Eating the Dog’s Food

Philip Berne - Oct 26, 2010
Eating the Dog’s Food

I knew a woman who worked for a packaged goods company. She worked on snack foods, but the company, a huge, multi-national conglomerate, also made high quality pet foods. If you visited her at work, her desk would be covered in the crunchy snacks she helped create. Next to her desk, her neighbor had an unfortunate supply of rat poison, the product on which he worked. A few desks down, a co-worker kept an open bowl of dog treats on the desk.

“Do you folks get a lot of dogs visiting?” I asked, assuming that he was keeping treats around for four-legged guests.

“No,” she said. “He eats those.”

[Image credit: torisan3500]

Before you gag, you should know these treats are perfectly safe for human consumption. They may not be ideal, but they are completely edible, and probably even nutritious. Okay, now gag.

There’s a term in the tech world, and elsewhere, called “dogfooding.” It means to use one’s own product. To eat one’s own dogfood, as it were. I was once standing in line at 5 Guys Burger and Fries when the woman in front of me asked for a different soft drink cup. The cup they offered had a Coca-Cola logo printed on it.

“I work for Dr. Pepper / Snapple,” she said. That beverage company’s headquarters is just down the road.

“We have Dr. Pepper here,” the cashier replied.

“But the cup has a Coke logo on it. I can’t be seen drinking from that cup, and I definitely can’t take it back to work with me.”

They had no alternative cup, so the woman didn’t buy a soda that day. Sound overboard? Not to me.

The best reason for encouraging, perhaps even forcing your employees to be loyal to your brand is because it is a guaranteed way to make your brand better. If you work for a company that is trying to be the best at what it does, you need to always work to improve your product. If a person who works at Hershey actually prefers Mars candy, but he is forced to eat only Hershey products, logic says that he would work to make Hershey a better product until it was the candy he preferred.

In a Q&A with the New York Times, Melinda Gates confirmed the urban legend that there are no Apple products in the Gates household. Gates catches a lot of flack for this, but why not insist on Microsoft, if Microsoft can make a similar product in the same category? If Microsoft let all of its employees use iPods (and they might, I have no idea), would the Zune HD have been created? Maybe not. But with all of those employees drooling over a better music player coming out of Apple, it’s easy to imagine that the product team behind the Zune HD, a wonderful player in its own right, had a simple goal in mind.

Create something that you yourself want to use.

I remember when Toyota issued its major recall last year. The Toyota CEO, Akio Toyoda, after whose family the company is named, gave a statement from Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending an economic summit. After he finished speaking, he got into an Audi and drove away. I remember almost every headline, like this one from Left Lane News, mentioned the Audi. I couldn’t imagine a bigger faux pas from an auto exec.

Ford executives should drive Fords. Chevy execs should drive Chevrolets. If the car isn’t good enough for the folks who run the company, it certainly isn’t good enough for the rest of us.

There are exceptions, perhaps. I know of a major phone manufacturer exec who was once caught at a party with an Apple iPhone. He claimed he was doing competitive research. That’s probably a good thing. After all, how can Microsoft engineers know that they want an iPod unless they are familiar with the device. To some extent, you don’t want the new device tainting your impressions, you want to create something new and original. But you also have to understand the market and your competition. If you don’t understand why people liked the iPod so much, you probably won’t be able to improve upon it.

Unfortunately, the party at which that phone exec was caught was a launch event for one of the company’s most important phones to date. If he has the iPhone for competitive reasons, he must have a personal or business phone, too, right? That’s the one to bring to the launch party, the personal phone, not the one made by the competition.

Say what you will about Apple bias in the media, there is no arguing that Apple makes some great products. I’ve heard that Apple does not use focus groups for its products. The internal team makes all of the product decisions. The best description I’ve heard of Apple? Apple is a research and design company to make cool products for one rich gentleman, and that gentleman will also sell you the stuff he makes.

There’s a real question about whether a democratic product creation process is beneficial to the end user. Microsoft bragged endlessly about the thousands of teenagers involved in creating the Microsoft KIN. And how did that work out? It probably was not the focus group testing that killed the KIN, but it did make me wonder whether it is better to have a creative, evil genius at the top dictating your product strategy, or a thousand screaming teenagers at the bottom, with their best ideas bubbling up.

On the Web, a few execs have me wondering how much they eat their own company’s dog food. Mark Zuckerberg rarely posts anything on his own Facebook wall. In the past year, he has created 10 public posts. He recently posted his first question to the Facebook Questions feature. As far as I can tell, he’s never used Facebook Places.

The reason I bring this up is because Zuckerberg is often criticized for being out of touch with the demands and concerns of the average Facebook user. Between the privacy issues, the contentious site redesigns and the intrusive apps with their questionable tactics for making a profit, among numerous other issues, I question whether Zuckerberg is eating his own dog food. Clearly the guy has a fascinating, genuine world view when it comes to privacy vs. openness and sharing. Of course, there are security concerns when you are the world’s youngest billionaire. I think he would be more convincing not only if he practiced what he preached, but if he also ate the same meal he was trying to feed the rest of us.

Must Read Bits & Bytes