Excerpts from Chapter 8: Shared Insights and Experiences / Is There a Better Mousetrap?

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Is There A Better Mousetrap?

The well-known and often repeated “mousetrap” analogy comes from the old adage that states “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The meaning is that customers are attracted to a product or service that is an improvement over existing products or services in the same category—and that learning how to do it is one giant step on the road to success.

Attributed to a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal in 1855, the quote may actually have been written in 1889 by Sarah S.B. Yule and Mary S. Keene, who were paraphrasing Emerson when they wrote “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

In any case, the phrase has become a widely quoted, and almost universally accepted, axiom in the field of marketing. It tells us that the marketplace will be responsive to quality.

Emerson actually used the examples of “better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs” rather than mousetraps, but the mousetrap analogy is more illustrative. This is so because the current mousetrap design has been used for more than a century without significant change. This means that a “better mousetrap,” if it were to be built, would indeed be a revolutionary product. As Jeff Taylor points out, “The better mousetrap is really illusive because the basic mousetrap still works best. To say that you’ve built a better mousetrap is kind of an oxymoron.”
Taylor observed that “Today, a lot of the innovation is not about mousetrap building—it’s about what color to paint the mousetrap. It’s about how you get it in front of people to show how impressive the spring is, and about your ability to market and sell that mousetrap. If you look at Monster, our jobs business is still 50 percent of our business, and our resume business is 30 percent. These two products were in development as early as 1993, so for more than a decade, we’ve been pressing the accelerator on how to get these two products to more and more companies, and to more and more job seekers.”

Elaborating on the smaller examples of the spring and the color of the trap, Taylor said that for him, creating brand awareness was a fundamental “spring.”

“Developing your aided and unaided brand awareness is an art, not a science,” he says. “It was a long-term effort to get us to the place where nine out of ten adults working in the United States know what Monster is. There are some brands that go through their entire life cycle without anyone knowing what they really are.”
When we asked Gary Hirshberg how he had tried to build his better mousetrap, he replied by saying: “First I’ll explain what the mousetrap is that I’m trying to build, and I would use the present tense not the past. This is because I think we’re always at the starting line. This is a continuous improvement process, you’re never done. Conventional consumer products have the same basic algorithm that you are always trying to make the product as cheap as you possibly can.”

He went on to cite the example of Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola, and how they build their existing, and essentially unchanging, mousetraps: “They use sugar water, corn syrup solids and some coloring. There is nothing really cheaper than that. There is no nutritional value, no food, and no meaning. The point of this is that you can take the huge gross margins that are left over to purchase advertising, and to buy media. Of course, in examples involving advertising, you use the media to get an ‘awareness trial,’ and ultimately, you hope, loyalty.”

As Hirshberg suggests, there is a baseline level of product quality in every product category, and that competing with that baseline often involves building a better advertising campaign rather than building a better mousetrap.
“If you believe as I do, that a consumable item that goes into a yogurt container should be something edible—as radical as that notion may be—then you right away buy into the idea that you’re not going to cut costs,” he explains. “In my case, I’m trying to feed people not only healthy food and nutritious food, but I’m also trying to feed the farmers that sustain us. I’m trying to rebuild the food system and a supply chain. By definition, this means that my gross margins are at a disadvantage to my competitors, and this means that I can’t afford advertising. However, as you can see, our business has grown north of 23 percent for over a dozen straight years. Recently, we grew 45 percent in a category that has traditionally grown between five and eight percent. I’m now the number three yogurt brand nationally, and the number one organic yogurt brand globally.”

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