Push or Pull? …but only if the answer is Push

One of the biggest squabbles in corporate strategy is the “Push vs Pull” debate. Is it better to push technology into the market (‘build it and they will come’) or is it better to focus on finding customer problems first (create ‘pull’ for your products by finding pain points)? Supply or demand? It isn’t a trivial question.

Big companies like to push stuff. Companies exist to sell more things like the things they already sell. Looking out the corporate window, businesses see a world full of places to cram their products.

Companies start with “core competences,” assets or R&D they want desperately to commercialize. Universities and government research organizations do this too. They make stuff, so they want to push it into the world and – based on the pure awesomeness of the stuff itself – they hope for billion dollar businesses. While it sometimes works, Push too often leads to technologies looking for applications; hammers looking for nails. That’s why some big companies have vast caverns of amazing technology rotting away on dusty shelves.

Business people on the Push side like to deliver better performance along clear, well-articulated historical customer needs. This is usually the preference of engineers, scientists, finance people, efficiency consultants and executives under insane pressure to deliver unrealistic growth.

Customers like to pull stuff. Customers experience a different reality. From the customer perspective, nothing is quite as off-putting as having a company trying to push stuff on you. Customers don’t wake up asking “how can I buy higher volumes of elastic substrates with good thermal properties from Company X?” Instead, customers prefer to not buy anything, or to buy things only as a last resort.

Business people who accept this end up in the “Pull” or “demand” camp. They like to search for unmet customer needs. This is usually the realm of liberal arts graduates, ethnographers, innovation consultants, “design thinking” fans and armchair psychologists.

The push versus pull fight has been going on for decades, not because there isn’t resolution, but because the resolution isn’t what big companies and policy-makers want to hear.

The raw truth is: companies want to push, customers want to pull, and customers usually win.

It may be reality, but it isn’t convenient. Often, companies don’t feel they have the luxury of Pull. Sure, Pull sounds nice, but in the cold real world, managers need to hit steep growth goals quickly, consistently and forever. Push is something they can act on: pay engineers to build stuff, pay marketing people to try and sell it. They can create milestones and targets. They can talk to customers and spec out usage requirements, demand forecasts, factory space. Yang comes more naturally to action-oriented corporate cultures than Yin, especially when there are tight deadlines.

By comparison, Pull feels like a less practical “soft” notion of poking around for ethnographic insights that may – or may not – result in anything actionable for the company. An inherent challenge in Pull is that unmet customer needs, if you find them, don’t necessarily line up with what a company sells. It doesn’t help a hammer company to learn what customers really need is a better nail, which the company doesn’t make. Or better yet, what if the customers prefer a solution that doesn’t require hammering at all? Managers feel burned when Pull results in ideas that are seen as wild-eyed or unrelated to a company’s core; applications without ties to the company’s technologies; nails that don’t need its hammers.

Push or Pull?

Obviously it doesn’t have to be a binary thing. Most companies have some Push and some Pull efforts underway at any time. So maybe the question is: “under what circumstances is it more effective to Push, and when is it better to Pull?”

Our research finds Push seems to work when companies sell their existing core products into existing core markets. For example, Push is fine if you’re Nike selling new basketball shoes to high school athletes via the Nike Store. Nike can cook up new combinations of materials and design in its famous “Kitchen” and push such innovations through a pre-existing, world-class sales and marketing infrastructure that’s been perfecting itself since the 1960s for this very purpose. When it comes to basketball shoes, Nike knows what customers want, why they buy, how they buy, where they buy, how much they’ll pay and who they’re competing with. As a huge market leader, in this case Push can make a lot of sense.

In contrast, Pull is usually more effective (than Push) when companies enter new markets. For example, when Nike launched the FuelBand in 2012 (a wearable bracelet like FitBit), it found itself in a new market with high degrees of uncertainty around what customers wanted, what they’d buy, how they’d buy it, where they’d buy it, how much they’d pay for it and who else would try to compete with them. Despite strong initial sales, Nike ended up discontinuing the FuelBand in 2014 and laid off a bunch of the team. New markets with high degrees of uncertainty aren’t the time or place to Push. Far better to listen.

Push vs Pull

Nothing is less practical than doing something that doesn’t work. Use Push when it works, but for goodness sake don’t force it onto circumstances when it’s the wrong tool for the job. In other words, Push is a disproportionately bad strategy when entering uncertain new markets.  Rather than debating which is “better,” the real question is “when” each is better. I hope this is helpful and that I haven’t been too pushy.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jeremy K.

    Nice one as always Thomas. Thanks for a way to think about it.

  2. Philippe

    Very good advice for innovative startups. Don’t try to push our innovation on a (yet) non-existing market. Get customers and let them pull you.

  3. Mike

    Product push, manufacturing push and warehouse push are the three most common “business illnesses” I come across in consultancy. The answer form those businesses is to sell harder, sell more. The real answer is to be market driven (unless you are big enough to drive the market) – listen, assess, build differentiated offerings and properly research and segment.

  4. Alvin

    Good points, well made. I like it.

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