Sales & Marketing

Beware of the 7 deadly sins of innovation

9 min read

01 May 2014

Everyone loves the idea of being innovative and creating something revolutionary, but how many companies actually know how to develop a concept for the mass market?

All too often organisations commit one or more of the seven deadly sins of innovation, which hobbles the product’s chances of success. Let’s take a look at these sins and how to avoid them.

1. Pushing not pulling

There’s often an ongoing tension between marketing and product development. When developers make a product that is unfit for purpose, marketers have to try and sell something that customers don’t want or need. On the other hand, product developers will argue that marketers aren’t telling them what people actually need. 

To use a 1940s analogy that is still relevant today: no one ever needed a drill, they only needed a hole. Now, if you don’t understand the difference between the two, you’ve missed the point of innovation. If you think the customer needs a drill, you will ask the question ‘how can we improve our existing product?’ While you may get recommendations, you will end up making a drill no matter what.

Imagine, instead of asking about the drill, you ask them about the hole; ‘why do you need a hole in the first place?’ Seeking to understand the desired outcome (customer pull) is more important than pushing the product we think they should have. We should always think about the customer’s need, and make sure you ask the right question in the first place.

2. Not understanding needs

Insight without motivation is just observation, and what most people in product development fail to do is look behind the observable customer activity to what is driving the customer’s behaviour.

NueVue’s antimicrobial protected phone case claims to clean the screen with every slide. This ‘unique and long overdue’ concept in smartphone and tablet cases will eliminate up to 99.9 per cent of bacteria on your screens surface. What is missing here is insight and understanding of the customers’ needs. To what degree is this ‘surgically clean screen’ an issue? On the other hand, YotaPhone have created a smartphone with a second e-ink screen on the back that can keep displaying critical contacts details, numbers or maps indefinitely even when the phone battery runs out. 

In innovation, manufacturers have to ask two questions: ‘who is going to buy this?’ and ‘what is it being used for?’ If the answer to either of these is unclear, then it’s back to the drawing board for product development.

3. Trapped by myths and beliefs 

Some people confuse customer insights with accepted customer beliefs; something that customers accept as true and that affects their buying behaviour. These preconceptions may have been learnt, be cultural or be based on prior product performance that was once poor but has changed over time.

For example, the general consensus in the shaving sector is, the more blades on a razor the more effective it is.

Manufacturers continue to put more blades on the razor head because they perceive this to be what the customer wants. They perpetuate this belief to the point it becomes self-fulfilling and although they want to get out of the hole, the competition continues to feed the consumer belief. Are five blades better than four? Why not try six, or seven?
That is why understanding customers and what drives their habits and preconceptions is vital even if it’s not logical to you. The mistake is to base decisions on your own opinion and knowledge as this won’t always reflect the overall beliefs of the customer.

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4. Believing you can create needs

Some manufacturers believe the customer doesn’t know what they need, so they create a completely new need that never existed before, despite customer insights.
One manufacturer conducted research into whether cats can taste, and studies found that they cannot differentiate by taste, but rather texture. So, the manufacturer created dried cat food with no flavour – did this interest the customer? No.

That’s because it is not the cat that is buying the food; the purchaser is the owner and if they think their cat can taste, they like to have variants of flavour that looks as good as it tastes. Often these flavours and requirements are based on human needs and aspirations rather than the cats, such as Iams Natures Wellness, which advertises that it contains each of the major food groups and anti-oxidants.

Humans are often illogical and contradictory, that’s what makes marketing so interesting. Creating products based around facts does not always lead to successful innovation. Building a concept from customer insight is far more effective.

5. Overcomplicating stuff

There is a new kind of cosmetic called the nutriceutical; a beauty product that works from the inside out. One product is a pill that makes you ‘brown from the inside’. There are many ways of getting a tan; fake it, sunbed or old fashioned sunbathing. The reason people don’t do many of these things is because they think it may be dangerous for them. So, will they be convinced to take a pill? I doubt it.

Making innovation simple can be beautifully elegant. In South Korea S-Oil put balloons in car parking spaces so when you drive into it, the balloon disappears under the car and when you leave, it rises up and lets others know that the space is free, saving thousands of wasted hours and millions of litres of wasted fuel. Is this concept any less innovative because the insight is great but the technology is not complicated?

6. Believing your customer is a fool

The BIC Cristal pen made for women claims to be designed for smaller hands and can write twice as much as a normal BIC. Now, you only have to look at the feedback comments on Amazon to realise that the customer recognises the absurdity of the product, which in turn damages the reputation and market value of the brand. They see it as not only lacking insight, but also fundamentally patronising and superficial.

Never assume the customer is a fool, because they are wise to poor innovation and will turn to forums and social media outlets to discuss and inform other potential customers about the flawed concept.

7. Focusing on function not emotion 

Remember, the customer doesn’t always want to know how a product is made if it reflects poorly on the brand identity. Don’t tell them how you’ve done it – all they want to know is how it makes them feel.

In Scandinavia, people search for rocks on beaches that eventually fetch millions of pounds. The material they are looking for is Ambergris, also known as a Whale Gallstone, which the whale throws up. Who is paying millions of dollars for it? Well Ambergris is a key component in fine fragrances. Do you think your significant other wants to know that her perfume contains whale vomit when you present it on Valentine’s Day? Remember, it’s important to sell the emotion, not the function.

Mat Shore is a professional innovations speaker and founder of Outside In, a consulting and training company specialising in creating competitive insights and value propositions.