Having spent years working on consumer brands in “low involvement” categories where people devote little conscious thought to their purchase and consumption behaviors, I have seen a tendency for those in charge of brand innovation to rely on “out-of-the-box thinking” to identify new opportunities that will hopefully bring excitement and growth to their businesses. After personally experiencing many different approaches to innovation, it has become clear to me that understanding where the box is in the first place is critical, and the challenge to unlocking real growth is more in expanding the box rather than ignoring it. Understanding and expanding the box requires a discipline that, unfortunately, doesn’t lend itself to the kind of theatre and unburdened ideation that most companies hire outside innovation resources for. It means first immersing yourself in the box consumers are in rather than looking outside the box for inspiration, so that the ideas that surface are ones that are built from the real needs (or, in innovation parlance, the “jobs”) consumers have and the frustrations they have with current offerings.
What I found is that in the search for big ideas, sometimes small ones or ones that didn’t seem “out there” enough were actually transformative to consumers. If I had to define the approach, it would be in how to expand the consumer box or frame of reference (i.e. the set of products or offerings they choose from to fill a given need/job in a given occasion) to change their perceptions, thereby opening up new sources of volume.
There are three major ideas that occurred to me after much painful role-playing:
The consumer’s frame of reference isn’t defined by the existing manufacturer product category
Adjacent categories, in the perception of consumers, provide meaningful benefits that can be adapted and are transformative
Nuanced innovation can be a breakthrough and transformative
While there are probably a number of techniques or different processes to uncover innovation, there are really three phases of opportunity identification and development:
Immersion in the occasion-based needs of the target to identify need gaps that were often better delivered by products in the broader frame of reference
This step requires understanding what needs people have in certain occasions or situations and what they are currently doing to address those needs. Often the set of solutions they look to can fall short of the ideal, but convenience needs or other constraints limit their options.
For example, in situations where paper towels are used, there are situations where a more substantial cloth towel may be desirable (for tougher cleaning situations, for example), but concern over having to either throw the cloth towel out afterward or go through the added step of washing it makes the cloth towel option untenable. Bounty Duratowel provides a viable solution, nicely fusing the benefits of a paper towel with those of a cloth towel.
Opportunity identification and creative development – adding benefits from other relevant categories
This step involves adapting benefits not found in a specific solution set but that are relevant to the need at hand.
For example, when you think about cleaning occasions that involve removing marks or splotches, there are situations involving everything from scrubbing to covering up or erasing. Mr. Clean brought the concept of erasing to situations that would have previously called for much more involvement and work with the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.
Bringing the opportunity to life, with input from consumers
Moving from an idea to a compelling new proposition can be as nuanced as identifying the new idea in the first place. Packaging communication and copy need to reinforce the proposition’s benefit in a way most salient to the consumer target or risk losing relevance, despite the benefit itself being meaningful. An iterative approach, where many different potential concept executions are shown to consumers with “live” packaging and product stimulus, and then refined based on their input, can be very effective in bringing the proposition to life in a way that “wows” the target audience.
Bai5 Antioxidant Infusions is a good example of an execution that is presented in a contemporary way and probably leaves the consumer feeling smart and “on the leading edge” for choosing the brand in the first place. The consumer’s needs for healthy, “clean” refreshment are addressed in a way that also connects emotionally.
The approach outlined above may seem methodical, and to lack pizzazz. But, the end result can be innovation that addresses a subtle unmet need in a powerful, emotional way that connects with consumers’ real needs and that builds from the way they are using products and making purchase decisions currently. It starts “in the box” but brings inspiration from other adjacent categories and markets to drive nuanced, breakthrough innovation that truly changes the consumer experience.