How to Design Better Solutions for “The Poor”

A lot of my work over the last decade or so had to do with providing market-based solutions for under-served people (the “Bottom of Pyramid”) and making sure these solutions actually get there and get used.

Harder than it sounds. But I love it. You approach “the poor” no different than any enterprise would approach any consumer group. You collect insights, segment and then convert that into strategies. Sometimes these strategies succeed and other times they fail. That’s how things work on any market. But you should always know when is when as numbers rarely lie and markets are very good at giving you brutal, honest feedback. We must always listen, learn and tinker. Then Repeat.

There is a lot we have not the slightest idea about – people are irrational and no-one can predict behavior 100%. Markets are temperamental and consumers – poor or not – are mostly unpredictable. And very often our behavior goes against our rational interest (not saying anything new here, right?).

But among the preciously few things I do know with certainty – in fact I believe this deeply – is that treating “the poor” as a monolithic, homogeneous segment is a very, very bad idea.

And it is an even worse idea to position a product or a service for “the poor”, where the poor are defined as a one-size fits all archetype in which you lump together more than half of a country’s population and then try to push down their throats some bland product off the back of a truck.

But the worse idea of all is to engage in pseudo-research (often designed and interpreted by a “technical” committee) that may lead to the conclusion that the best way to make this product attractive to “the poor” is to put on the package a picture of a stereotypical “poor” person (in a dignified pose of course).

As if poor people love nothing more than engaging with products that remind them they are poor. Poverty is not some sort of identity, worn with pride and dignity by a community that loves to express themselves by purchasing products designed for them.

You would be amazed how common this mistake is made in the Aid/ Development world. I have folders full of examples: product packages; communication campaigns; brands and logos; brochures.

Many of these projects could have a lot more impact if they would be designed by principles that are taken for granted on any other market. Be insight-driven. Start with the consumer experience and work backwards to your project. Segment for need states and moments. Acknowledge poverty as an important factor (scarcity does affect behavior), but always treat people as the highly diverse, complicated, emotionally complex creatures that we all are, poor or not.

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