The “slow” movement has gained traction in living, cooking and other domains, but in marketing, a patient, deliberate approach can be risky if not fatal. Sure, marketers must still “get into customers’ minds,” but they must do it so quickly and effectively that consumers are taught nothing less than new ways of behaviour. Caveat venditor: Teach your consumers well!

New products are proliferating, and research shows that the most successful among them have clearly benefited from customers’ ease in learning the benefits and applications of those products quickly, in finding out how the devices actually work, and in sharing their knowledge with friends. In fact the very success of a tiny percentage of new products (more than 95 per cent do not succeed) underlines the reality that marketers need to teach customers and find ways to advance their learning. If not, these marketers risk having their products languish.

In successful innovation after successful innovation, consumers have learned what the manufacturer wanted them to know, left their investments in old products and knowledge behind, and embraced the new alternative. By not effectively teaching customers, manufacturers are letting them learn on their own, at their own pace and with uncertain learning – and purchase – outcomes. This article suggests that consumers can and must be taught and offers a method of teaching that is thorough, fast and effective.

Innovation depends on customers learning

Dynamic, relatively new products such as the iPod and digital cameras share a number of characteristics:

  • They did not exist a few years ago.
  • Without new technology these innovations would not have occurred.
  • The benefits of the technology-enabled products, services and processes were apparent to customers and sufficient for them to abandon previous behaviours and learn new ones.
  • Companies paid attention to customer engagement in their innovation but few actively taught customers to innovate their behaviours. Consumers did this on their own.

In the last century, product, service and process innovation was a fairly slow-moving affair. Customers had time to adjust their attitudes to incorporate the changes companies initiated, an easy-enough thing to do because the changes were often not transformative. For example, a new 1957 Chevrolet might have a larger motor, two-tone paint and vestigial fins, but the vehicle itself was essentially the same model the customer already had in the garage. There was no new technology. That the old one nevertheless would be traded in was testimony to the marketer’s considerable skill in equating “new” with “socially desirable” and “old” with the reverse.

Companies today can no longer rely on a small percentage of early adopters to create a market and future success by opening the minds of the next cohort of customers. With short, competitive windows and technology cycles, a high percentage of customers must embrace the technology quickly or the innovation will languish and soon be forgotten and disappear. Customer behaviours should change in concert with product, service or process innovation. Thus, companies need to master managing customers’ behaviours if the uptake of an innovation is to be accelerated and revenue objectives met.

Technology has changed not just the pace of innovation but its very nature. New cars do not simply have style differences. There are material changes in the technologies that make cars work, that make them safe and economical, and that connect them to the stationary world. Today’s innovative solutions usually provide similar benefits to existing offerings but in non-traditional ways, leading to the replacement of something that works well but is just not good enough anymore. Out goes the CRT television to be replaced by the oh-so-lifelike LCD or plasma flat panel. Now, unlike times past, companies find that modest change and competitive emulation are risky business. As a result, they seek to become prime movers in revolutionary change. Companies pay much attention to consumers when they innovate, but it is less common for marketers to help consumers learn and initiate their own behavioural change. A manual might accompany the OnStar satellite communication system common in many GM cars, but the new consumer still responds to non-intuitive interfaces and presses buttons in vain attempts to connect and sustain conversations. Consumers might buy the new version of Microsoft Word and still not be able to use much or most of the functional improvements. Shifting blame, the marketer might say “I provided a manual and the consumer did not read it!”

In a world where change is always accelerating, consumers must become actively engaged with innovation rather than remain passive users. They need to learn not just why it is in their interest to embrace the new and abandon the old, but how to do so successfully. If consumers’ behaviours do not change, no amount of marketing will make an innovation succeed. Marketers who yell louder into the already deaf ears of consumers will achieve results that are no better than those of that ineffective teacher we all remember from junior school. Adoption of innovation depends on the ability of marketers to change customers’ behaviour. This, in turn, depends on customers learning, and learning quickly. Marketers must act as customers’ teachers if the latter are to behave as though they are essentially inter-dependent with the innovators, as indeed they are.

Teaching customers new behaviours

Marketers have a need for teaching strategies that help customers learn, but few companies have the processes, structures and roles to develop and guide the correct use of teaching strategies. Pedagogy, as this is termed, is the art and science of teaching. Thus, corporations could employ pedagogy as part of their planning for innovation. This pedagogy would involve creating and reinforcing new customer behaviours and extinguishing old patterns of behaviours that are dysfunctional from the company’s perspective. For example, RIM may not have been thinking in terms of pedagogy when it innovated its Blackberry mobile communications device but it certainly achieved most of the desired outcomes of consumer learning. The interface is intuitive, the multiple benefits self evident, the package enticingly small and the dealers well trained to teach. So complete is the intrinsic reinforcement and social approval that consumers call Blackberrys “crackberries”, likening their benign addiction to a far more destructive one. Even the marketing muscle of previously entrenched and deep-pocketed competitors have been unable to shake RIM’s hold on this market, again summoning up the analogy of marketers yelling to deaf consumers.

