Innovation is sexy. It’s the “in” thing. People want to be viewed as creative and companies as creators. But, I am afraid the allure of novelty is bastardizing true innovation as it relates to consumer products. A fourth, fifth, or even sixth blade on a disposable razor is not innovation. Bacon flavored ice cream and Sriracha coated chips aren’t either.
Innovation is what Steve Jobs and Apple did for music, putting 1,000 songs into our pockets or what Amazon did with its Kindle. It’s not an Oreo flavored Pop Tart.
A few weeks ago, I walked the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. It seemed as if every booth was touting some new “innovation”. But, what was claimed as such, did not strike me so at all. Flavored artisanal marshmallows or ketchup made from beets are not disruptive changes.
There is a risk in making claims that aren’t backed by what’s delivered. Consumers become at best desensitized and at worst distrusting. There was a time, not that long ago, where it felt like every product on the shelf seemed to bear a “new and improved” bug on its package. Consumers quickly stopped paying any attention to it at all.
I feel as if companies have subscribed to the belief that they need to innovate or disintegrate. I don’t think that’s true. Further, I think companies, in an almost desperate attempt to grasp at it, mislabel novelty and improvement as innovation.
In my experience, there are only two types of consumer needs, met and unmet. Both are important and both offer big potential. If you are a company whose product is filling a met need, then you need to do it better than your competition. That includes quality, novelty, price, customer experience and more.
Unmet need is the fertile ground for innovation. In many cases, that need is not even yet known by its intended users. People weren’t walking around thinking about their need to have 1,000 sounds in their pockets or a hundred books in their hands. But boy, did they jump onboard when they became available.
The strategy of successfully fulfilling a met need and one that identifies and meets an unmet one are distinctly different. They can, however, coexist. In my opinion, companies should be working on both. Yet, what I see is companies confusing the former for the latter. In other words, they add the fourth, fifth or sixth blade and call it innovation and miss the unmet need. Maybe there is a trend where growing big beards creates an unmet need for a new way to trim them effectively. That doesn’t mean they walk away from fulfilling the met need of disposable razors in the best way possible. But, what it can mean, is that they dedicate some resources towards identifying if there is a growing (pun intended), yet unmet need driven by the trend of big beards.
Innovation does not have to be far reaching. Chobani had the foresight to understand that there was an unmet demand for protein in our diets. In the process of meeting that need, they created a whole new category of yogurt.
I love innovation. I am not disparaging it or discouraging it. Rather, I feel I am protecting its impact. We should reserve the term innovation for things that are truly innovative. But equally, we should celebrate and support novelty and improvement. Meeting a met need is not a bad play, and finding one that is unmet doesn’t happen every day.
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