The one with the Mockolate
If you were a fan of the television series Friends, you might recall the one where Monica, a chef, was asked to develop recipes for a new product called Mockolate — “a completely synthetic chocolate substitute.” The company had set its sights on competing in the crowded confectionery category and hoped to win by marketing Thanksgiving as the Mockolate holiday. Sampling the product, Monica quickly uncovers some of its unique differentiators: a texture that crumbles in the mouth, an effervescent bubbling, and a flavor that friend Phoebe describes as “what evil must taste like.”
Unsurprisingly, Mockolate never makes it to shelves. But if you look a little more deeply, there are lessons to be learned about how we approach innovation and why some new products drive vitality while others fall short. Clearly, the company overlooked crucial steps in concept and product testing. But even more detrimentally, they made themselves the hero of their innovation story, centering their process around what they thought they could do for consumers instead of truly understanding, capturing, and delivering on what consumers needed from them.
Unlocking growth potential
We see the Mockolate phenomenon play out in a myriad of ways among innovators seeking new CPG growth opportunities: Perhaps they jump on the bandwagon in a trending category without considering whether their brand has consumer permission to stretch. Alternatively, they might pursue entry in as many categories as possible, prioritizing quantity over quality. Still others focus on developing new products wielding the latest tools and technology — but fail to realize that these assets are only a bridge to solve consumer problems, not an end in itself. For manufacturers to develop successful innovations, they must understand that what drives consumption is not a product’s mere existence or attributes but its ability to fulfill the specific job to be done.
My advice for those looking to unlock new CPG growth potential is simple but less intuitive. Instead of working forward from their capabilities, they should work backward from existing marketplace opportunities by asking the following questions:
- What are the gaps in the marketplace?
- Which gaps represent a compelling business opportunity?
- Where do these gaps fit into the overall hierarchy of how the consumer is thinking about their purchasing criteria?
- Where do these opportunities intersect with your organization’s strengths and priorities?
- Which distribution outlets get the product into the right consumers’ hands?
- How does the product align with retailers’ needs?
Once you’ve satisfactorily answered these questions, you can begin to build a compelling and differentiated value proposition against these marketplace gaps in alignment with business goals. But to truly build innovations that endure, you must keep in mind 3 guiding principles, all of which center around your consumer.
Three guiding principles for innovations that endure
Make consumers the heroes
You may perceive your brand one way — but consumers might perceive it differently. To reiterate from the Mockolate example, great innovations don’t tell the consumer what they need. They solve problems consumers agree that they have. When you make them the heroes of your innovation story, truly understanding and leveraging their insights and perspectives, you’ll discover how well your brand is currently meeting their needs and how you can build on those strengths to stretch into new opportunities. This means doing more than just pasting an insight statement to your concept boards for inspiration — it means designing product benefits that address the insight. This approach can help you avoid a similar Mockolate fiasco: Innovations that don’t live up to consumer expectations can lead to delisting and brand dilution or even trigger an avoidance response in the brain, resulting in an adverse impression of your brand.
Seek potential in unexpected places
Your innovation pipeline may be stagnant, or your team may be locked onto iterations of the same ideas that fail to flourish. If you allow it, centering consumers in your innovation story can strip away organizational blinders, enabling you to unlock previously unforeseen avenues for growth. This effect can become even more powerful when combined with tools like AI — which can bridge consumer feedback to sort through billions of options and arrive at new combinations of flavors, features, and benefits — or System 1 methods that can tap into non-conscious insights about what works and what doesn’t (meaning you’ll finally be able to tweak that fish-flavored pistachio product to ensure it’s a win).
Test, optimize, and test again
Strong innovators don’t engage consumers only at the beginning of their product story. They thread their feedback throughout their entire narrative, tossing out new concepts, features, messaging, package design, and so on to pressure test, gauge responses, and optimize their final output even further. This doesn’t mean testing thousands of small iterations, but when done judiciously at critical milestones, this process affords the highest probability of driving consumer engagement. It is also critical for the long-term vitality of your innovations, as we see a divergence between top and low-performers as early as 4 weeks post-launch — meaning there is little time to turn the ship around once it sets sail.
A beautiful marriage
At its heart, innovation is about improving consumers’ lives — by solving an inconvenience, overcoming compensating behavior, or transforming an entire experience. Companies that innovate most effectively are the ones that create a beautiful marriage between defined marketplace gaps and brand strengths, connecting them in a cohesive narrative that centers around the consumer. When this is in place, your processes, tools, and technology become more effective mechanisms to bridge consumer relationships. This strategy is also good for business: When your product fulfills its promise, it leads to repurchase. In the best cases, it can generate increased pricing power and category incrementality (a win for manufacturers and retailers), not to mention enduring growth.
What innovation story will you compose with consumers next?
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