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The brands redefining meanings with a return on innovation

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And then something changes. A market epiphany happens. And all the rules go out the window as new meanings arrive.

These market epiphanies are frightening when they happen to your business. But they are exceptionally lucrative when you make the market, rather than the market making you. 

Take coffee, for example. For centuries, it was just a black liquid that gave us our energy fix and a background prop that helped set the scene for our social interactions. People competed on price, strength and convenience. But coffee was coffee. 

Then Nespresso happened. It changed the category dynamics, not by changing the substance of coffee, but by changing the meaning of coffee.

Nespresso encouraged us to pay attention and explore the essence of what we were drinking – how it could be multiplicity of different tastes, experiences, and emotions available for personal discovery and exploration. The coffee is just as it always was, but by changing everything around the coffee, it suddenly meant so much more to us.

Consumers were not asking for Nespresso. The core technology and business model challenged every assumption about what people wanted from coffee, how they would shop for coffee, and what they would pay for coffee in the home. Who would want to be locked into such a system for just another cup of joe?

But once this technology was aligned with a new and enticing meaning, those negatives became positives, because they signalled the start of a new conversation. Coffee is not what is used to be. From the iridescent rainbow of colours in a world of brown and gold, to the expensive machine and the almost disturbing, push-button ritual, the codes were broken and demanded a new consideration from consumers. 

Nespresso started out as an expensive and time-consuming failure for Nestle. But once that R&D investment was aligned with the right cultural moment, new meanings amplified the innovation into a market-changing epiphany. 

Companies wishing to drive revenues, grow market share, and fend off the threat of competitors can similarly amplify their investment through a focus on meanings. In his book Design Driven Innovation, professor Roberto Verganti charts the meteoric rise of global brands such as Apple and Whole Foods based on simple shifts in meaning, versus innovating features and functionality.

Market epiphanies take time, and are easy to see in retrospect, once the risk has paid off and it all seems obvious. Here are some examples of epiphanies in action, that you can watch happening right now.

Fever Tree

Everybody loves Fever Tree’s premium tonics and mixers, and premium market cap. At first glance, the brand simply followed bigger trends for artisanal, natural, niche brands. Cool, but not that interesting.

But when you look closer, what Fever Tree actually did was change the meaning of the tonic, from neutral backdrop to active ingredient. Only then, with a new meaning, does a premium-priced mixer make sense.

In doing so, Fever Tree not only created an entirely new conversation that category incumbents like Schweppes are having to react to, it lifted the rising tide of the gin category alongside it. Meanings aren’t just micro tweaks, they’re macro forces as well.

Kohler – the meaning of water

Kohler has always understood the power of design to make meanings and drive commercial value, and it’s been a pioneer in using meanings as a strategic planning tool. Now they’re tackling the issue of how people’s experiences with smart technology change their expectations of the built environment.

Last month Kohler debuted KOHLER Konnect, a series of smart bathroom and kitchen products primed and ready for the call to action from Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit. Kohler handles the “bathroom”, the likes of Google handles the “smart”. Now the products have the potential to radically transform the meaning behind everyday bathroom and kitchen appliances. 

Kohler isn’t looking to create gimmicky appeal. Instead, it’s created seamless, beautifully-designed products which have the benefit of being voice-activated. No dongles to buy, no adapters, no switches. Just the luxury of knowing your bathroom will do what you ask it to do.

L’Oreal UV Sense

Say wearables, you think smart watch. And eventually we imagine the technology to be imbedded in our clothes and other accessories: think “smart bra”. L’Oreal has opened up a new meaning of wearable, with the release of UV Sense, a UV monitoring device disguised as a nail decal.

It monitors your sun exposure and reminds you to apply sunscreen through an app. Better skin health at your fingertips, from your fingertip.

Not only has UV Sense shifted our perception of what wearables can be, they’ve introduced the beauty industry as a player in the field moving forward. It makes sense.

Consumer needs for self-tracking and self-optimisation have fuelled the health tech and fitness markets for a few years, but those same needs exist for beauty consumers too. Introducing a wearable at the boundary of healthcare and beauty paves the way for more beauty brands to do the same.

The beauty of meaning is that they are tool for innovation available to any business, of any size, in any industry. Even if you don’t have a disruptive new technology, you can still disrupt the conversation. And if you do have a new invention, meanings can make the difference between success and failure, amplifying your investment. 

It’s clear companies that master the emotional and cultural meanings central to consumer behaviour will be richly rewarded in the long-term. 

Julie Jenson Bennett is CEO of Precipice Design. She has been a driving force behind Meaning-Centred Design, a new way for companies to make sense of markets and cultures and create products that people will value more.


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