Author: Dr. Nicole Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

Queen of Hearts

In Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the question “Why is a raven like a writing desk” first appears. If you need a refresher, here is a clip of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Disney’s 1951 animated Alice in Wonderland film.

Question: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Answer: A raven is not like a writing desk, and it doesn’t matter why.

We as human beings are inherently interested in riddles, solving problems and finding solutions. Those most successful in your industry are problem solvers (aka the people with solutions). But was the problem they solved even worth solving? Does it actually matter?

Carroll himself proposed an answer to the raven/writing desk riddle in a preface to a later version of his work but openly admitted no answer was originally intended. I myself am a devoted Alice fan as she has much to teach us about the perils and trials of sound decision making (spoiler alert: consuming one mushroom in the forest with undesirable outcomes might cause one to pause before assuming the solution to one’s next challenge is a different mushroom). To get down to the heart of the matter:

How much time is wasted answering questions for which there are no answers? And worse, how much time and effort do we spend celebrating ourselves or others for having answered them? 

Particularly in the agricultural industries where consumers feel far away from our fields and grain handling facilities in their supermarkets and restaurants, we embark on questions for which I wonder if there are answers. More fundamentally, is the question the right one, and does it even matter?

What are pertinent questions for your business in the realm of understanding consumers? Spending time, money and energy determining why truck buyers don’t typically pay a premium for bubblegum pink colored trucks (or that mint Tic Tac reminiscent color that Dodge attempted back in the late 90s) seems unnecessary when one could simply paint trucks a color that consumers actually do desire. Spending time, money and energy determining why consumers are concerned about GMO use in food systems facilitates progress in feeding a growing population while using less chemicals on our fields. Thus, deeper understanding of consumer demand for products with and without GM technology seems like an investment with probable positive ROI. In the heat of the moment and faced with our own dollars (and egos) at stake, it becomes difficult to discern which of the above two situations we are facing.

While I posit there is much the agricultural supply chains can learn from consumer demand and understanding consumer perceptions, we need to realize what is ‘interesting’ or ‘nice to know’ versus what is ‘actionable’. Without this knowledge, one runs the risk of spending time and money answering the question “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”