Tuesday, 1 December 2009

innovation = success ????

Does innovation lead to success? You don't need to be an expert on that. The answer is a clear-cut no. In fact, success doesn't even have to rely on innovation. When one focuses on consumer-relevant goods - foodstuffs included - it is the consumer perception that makes the difference.

Think about tea as an example. I can't speak for the entire world but I believe that if you happen to leave in an urban location, somewhere in Europe, your major local supermarket are likely having at least 3-4 different options. Some play with different flavours (Earl gray, vanilla flavoured, citrus flavoured, and so on) or different kinds of tea (green, black, oolong, i.e. products that have undergone fermentation under different conditions). But some play with "innovations" that claim to have an impact on the final product quality and - in the end - on the consumer experience out of the product. So, for green tea for instance, one may be able to find products in different kinds of sachets (square, pyramid-shaped, tight or spacious, paper-based or fibre-based, etc.) and different kinds of packages (having all sachets in the same compartment of the packaging or having each sachet individually packed in a paper pocket or in a sealed tin foil envelope, etc.). Each alternative may claim a more or less credible virtue. For example, sealed tin foil packaging may be good in keeping the tea flavours in place, till you open the packaging. Spacious sachets may allow for a quicker extraction of compounds from the tea leaves matrix. But there is no clear winner, not because the differences are impossible to measure, but simply because it doesn't matter much: Some people can't tell the difference, others focus on price rather the quality, others feel that they deserve the nicest looking product, etc. That is why marketing departments are busy!

Small companies, sometimes get obsessed with a single characteristic of their product. Regardless of how good a job they do, the acceptance of their product will not depend on a single characteristic. And even if one does find consumers that focus on a single characteristic, not all of those consumers focus on the same single characteristic.

A while ago, I came across a snack producing start-up, which was promoting some new snack flavours. They had a comprehensive range of products, new for the market. For me as a consumer, their taste/ flavour combinations were interesting, the texture was familiarly crunchy, there was a bit of health-talk supporting the product on the label, the packaging was comparable to the competition and the price was ok. The problem was that for said products, the tin foil packaging, typical of many snack products such as crisps, was not protecting the contents sufficiently. 2 out of 3 times, I would end up opening a package of snack debris, instead of the normal product. I assume the product designers never considered the stress a product can endure up to the supermarket shelf. It took a while for the problem to reach the ears of the right people. And while they did act upon that, changing the packaging to something more appropriate, that lag time between the appearance of the problem and its solution may have been crucial.

Bottom line: If you are working on something innovative, don't forget to have a look at the big picture before launching it to the market. The consumers won't necessarily appreciate the same qualities as you do. Actually, they might even fail to see them. If you feel biased (don't get fooled, the creator is always biased) ask a friend (or get a professional) to have a look. Before the launch date, every bit of criticism can help!

(photo: "Roasted black tea, in cup", CC, by bdiscoe)

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