Motivational lessons from Betty Crocker, IKEA & the Industrial Revolution

April 13, 2013 § 11 Comments

BCCakeMixIn 1952, the Betty Crocker brand rolled out its Cake Mix.  A powder in a box that housewives were asked to add in water, mix, put it an oven, and voila, they would have cake. This was predicted to be a popular product.  But as it turned out, it wasn’t.

Research was done and findings showed that the problem wasn’t the cost, taste, texture or look of the product.  Also, no problem with the “fresh, home-made” quality, as advertised. The problem, according to the psychologists, were the eggs. They found, that for the housewives, it was too easy a cake to make.  They weren’t putting in enough effort.  It was so easy, that nobody could serve cake to their guests, feel ownership, say “here’s my cake!”  It felt like someone else’s.  So what did Betty Crocker do? They took the eggs out of the powder. The act of breaking eggs & adding them turned sales around dramatically.

It’s like the IKEA effect.  People compliment me on my new bookshelf unit.  I know it’s cheap furniture, and I don’t particularly enjoy putting it together, nor would I give the logo-ikea-atlantainstructions an A+,  but I am guilty of feeling proud when I hear the compliment.  And I love the unit!  The fact is, I (and you) tend to love stuff more when we put more effort into it. It’s like me with my 16 year old son.  If you asked me how much money I would want in order to agree to sell him to you, I would say you’re crazy.  Not for $100 million! (on a good day).  But if he wasn’t my son, and I had the occasion to meet him, and spend a day with him, and then you offered to sell him to me what price would I pay to be his father? Would $100m reflect the value I believe I would receive? I won’t answer that, but you get the point.

So, what does this mean to us as leaders and managers?  The great economist, Adam Smith, wrote about a pin factory.  He said that it takes 12 steps to make a pin. Smith also said that when one person does all 12 steps, production is low, but if we have an assembly line with 12 experts in a row, production increases by a lot.  Thus the Industrial Revolution was spawned.

However, this situation also produces alienation and disengagement from work, and in the case of the pin factory, the workers eventually don’t care as much about the pin as the craftsman who made a whole pin.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was a manageable problem. At the end of the production line, there was a quality control guy who threw the rejects into a bin.  My manufacturing and engineering friends – and likely the rest of us – now know this is not the best way to make stuff.

The reality of the 21st century is that we have switched to a knowledge economy, where meaning may be more important than (or at least equal to) efficiency.  People now have to decide more on their own, and as boundaries between personal and work time blur, how much of our effort, attention, focus and heart go into our work as we live our lives? What helps us stay engaged and motivated?

So, when thinking about motivation, think more than $.  Think meaning, challenge, ownership, identity and pride. From what I’ve seen, when those are in place, you also get more productivity.

For more on this, visit the TED Talk that inspired this post:  Dan Ariely’s TED Talk: What Makes us Feel Good About Our Work.



§ 11 Responses to Motivational lessons from Betty Crocker, IKEA & the Industrial Revolution

  • Ryan K says:

    Watched this Ted Talk just yesterday and immediately shared it with my team – great stuff!

  • John Halper says:

    Hey Allen, Interesting post. This is not exactly the same issue, but along the lines of the Betty Crocker perception problem, I recall that many years ago when the first spreadsheet applications were being published, a company brought a spreadsheet to market with a price tag of around $29. It didn’t sell well, but when they increased the price to $69 (without changing any other aspects of the product) it took off. John _____

    • Thanks for posting John. I think what you’re saying IS very similar. Putting a higher price on something implies (to most of us) that it is of higher value, and we like it more. I was just on Ebay and bought a book. One vendor offered the same book for more than 3X others’ prices. That one didn’t snag me.

  • Bob Faw says:

    Great insights, as usual, Allen. I think you should join the author club. You have real writing talent. I like the concept of, if you put some effort into it, you value it more.

  • Inspirational, as usual. Definitely explains why my students who founded a social enterprise are having a hard time getting Freshmen to be interested. It’s “their baby” and there’s no giving away ownership of your own child. Nonetheless, they, and other founders just like them have the continuing challenge of finding meaningful ways of involving new people so they can enjoy the work, too.

    • Thanks Diane. Yes, a challenge to get the adopters on board. Maybe the challenge is to let them be “adapters” some how. In my training work I’m so much more engaged when I’m given permission to make the content my own by adding and transforming.

  • Thiago Ladeira says:

    Hey Allen, a really good and inspiring post. Most of the time we simply forget to look to our employees as a human that have feelings, thoughts and wishes. Once we understand their needs we will be able to get their maximum.
    Regards, Thiago Ladeira.

  • Chris Love, Project Manager, GE Healthcare says:

    as always common sense prevails and i always enjoy being reminded of it as we often get tunnel vision as managers and forget to step back to make sure the work we assign our teams is meaningful and connected to some purpose. I think the article you shared with us also carries that message – connect your employee to the work and productivity will increase.

    Keep them coming – love the articles!

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