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Three Techniques for Real Innovation in Product Development

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Three ways to plug into your most innovative thinking
  • How to think outside of the box and break the mold in product development

Product, price, place, and promotion are the four Ps of marketing. These days, however, there's a frenetic obsession with promotion, confusion about place, and a hectic battle over price. Amid the chaos, that first P is often overlooked.

When product development is considered, it's often done so in a vacuum of internal research and development (R&D) or as a reflexive response to customer requests. There's nothing wrong with giving the people what they want—but if that's all you do, you're missing the chance for major innovations.

Here's why: If you ask people what they want, they will primarily give you responses based on what they've already seen. People are much better at processing and discussing what they know than they are at imagining new things. We can "want" only things that we have already seen or conceived of. So when you ask consumers what they want, you'll get only the tip of the iceberg of what's possible.

Think about a product like the Nintendo Wii. If you'd asked gamers what they wanted, no one would have said, "Less power, no backward compatibility, and a whole different type of controller." Not a one. They'd all have told you that they want more processor power, better graphics, more storage, etc.

But look at the monumental success of the Wii, and think about a lot of the responses to it when it first came out. People were surprised, delighted, and amazed. They never saw it coming, so they couldn't have told you they wanted it.


To get to the juiciest opportunities for product innovation, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig deeper. You have to study how consumers behave and interact with their needs and products. Then you can glean insights from what you've observed. Finally, you feed those insights to your marketing team in a creative environment—and watch the real innovation happen.

At this point you may be thinking, "That sounds great, but how would I actually do it?" Here are three core techniques to use:

1. Find the highs and the lows. Rather than asking consumers what they want, ask them about what they already have. What do they like about current products? What don't they like? They'll be able to give you much more useful information when they are drawing from personal experience.

2. Be a fly on the wall. Take a page from the book of Jane Goodall and observe your subjects as they use the products in everyday life. Try to see everything they do that relates to the need your product fills. There's a great story about how the legendary "Got Milk" campaign emerged from a media team observing real consumers with (and without) milk in their homes.

3. Look at the ecosystem. Few products exist in a vacuum. Chairs and desks are built at heights that work together. I buy motor oil because they make cars that require it. As the relevant peripheral products evolve, new opportunities emerge for you to evolve your product.

Here's a perfect example of innovation. Recently, Hefty announced that it is launching a new line of black "designer" kitchen trash bags. Why? Because it identified a consumer preference for kitchen trash cans that was shifting to black and stainless steel to complement newer trends in kitchen appliances.

The inspiring part of this is that whereas 46% of people thought these new bags were a good idea in concept, 85% planned to buy them again once they had a chance to try them.

The consumers didn't know they wanted it until they had it; but once they had it, they liked it and wanted it.

Innovation springs from understanding consumers better than they understand themselves. If you can do that, you'll reward them with great new products, and they'll reward you with sales and profits.


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Jeff Greenhouse is a 15-year digital marketing veteran, agency founder, and serial entrepreneur. He blogs about marketing, creativity, innovation, and technology. Reach him via Twitter (@JeffGreenhouse).

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  • by Erin Sheehan Daly Thu Jan 27, 2011 via web

    Really interesting article - especially as a marketer for a product development-focused company, it really hits home for me.

    I agree that consumers don't always know what they want - if they did, we wouldn't need to invest so much time and energy into innovation. But I do think - as you rightly pointed out - that consumers have a role in the product development process. What I think is really interesting is how social technology can facilitate the actions you outline above.

    We explored the topic in a bit more depth on our blog a few weeks ago:
    http://social-product-development.blogspot.com/2010/08/crowd-who-are-they-and-what-does-it.html

  • by Phil Kening Mon Jan 31, 2011 via web

    Jeff, great observations about product development. Your three core techniques are right on the money. Consumers do have a hard time "conceptualizing" products that don't already exist -- especially when there is technology involved. They are good at rating things once they try them and can be guided to articulate needs, desires and beliefs. I think I will share this with my marketing students, if you don't mind.

  • by Cathy Burrell Tue Feb 1, 2011 via web

    I think that you are right on track with your observations. I volunteered for an Arts group a few years ago, and my role as President was to gather support for a new Art Gallery. Asking the average person if they thought they wanted an Art Gallery, when most of them had never set foot in one, was an excersize in futility. The innovator's job is to see the future...even if no one else can!

  • by Steve Byrne Wed Aug 15, 2012 via web

    100% in agreement with this post.

    In the 80s, when Ford asked consumers if they would buy the new Taurus, consumers said "no". Ford thought about it and then re-phrased the question, would consumers buy the new Taurus in the future, and consumers said "yes". The design was too modern looking for consumers before it was available, but a run away hit by the time is was available.

    Product development deserves much more attention from marketers than it currently gets.

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