Traditional marketing is based primarily on cognitive principles, according to which buyer behaviours derive from customer attitudes formed by perceptions. According to cognitive marketing principles, the pathway to purchase is accelerated when marketers create desired perceptions by initiating one of the following in the context of customers’ values, motivations and beliefs:

  • Communicating product or service benefits effectively, such as advertising the selling proposition of a laundry detergent.
  • Creating a context within which the product or service is to be used. Examples include lifestyle and celebrity advertising.
  • Positioning the brand, product or service to emphasize how it differs from competitors’ with respect of one or more key purchase criteria.

Many marketers find that traditional marketing principles no longer work as well as they once did. There are a number of reasons for this decline, the most important of which is the increasingly rapid pace of change associated with product introductions and discontinuations. Now, marketers no longer have the luxury of taking their time to inform, remind or persuade customers. Consider for example the new FLY Pentop Computer from LeapFrog, a technology company. This computerised pen, when used with special paper and software, assists students with subjects such as math, spelling and geography. LeapFrog has achieved a monumentally complex outcome by innovating both the product and ancillary requirements such as the paper, and complementary products like software, while also launching the total solution to consumers and the distribution channels. But if children do not put away their calculators, dictionaries and maps quickly enough and embrace the LeapFrog solution, the gee-whiz technology might not be sufficient to assure marketplace success. Time is tight for LeapFrog, and traditional marketing approaches might not result in sales quickly enough. They need to modify customers’ behaviours, starting with kids.

Behavioural innovation of customers is central to the accelerated success of product, service and process innovation. This depends on customers learning quickly. Unlearning, too, is important as marketers need to encourage customers to leave their entrenched behaviours and products behind, and become open to adopting an alternative. Unlearning also needs to happen faster. Learning and unlearning thus occupies a very important role in marketing, as suggested by Diagram 1.

Diagram 1: Learning and Unlearning Behavioural Change

Pedagogy for innovating customers’ behaviours

Pedagogy varies according to whether marketers consider that an emotional, cognitive or behavioural model best addresses customers’ learning behaviours. Many advertisers employ models such as the AIDA model (for Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action) to stimulate and manage customer behaviours. Although cognitive models such as this have merit for advertising, they are insufficient for describing options for teaching customers. The following table provides taxonomy for alternative pedagogies, with a hierarchy implied — first mentioned competencies or outcomes should generally be achieved before those mentioned next.

Table 1: Pedagogy for Teaching Customers

Emotional/Affective1 Cognitive2 Behavioural3
Receive Knowledge Stimulus
Respond Comprehension Response
Value Application Reward
Organize Analysis Reinforcement
Characterize Synthesis  

All three models have a place in behavioural innovation, as discussed below.


The emotional (also known as the affective domain) pedagogy first requires customer empathy and receptivity to new ideas and solutions. A well-satisfied and/or emotionally-unavailable customer is unlikely to be as open to behaviour modification as a dissatisfied but emotionally-available customer. An early challenge for a marketer employing this model is to connect emotionally with the customer, posit a problem and offer a solution, thereby simultaneously creating dissatisfaction and dissonance to extinguish inappropriate behaviours while creating new and desirable ones. The following is a hypothetical example: Toyota could conceivably identify owners of older models of gas-guzzling, eight cylinder cars as potential targets for their hybrid, fuel efficient vehicles. The challenge for Toyota would then be to determine the emotional availability and information receptivity of this customer cluster. Research could be conducted to understand how this cluster learns emotionally and cognitively, perhaps exploring issues such as valuable content, authority figures and the development of learning communities. If developing a learning community, Toyota might message this cluster and seek a response to the emotional and behavioural signals the company sends, generally one small step at a time. That is, there should be evidence of an emotional connection, not just behavioural compliance. Consumers need to value the information they receive and put it in the context of their beliefs, motivations and values. Continuing with the hypothetical example of a learning community, could Toyota create an online Green Club of and for current Toyota Hybrid owners that potential owners could approach directly to listen to and learn from? Depending upon how this cluster learns, such an approach might help consumers embrace the Toyota vision of “green,” and accommodate Toyota’s approach as personal characteristics within their very being, helping to further improve Toyota’s brand equity. In this case, Toyota may have little to do with the actual teaching other than setting up the initial community and driving traffic to it.


