You’ve probably heard this Henry Ford quote when it comes to being innovative in business: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Many have used this as an example of why not to talk to consumers to decide how to be innovative in business. People don’t know what they want, is the argument. So we might as well not talk to them. But what if that’s the wrong argument?
“They would say horses because they didn’t know cars existed,” said Nick Graham, global head of insights and analytics at Mondelez International, on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”. “But they could tell you they wanted to go faster. They could tell you some of the things they were comfortable with or not comfortable with. And you could have built the idea of a car from that.”
The quote is not a reason not to talk to consumers. The insight is absolutely there, Nick said. And that’s what we need to be innovative: Find insights based on what consumers do and say and then evolve our products and services from there.
In this article, we discuss what you can do to be innovative in business by asking consumers the right questions, moving toward an iterative process to determine how to evolve products and services over time.
What does it mean to be innovative?
Being innovative means that we create experiences and products for consumers that help them, that are useful and that they look forward to buying. Take Apple products for me. Yes, you may call me an Apple Fan Boy. The products have made my life easier and in many instances more enjoyable. I can watch NFL games on my iPad Pro while at a youth softball tournament. My AirPod Pros make it even easy to listen. My iPhone has made travel and other things – like livestreaming – much easier. I genuinely look forward to seeing updates to the products.
Can companies be innovative without change? Probably not. Products evolve. How we communicate evolves. And even successful products need to ride that wave in one form or another.
The journey to understand changing behaviors, possibilities and consumer interests in reality is never ending.
Finding the balance
Insights professionals need to balance the internal and external views to actually make innovation happen, Nick said.
“There’s obviously a large part of the insights team to bring the outside perspective – outside our mental silos – in,” he said. “Having said that, remember that you work for a business. It has constraints. It has internal goals and parameters. The most successful use of insights is finding that balance.”
To find that balance and move closer to innovation, it’s important to understand what problem the business or brand is facing.
“What are we really trying to do here and what are the constraints we need to work within?” Nick said.
It’s important to understand what can be executed, what does profitability look like and other business metrics. For example, a consumer might say they really want a specific packaging but there’s no way to create that experience and be profitable, it likely shouldn’t be implemented. On the flipside, you also don’t want to create something that people want internally, but that consumers have no appetite for.
“That’s where insights can be used to create that competitive advantage,” Nick said. “If you can honor both pieces of that that’s the critical part there.”
It’s okay and necessary to understand that this is an iterative process, Nick said.
“That push and pull between the inside and outside is normal,” he said.
Entering a new space
Finding that balance also carries through into entering new spaces. Sometimes, internal teams would ask:
If we were to enter that space, what would that look like?
Turn that into:
“What is the consumer or shopper problem to solve?” Nick said.
It’s very tempting, he said, to just launch in a new area, but ask: “What actually is the consumer missing? What role could this brand fulfill and then of course find the balance between those two.”
Understand the best ways to reach consumers
“The other key in all of this is is how you use the blend of different sources and approaches,” Nick said. “Gone are the days of ‘let’s just go and do qualitative research’ or ‘let’s go and do quantitative research.’ We have such an array of data at our disposal.
Then blend all the different areas, including:
- What consumers are saying
- Their behaviors you are observing
- Other data sources
“That’s the key to unlocking what the opportunity could be,” he said.
Understanding the subtleties of consumer behavior and communication
Nick remembered the story of a mid-tier calorie Soda drink. The company asked focus group participants if they thought the product was a good idea.
They said “yes” but it wasn’t that believable or was a “I really need this drink.”
“They were like ‘yea, yea, it’s a great idea,'” he said. “But I just didn’t believe it. And it wasn’t like they were lying. It felt like something they should like but there was no real enthusiasm.”
Nick and team were only able to gather these insights because they saw the reactions – something that they wouldn’t have been able to do in this case with a quant survey.
The power of partnerships
Consider what partnerships – internal and external – can help you be innovative in business. For example. Mondelez has a Startup Engagement Colab Program in which it works with early-stage snack-food startups.
“It brings the best of big and small together and it truly is a partnership,” Nick said. “Yes, Mondelez is helping these 12 startups but we are also learning from them.”
- Thought process
- Go-to market strategy
- Iterative thinking
“If you can take some of that and apply it at scale that’s a really powerful opportunity,” Nick said. “But it’s a mindset shift. It’s not how big CPG companies have traditionally operated.”
Innovation needs focus
Distractions are everywhere. I couldn’t even finish this sentence without a Slack message trying to get my attention. But we have to focus our time on the things that matter or else they’ll never get done.
Turn notifications off, add a Slack message saying you are knee-deep in research and check in later that day. Focus your energy on the task at hand.
In this clip, Nick shares how the team developed a new cereal flavor and moved quickly in just two weeks.
“In two weeks, what you can accomplish, just because you are focusing on it,” he said. “And you learn as you go.”
Focus can also mean to build insights and innovation into the day-to-day. Nick breaks that down into figuring out what to focus on.
Figure out what to focus on
Having good insights can help companies focus their resources and time on where they should actually focus. What are consumers doing today, what’s changing and what’s happening in adjacent categories?
“What do consumers need today and what do they possibly need in the future,” he said.
But what if it didn’t work?
I won’t bore you with the typical “fail fast” tip here. But, understanding why something didn’t work is also part of innovation.
“Some great innovative ideas didn’t work and people throw them in the trash and go ‘well, that was a dumb idea,'” Nick said. “But sometimes the best ideas just didn’t quite nail it the first time around. It’s quite important that we learn from that so we can reapply those learnings to that innovation or another innovation.”
Of course, there’s always a certain level of uncertainty with the future.
“What you can get to is good probabilities, hypothesis and good scenarios that you can play out,” Nick said, adding that he sees foresights being the future. “What is possible, what are we seeing that’s trending and what do we think is going to stick?”