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Inspiration for Innovation: Discerning Opportunities for New Products

June 7, 2019

By Morgan Strawn

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Marketers' role in developing consumer insights gives them a seat at the table where organizations can capitalize on those insights to generate ideas for new products. To seize the opportunity that such a position provides, marketers may find it valuable to consider some approaches that others have used to generate innovations.


Ethnographic Research

In many traditional cases, the ideas behind innovative new products have been the result of the careful observation of consumers and their needs and challenges. Procter & Gamble's Freshies, for instance, owed their birth to such an empirical study. Researchers noticed that women often do not leave their deodorant in their bathrooms, but rather carry it with them in handbags and cars to reapply it during the day. To afford women more discreetness and convenience, Procter & Gamble developed Secret Freshies, a golf-ball-sized deodorant dispenser that could fit comfortably in even the most petite clutch purse.

Though the power of observation was critical to developing such a product, before exercising it, the company had to have an idea of what it was looking for — namely, nuisances that crop up for people in the course of using their consumer packaged goods. Below are a number of other contexts in which product developers may be able to identify new opportunities.


Genericized Trademarks

Craig Dubitsky, the founder of Hello Products, has observed, "if you call a whole category by a brand name, then you know there's an opportunity." All commercially available lip balm could once be referred to as "chapstick." The genericized trademark indicated considerable room for innovations around the margins of that narrow definition. Dubitsky took advantage of this opportunity while involved with the EOS brand of lip balm, which now comes in the shape of a sphere and in once-unconventional flavors, such as summer fruit.

Product developers are sometimes challenged to "think outside the box;" a category such as chapstick can make that easier by presenting them with a "box" so small that it rules out relatively few product permutations.


Old Products, New Technological Enhancements

Existing products aren't always obsolesced by new technology; on the contrary, they're sometimes primed for a second life by the very innovations that could have threatened to obviate them. Product developers need only be alert to the congruities shared by old and new and capitalize on them. Emergent and traditional media, for instance, need not offer up an either/or proposition, as NordSüd Verlag proved with its Sound Book app.

Rather than assuming that digital audio represented a replacement for hard copies of books, the Swiss publisher discerned how the two could dovetail with one another. To enhance the reading experience that parents share with their children, the publisher commissioned an app that augmented storybooks with complementary soundscapes.

The Sound Book app generates an extra layer of audio to accompany the story that parents read aloud to their children. Using voice recognition software, the app plays sound effects from an audio databank to reflect the activity in the story, thus adding a new dimension to the reading experience. For instance, if the story describes a character walking through the snow, the app plays a trudging sound at the same time. NordSüd Verlag thus preserves the cherished social aspect of reading aloud to children while enhancing it with features made possible by digital technology.


Old Product, New Personalization

New technologies can be used to enhance products not just in standardized ways but in personalized ones as well. Take, the Colgate E1 Connect Toothbrush. With users' permission, the device allows Colgate to examine and analyze users' teeth-brushing data to provide them with oral-care coaching. Brushing data is stored in the handle and is automatically uploaded to the Colgate app on a user's iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth. Over time, the device's learning algorithm develops recommendations based on a user's individual brushing patterns and shares ways to improve his or her brushing performance. The Check Up feature provides a personalized mouth map to show where a user brushed and where he or she missed, enabling improvement over time.


In addition to helping consumers to improve the ways that they use a product, personalization technologies can also improve their approach to selecting a product in the first place. Companies like Consumer Reports have made livelihoods selling guidance to shoppers looking for the best product in a given category, and new innovations can create opportunities to help shoppers identify, with even more precision, the best product to suit their own situations and needs. The start-up Techturized helps women identify the best hair care products for their hair type — taking a strand, testing it, and, after reviewing a questionnaire that they submitted, generating personalized buying recommendations.


Old Products, New Payment Methods

In some scenarios, innovations can enable companies to challenge the status quo by offering novel ways of paying for established products. Some video game companies allow players to purchase in-game advantages by relinquishing their increasingly precious personal data. To a similar end of providing customers with new and advantageous payment methods, Nike created EasyKicks. The subscription service allows parents of young children to replace the outgrown shoes without having to pay on a per-pair basis, but rather on a monthly basis.

The illustrations above indicate just a few of the areas in which marketers may identify opportunities for new products and services. With the help of such examples, marketers will hopefully find themselves well-prepared to contribute to their organizations' efforts to develop new offerings. And once they do have a product that they're ready to bring to market, they can further consult Marketing Maestros to find marketing ideas for inspired product launches.

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