In the taxonomy of cognitive pedagogy referenced in Table 1, consumers would need to know that an innovation had been created before they could understand it fully. This corresponds in part with the A in the AIDA model — Awareness. More than this, if the customer is to have knowledge about a possible solution, he or she should have sufficient mastery and recall of the subject matter to be able to comprehend and appreciate the potential benefits to be had from the innovation. To illustrate: just a few years ago customers did not understand the importance of carbon dioxide emissions. So innovations that reduced such emissions did not achieve much success at that time. Once the customer has knowledge of and can comprehend the importance of the innovation, the customer must be able to appreciate how to put the innovation to use. This is where the marketer has an important role to play in communicating, demonstrating and otherwise teaching how the innovation can solve customers’ problems. Then customers can analyze their observations and perceptions of meaning, and synthesize the recently acquired understanding with existing knowledge to create a new, integrated whole. Finally, customers are in a position to make a reasoned choice both in the marketplace and with respect to keeping their current solution.


Behavioural pedagogy considers how to reinforce desired behaviours using the so-called stimulus response model. In this regard, the name Pavlov rings a bell for many marketers. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian psychologist, physician and physiologist who taught dogs to salivate on demand. The work of the American psychologist, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), is also of interest to behavioural marketers. Skinner developed the operant conditioning model whereby he demonstrated that people learn to modify their initial behaviours depending on the success of behavioural outcomes. Many marketers subscribe to these theories of learning to reinforce existing behaviours. For example, a soft drink company might show a hot desert scene in in-theatre advertising, stimulating an exodus of patrons to the concessions to satisfy their thirst. In another example, loyalty programs that give customers points for their purchases are essentially mechanisms that reinforce and stimulate similar behaviour, much as stars and stickers motivate students and reinforce their performance. Marketers generally use price to change undesirable behaviours, as some banks do when they charge customers more for service within the branch in order to steer customers to the ATMs. As in this example, unlearning is important if Luddite behaviours are to be extinguished. It remains among the hardest of tasks for marketers to conceive and master with sensitivity and effectiveness.

Corporate pedagogy for teaching customers

Corporate pedagogy for teaching customers needs explicit treatment in most companies and ought to recognize the interaction between the company’s own innovation process and objective-setting for customer learning capabilities.

Diagram 2: Innovation Process and Customer Learning

Market success that depends on the behavioural change of customers requires that this behavioural innovation occur simultaneously with, or lag only slightly behind, product innovation. By linking customer learning capabilities with the innovation process, each aspect of innovation could potentially interact with an element of customer learning. For example, the design phase of innovation might be used to assure the company that customers have sufficient knowledge to use the product’s interface. The development phase of the innovation process might be used to create, among early adopters, customer knowledge and comprehension through sampling or test-marketing. Apple Computer has long been particularly astute not only in developing eye-popping, simple designs but in understanding how to make it easy for customers to use previously complex technologies and be rewarded by benefit delivery. The iPod, iPhone and Mac OS are cases in point. Press a button – hear music. Press another button – surf the Internet. And so on. Apple makes its products very simple to use and easy to know at the design stage so that customers will need little or no training. Simplicity of use has long been a central element of Apple’s design philosophy.

Having identified objectives for the customers’ learning capabilities, companies can consider and optimize the various touch points by which customers connect to the company, as they go through their purchasing and consumption lifetime. That is, companies can determine how learning objectives are to be achieved through the various channels of connection such as advertising, the Internet, call centers, direct mail, installation, personal sales and invoicing.

Companies that have adopted Customer Relationship Management (CRM) strategies and technologies usually seek to create and maintain a learning relationship with individual customers. If they achieve their goals, these companies will understand individual customers well enough to predict their future needs and to know just when the customer is likely to be ready to buy. To date, few companies have used their CRM solutions to develop meaningful learning relationships with individuals and fewer still have applied pedagogy to helping individual customers learn. This remains an opportunity for many firms.

In slow-moving marketplaces, customers can assimilate an innovation over a long period and eventually make their purchase decisions. Today, however, few markets move slowly. Indeed, intense competition and rapidly advancing technology make patient marketing a risky approach, especially when it comes to managing customers’ behaviours. The behavioural changes upon which companies depend are learned by customers and must be taught by companies so that customers only use self-help when the company wishes this to occur. This highlights the importance of companies developing pedagogy to help customers learn. It also emphasizes the need for marketers to become teachers, setting learning objectives for their customers and planning customer curriculum in each phase of the innovation process and across all channels of customer connection.

1 Designing Effective Instruction, Morrison, G.R., Ross, S.M., Kemp, J.E., published by John Wiley & Sons, 2004
2 Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Benjamin S. Bloom. published by Allyn and Bacon, 1984
3 Consumer Behaviour, Evans, M., Jamal A., Foxall, G., published by John Wiley & Sons, 2006