Business Week recently shared insights on how companies can innovate intelligently to build a better business. "Innovating the OXO Way" gives us 10 valuable tips we might consider emulating, especially since times are tough for consumer product companies. So let's stand back and ponder how some or all of these tips might help our businesses to become better–and grow.

  1. Reinvent (products). When using a basic product–the kind your company also sells–what about it makes it cumbersome to use? How would you consider making changes to it to make it easier or more convenient to use? Sometimes the most mundane products can become anything but commodities thanks to insightful redesigns. OXO reinvented the humble potato peeler to be more ergonomic–the rest is history.

  2. Question, question, question. Just because every product in a category is made with essentially the same features, and always has been, does that mean we can't find a better way to build a mousetrap? OXO redesigned the humble measuring cup so that cooks could see the measurement lines from the inside; making the task much easier.

  3. Become detail-oriented. Identify common problems from all of the current product designs in the marketplace, and redesign them until they work as they should. Tip: company owners, management and rank and file employees make great product testers. Input and observations from them help move the process along. OXO's Uplift Tea Kettle's lid automatically flips up when pouring hot water out; no more steam burns.

  4. Create an employee focus group. Let your employees use your products constantly and then encourage a flow of suggestions on how to improve them. OXO's Pour & Store Watering Can was modified when the company's city dwellers asked for a rotating spout that would make storage easier in small apartments. What a great idea!

  5. Be unique & consistent at the same time. Make sure all of your products express your brand's unique point of view. Stand for something and then follow through so that consumers will know that every single product out there is truly your company's. OXO "Good Grips" means product designs everyone can use–regardless what their disabilities might be. That holds true in every category OXO positions products in.

  6. License intelligently–selectively. The lure of more earnings is hard to resist. But–it's more important to protect the brand than to allow any and every potential licensing partner to use your brand name. OXO recently collaborated with UCB, a pharmaceutical firm, to develop a syringe with oversized plunger to make it easier for arthritics to inject much-needed medicine easily. However, OXO resists licensing its brand to many would-be partners.

  7. Know your customer. Understand your market. Adapt as needed for various markets. Ask yourself: how are customers using our products? If they are choosing not to use them, how can we make design changes to encourage them to do so? When OXO first launched its products in Asia in 2006, the Japanese market found the oversized products absurd for their small kitchens. OXO responded by shrinking the sizes of its offerings and opened a studio in Tokyo to get to know its customers.

  8. Reuse innovation concepts. Design solutions that work for one product may be ideal for additional products. When OXO made home cleaning tools, the company adapted the same comfortably large gripping surfaces to each one so that the desired results could be achieved, using minimum hand pressure.

  9. Make products more versatile. When developing a new product, think how it might multi-task. . .how it might handle multiple problems. Universal products rule. OXO improved the basic jar opener, for example, that could open many sizes of lids while still being easy to use.

  10. Encourage negative feedback. Ask employees and customers about products they're currently using that you don't even offer. What don't they like about current offerings in the marketplace? And what might your company do to improve them? OXO Tot was launched with 69 new products for babies and young children due to employees' complaints that high chairs and sippy cups were rapidly outgrown. OXO made insightful modifications: high chairs can be easily converted to "big-kid seats" and handles slide off sippy cups for toddlers.

So why this post? Why now? I think it's time for all of us–whether we have a product or service oriented business, to take a page from OXO. This successful company, started by Sam Farber in 1990, should serve as an inspiration to us.
Look, the guy started OXO by making simple kitchen gadgets. He positioned commodity products in a marketplace loaded with competitors' products, and still carved out a niche for his business. If Sam could do it, so can we.
There's another key point here: employees are the greatest asset in every company. How can you make them a more integral part of the company? How can you encourage their insights to lead to terrific problem-solving solutions?
Yet more questions:

  • Does OXO's M.O. inspire you to rethink how you're doing business? If so, how? What do you plan on doing differently?

  • How do you feel about the 10 tips on this list? Would you add anything to this list?

  • Can you think of other brands that have carved out a unique niche like OXO, by redesigning and selling commodity products or services?

I'd love to hear from you.

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Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, a leading brand-design consultancy.

LinkedIn: Ted Mininni