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Five challenges to keep innovation alive in NPD

Groceries in the supermarket

One of the very first projects where I tasked people to film themselves shopping was for an international haircare brand.  

In a nutshell

  1. FMCG products can often be lost in a sea of “sameness” – making it hard for consumers to choose the best product for their needs. 
  2. To develop a new product that really stands out, we need to get comfortable with discomfort. 
  3. Read on for the five challenges to keep innovation in product development alive.

I asked a group of women across America, each armed with a 2009 Flipcam camera, to film themselves in their local drug store as they shopped for hair styling products. I, and my client, wanted to better understand how they saw the category, navigated choice, and ultimately found what might work best for them.  

I keenly remember a woman audibly sighing as she turned into the hair care aisle. Her camera panned across product after product, bottle after bottle, lined up with astonishing sameness. I could feel her exhaustion with the whole damn thing. 

How was she going to make any sort of decision on what might be best for her when everything looked the same, spoke the same, promised the same? 

How can you break away from the pack? 

In her phenomenal book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Youngme Moon writes, “Products are no longer competing against each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.” 

Thinking back to the woman I observed tiredly shopping, all those cans of hairspray and bottles of styling crème were indeed collapsing into one mass of sameness.  

“Products are no longer competing against each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.” – Youngme Moon 

The truth of FMCG product development and innovation is that creating something that meaningfully stands out as new and actually different cannot happen alongside the creation of that which is comfortable and well-rounded. In short, breaking out of sameness requires courageous discomfort. 

However, far too often I see insight teams eagerly eliminating differences and smoothing out the pointiest, most interesting edges. Through well-intentioned, rational-based discussions and by seeking client-friendly consensus, agencies risk killing innovative thinking in the process. 

To keep innovative thinking and product development alive, I challenge myself to:  

1. Listen to the ‘wrong people’.  

Frequently conversations with category or brand evangelists will end up as a very pleasant 90 minutes spent hearing about everything that is great about a product, not what needs to change. It generally makes clients feel good, but it won’t push anyone into doing something truly new. 

2. Experience firsthand someone's 'problem' a new product could solve.

Doing a stranger’s laundry as they stand by giving their exact step-by-step instructions, or cooking one of their favourite meal in their kitchen, can offer up all the hidden shortcuts, patches, or sidesteps people unconsciously do to get a job done. 

3. Remember that what supports a core business will not support innovation.  

For example, using core brand equity as a way to develop immediate buy-in for a new idea is a well-hidden way of smoothing out the sharp points to feel less scared. 

4. Always research the edges. 

I enthusiastically embrace exploring ideas that feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unpopular. Research is the most beautiful time to safely explore ‘what if’, generate a reaction, and then understand what just happened and what it could mean.  

5. Remember category norms. 

It sounds unlikely when I’m advocating sharper edges all around, but once you understand what sits firmly at the centre of a category, I can go off and then use that knowledge to go someplace completely different. (Don’t forget to check Pluto).

This article was originally published in our FMCG insights series. Sign up to read the full series of articles.

Caroline Fletcher
Caroline Fletcher
Head of Qualitative Practice

New problems need new solutions.

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