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October 2, 2012

The Greater Innovation Challenge: Food or Household Products?

A potential client recently asked me which product category I thought represented the more difficult innovation challenge:  Food or Household products.  I think the answer depends on how we define the “challenge”.  Do we mean which allows us to more easily and efficiently manage the innovation process?  Or the likelihood that such a process would spawn successful new products?  After giving this distinction some thought (see the chart here),  I ended up believing that innovating in food categories is the more difficult process challenge, and it’s less likely to bring success in the marketplace.  Here’s why:

It seems to me that innovating against usage occasions and product utility are the dimensions that best define the innovation challenge for a category.  They span the axes in this chart.  Given the location of “Food Products”, an example may be a new OTG snack food package (existing utility for an existing occasion).  At first glance, modifying existing utility for an existing occasion may seem relatively “close-in”.  However, both the process and the likelihood of success is fraught with minefields, such as:

  • Understanding and catering to the needs of multiple decision-makers, such as kids and other family members.
  • Battling a wide range of potential substitutes such that the competitive frame is often murky.
  • A purchase process motivated by “softer” emotional underpinnings such as brand allegiance, perceptual impact and feelings toward family, and less by in-use functionality.

Household product innovation, however, sits much closer to new occasions and creating new utility.   Think of a new cleaning or food storage product designed for an unrecognized need.  Sounds really difficult, right?  While identifying and innovating for new occasions and new utility would seem more challenging, it is actually a more straightforward undertaking.

  • Consumer insights focus on functional rather than emotional gaps.  Even identifying new occasions is often observation driven.  And opportunity for new functionality is apparent in workarounds and friction points consumers experience with existing products.
  • Direct category competitors are clear.  They sit right right on the shelf next to other related category products.  And their functional pros and cons are easy to dissect.
  • A single buyer is most likely making the purchase decision, likely based on his or her needs alone.  Less emotional angst and fewer opinions to be mindful of.

Household product categories demand “new to the world” innovation, but the path to getting there is more clearly defined.  The new occasion is hard to identify, but easy to validate.  The required functionality is more apparent and testable.  So one would expect that the odds of success may be higher, if only because the performance criteria are narrower and the measures cleaner.  But…and this is a big one:  Success in Household categories depends more critically on design execution.  If it doesn’t work right, nailing the need doesn’t matter.  In the Food business, there may often be more latitude in design, largely because there are more variables to get right, and all those moving parts help diversify the risk of any one.

What’s the point?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s that each category group demands different innovation skills and tools.  Food innovation may depend more on empathy for deeply emotional decision-making, and the ability to define the market in less traditional ways.   Household product innovation may require more unbridled creativity to see the new usage opportunity and invent the implement that delivers on it effectively.  Does that make one harder than the other?  I’m still not sure.  But it’s been fun to think about.

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