Innovating is easier than you think

Trends and tips for entrepreneurs – innovation and new products

Professor Marion Debruyne is fascinated by the strategic aspect of innovation and the innovative side of strategy. She helps companies to reflect on how to deal with changing markets by adapting their product offering, market strategy and business model. In May her new book ‘Customer Innovation’ was published, which is about how and why you should put the customer at the centre of business innovation.

Trend 1: Join forces

Coming up with new ideas doesn’t need to be a lonely business. On the contrary, involving customers only has positive effects. It generates more ideas, all geared to the customers’ expectations, and increases their commitment. An example is the very successful “create your own flavour” campaign by Lays. By asking customers to share their ideas, you receive very useful feedback. Moreover, you show that you really care about them. And by actively involving customers in your company’s innovation process, they become even more loyal. So instead of trying to figure out how you can improve your activities and which products and services you should offer in doing so, ask your customers. What better way to build a positive relationship with your customers than to allow them to actively participate in your operations by brainstorming about the future of your company together?

Concrete tips:

  • Use social media to capture continuous feedback from customers and discuss with them.
  • Don’t just come up with ideas. Also involve your customers in the selection, fine-tuning and implementation process.
  • Don’t assume only financial rewards will motivate customers to join. Customers are motivated to share their ideas by different factors. They enjoy it, it makes them feel appreciated or they would like you to turn their ideas into concrete projects, because they would like them to be available on the market.
  • Say “Thank you”! The biggest mistake you can make is to ask customers for their ideas and not inform them of what was done with their input afterwards (even if you haven’t put every single idea into practice). If you don’t show any genuine appreciation customers will think twice about sharing their ideas with you once again.

Trend 2: KISS

Keep it Simple, Stupid! This mantra seems to be losing ground if we look at today’s market. An example: try ordering a coffee at Starbucks. Would you like a Tall, Grande or Venti? With or without milk? Skimmed or full-fat? Whipped cream or milk foam? What about an extra flavour? Cane sugar, regular sugar or calorie-free sweetener? The same goes for buying shampoo – try finding the one that best suits you needs. Or mobile phone plans: which one best matches your phoning habits? These are everyday shopping decisions that generate stress. There’s simply too much choice. That’s why it is refreshing to see a simple offering, making it very easy to choose. An example are the simple “King & Kong” packages, which clearly stand out in a market where mobile phone plans offer so many options you can’t see the wood for the trees.
We live in an era where choices are abundant, but that doesn’t mean our choices make us happier. On the contrary, having more choices often give us the feeling we are making the wrong choice (we all know the feeling: after you’ve ordered spaghetti at a restaurant, you see a pizza which looks equally good, or better even).

The same goes for increasingly better products, with lots of frills. Let’s face it, who uses all the functions on their mobile? Often what people really need is not more functions and options, but less. A basic offering that makes their life easier, instead of more bells ad whistles, and lots of unnecessary features. In a nutshell, innovation is not always a matter of offering more. It could just as well be less. “Back to basics” bridges a growing gap in the market.

Concrete tips:

  • Think of ways to simplify your customers’ lives in terms of finding the right product. You could, for example, work with easily recognisable categories, think of a wine retailer which displays its wines not by grape variety or region but according to tastes.
  • Confirm your customers’ choices. The ‘top 10’ in the bookstore shows which choices other customers have made. Make a habit of congratulating them as well on their purchase.
  • Simplify. Think of ways to get rid of unnecessary functions and make products more user-friendly, less complex and cheaper for customers.

Trend 3: Look beyond the obvious

If you’re looking to innovate, go beyond merely offering new products and services. Sometimes proposing existing products in a different manner offers the same or even more value. You could, for example, explore new channels. An example is the sale of bananas at petrol stations, a huge success. Or strawberry farmers selling their fruits in vending machines at busy intersections. Another idea is to target new groups, like the lingerie shop spreading its product catalogues in care homes. Or you could come up with a new pricing formula, such as a chocolate package which offers a new assortment of chocolate every month, or organic vegetable packages you can buy from your greengrocer. Maybe you could rent instead of selling, such as “Rent-a-Runway”, a website that allows you to rent a couture dress for the weekend.

In brief, innovation goes beyond coming up with new products or services. There are plenty of possibilities, including new sales channels, target groups or pricing formulas. A true breakthrough is the result of a change in a combination of these factors.

Concrete tips:

  • Do the “What if” exercise. Map out the target groups, channels and pricing formulas you are currently using on your market. Often they have become clogged mechanisms. Brainstorm in search of alternatives. For each alternative ask yourself “What if we did it this way?”
  • Do you find this a difficult exercise? Then involve outsiders who have nothing to do with your business and sector. If they don’t have the inside knowledge to hamper them, they might come up with more creative ideas.

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