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Myth of the Mousetrap

By Peter Lloyd

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Not true. That's not to disparage Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a matter of fact, the old saw about the mousetrap attributed to Emerson has been debased.

The early-American philosopher actually wrote originally:
If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
Later, he edited his remarks:
If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
Perhaps encouraged by Emerson, inventors have gone after improving the mousetrap possibly with dreams of beaten paths whether or not they live in the woods. photoThe United States Patent and Trademark Office holds more than 4,000 mousetraps patents—distinguishing the mousetrap as the most frequently invented device.

I’ve seen and tested alternative mousetraps. None beat the original. But even if you could find better mousetraps among those patents, to take the Emerson adage literally would deny the role of marketing in the modern world.

Marketing involves a chain of decisions and events that demand as much or more creativity as invention. A better mousetrap would fail like most new products without at least adequate marketing—research, strategy, communication, pricing, distribution, shelf position, promotion, and more.

As proof, inferior products, marketed more effectively than their superiors find the paths to the doors of their manufacturers broader and more hard-beaten. So no inventor should celebrate success on the day of invention. At that point your work is only half done.

Peter Lloyd worked for more than two decades in the advertising business as a writer and creative director for small and large agencies and eventually on his own as a freelance writer.

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