a bookshelf, even a crooked one that can barely hold all their books becomes “my bookshelf!”

People love Local Motors, where they customize and assemble their own cars with the help of “experts”. Thus, they don’t just witness the birth of their “baby,” they also contribute to it.

The most engaging stories drop clues to help the audience figure out aspects before the characters do. As a result, when the audience has revelations, they feel like Sherlock Holmes.

Humans are creators by nature.

During the earliest days, Homo Sapiens hunted and gathered food. Feeding the family and community felt meaningful and our contribution gave us a sense of pride.

We still harbor that desire to create something meaningful, to experience the sense of pride that accompanies it and feel like heroes in our own stories.

By trying to make their products heroes in customers’ lives—by trying to remove customers’ effort—brands leave users uninspired, detached, guilty even. The product turns into a commodity: something customers merely exchange for money.

Let your users engage with your product. Let them earn their victories and feel proud.

Yet, a balance is important. Too much effort puts users off as well. People stopped playing Candy Crush when the levels became impossible to win. Likewise, SAP software fell out of favor with the corporate world because navigating them felt like moving through a horror house for executives.

Summing Up

Your competitors are doing more for your customers and ironically alienating them in the process.

What can do remove? How can you do less and engage your customers? It’s something you and your team can think about over tea.

It’s best to make the tea yourself. You’ll enjoy it better.

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