If you want to see one of the best examples of a great use of marketing theory, watch American Idol.

For a long time now, we marketers have been using a “push” approach to new products. Expressions you have probably heard include “Let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes”; “Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks”; and, from my days in England, “Will the punters buy?”

Two well-known academics, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, called such an approach by a fancier name, “Expeditionary Marketing.” Japanese electronic giants would launch dozens of new products a year and let the gadget-loving market dictate which ones should be launched worldwide based on their purchases. Not a bad idea in some sectors; however, it can burn up a lot of resources.

Well, leave it to TV game shows to invent new marketing methods that actually work.

American Idol has developed a marketing method that creates guaranteed top-selling CDs. The show began two summers ago when thousands of Americans between the ages of 16 and 26 lined up to audition to become the next pop star.

Last year, over 50,000 auditioners turned out. This huge group was narrowed to 100, and over a 30-week period (through the polling of TV viewers who either called in, emailed, or used text messaging) viewers selected their favorite singer.

That group was further sliced and diced until only one proud contestant (Rueben Studdard) was left standing as the ultimate champion.

It sounds like a popularity contest doesn't it? Well it is! The most popular product sells the most. Here, in Canada, winner Ryan Malcolm's first single, “Something More,” quickly become the number-one seller.

The lesson to be learned here: involve your customers as early as possible. How early? In the case of Canadian Idol and Star Académie, the viewers where involved from where the group was narrowed to 100 contestants. After that, it was the constant feedback from the viewing audience that shaped the look, feel and music that the idol hopefuls sang.

I know what you're thinking: I don't have a game show, and I don't sell CDs. So how can anyone not in the entertainment business apply this to another type of organization?

The formula is as follows:

  • Step 1. Start with what you know. Better yet, start with what your customers know of you. Continue to advertise in the ways that you always have. Once you make contact with your customers, make sure that they can return the favor. From your traditional marketing methods, whether print ads or commercials, make sure customers can have a way of giving you feedback. The way Canadian Idol did it was through email, text message or phone. These all work; it depends on the detail of response that you want.

  • Step 2. Let your customers know you are listening. The show did this by keeping the performers that the audience liked and ousting the rest. For your business, if they send you an email, send them one back saying thanks for your time, and your opinion matters to us.

  • Step 3. Now that you have created a feedback loop with your customers, or what in the industry is known as an open relationship, keep it going until you find out exactly what it is that your customers want.

  • Step 4. Now that you know exactly what your customers want, make your product to the exact specification of your customers' requests. Companies that have been doing this for years include Nike, with its design-your-own-shoes-online strategy, and the furniture industry here in good-old Montreal.

Nike has used its traditional ads to lure customers online. Then Nike does data mining: it tracks what its consumers are checking out and collects stats on their likes and dislikes, fine tuning its products and then posting them again.

Small furniture manufacturers in Montreal have a similar marketing strategy. These companies design a wide variety of chairs and couches (but only a few of each) and then place them in stores. When a customer sees something they like, they order it. The most successful end up being mass-produced and sold to stores like Brault & Martineau to be consumed by the masses. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

So, before you run your next new product up a flagpole or throw your product against the wall, think of your customer and ask, “What would they do on American Idol?”

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Karl Moore is an associate professor of marketing strategy at the Faculty of Management, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
Mark is a doctoral student in marketing, at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.