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How innovation can drive your marketing

How innovation can drive your marketing

By Bryan Urbick, CEO & President, Consumer Knowledge Centre Ltd. He is also the primary contributor to the new blog ‘Thinking Outside the Blog:  Stories from Research’ (

A word of caution to all innovators: you can become so entrenched in your quest for the undiscovered and for world-changing, radical innovations, that you forget to take the consumer along for the ride.

It is true that on the surface consumers appear to be crying out for something new and different.  We hear it regularly in our qualitative research projects around the world it is frequently heard.  Further research into consumer behavior, though, demonstrates time and again that consumers, when given a choice, will rarely (if ever) stray far from the familiar.

What’s the lesson in this?  Should we forgo innovation, and merely try to sell more of the familiar stuff?  No -  those companies, brands and products that win in innovation, tend to win big.  And some innovations can even make competitive tried and trusted brands and products obsolete.  Importantly, though, is how the innovations tend to be positioned akin to the familiar.

A recent example is the handheld music device.  We started with a phonograph or gramophone, and eventually evolved to an in-home stereo system (because of the innovation of providing stereophonic sound).  As we evolved to handheld devices, they were originally touted as ‘personal stereos’ – again, stealing language from the then current experience to communicate the new idea in a way that consumers could easily embrace. 

From the first ‘personal stereos’ come the numerous changes that are now MP3 players and iPods.  Importantly, each next innovation in hand-held music devices, despite it being technologically radical,  is clearly a step-change improvement as far as the consumer is concerned.

Another example is the automobile.  When the automobile was first promoted, it was positioned to consumers as a ‘horseless carriage’.  The familiar consumer experience at that time was horse-drawn carriages, and consumers needed help to understand the new idea and how this new idea could fit into their lives. Interestingly, it was only after the automobile became entrenched into everyday life that it was deemed to be a major innovation.

The answer, even though at first seemingly paradoxical, lies in finding ways to be both new and familiar.  And there are ways to build familiarity into our new ideas.

- Combining the new with the familiar increases familiarity, and is the real key to successfully communicating innovation.  Though incremental, rather than radical, it is a very effective way to bring consumers along in the brand's journey.

- To increase familiarity with a new idea, you must increase positive exposures to it.  From various sources, it indicates that it takes between 8 and 13 positive exposures for consumers to say they feel familiar enough with an idea to be able to say they like it.  Positive exposures are best if they get to see the product for real, hold it in their hands, though communication (new and traditional media, as well as in-store and on-pack imagery) can play a role.

- Good experiences with new things – particularly those from the same brand – increase familiarity.  Dove brand personal care products are excellent examples of taking familiar (a bar of soap with ¾ cup of moisturizer) and building it step-by-step into new but close, familiar categories.

- Consumers seeing lots of other consumers (aspirational or peers) liking a product increases familiarity.

There is something about people seeing other people with your brand or product that reduces fear, and drives aspirational desire for things.  This creates in the consumer’s mind a sense of familiarity, because the desire generates a perception of what life would be like with the product.

- Importantly, be careful of ‘good for you’, health or nutrition claims – these can be perceived familiar, but may have a negative connotation.  Many consumers perceive that if it is good for you, it must have some unpleasantness associated with it – and so familiar, in this case, may not be what you need!

Sometimes familiarity can be generated by the name alone.  One example of this is the Automated Teller Machine (ATM).  The name is communicating a new idea, but it does so in a familiar way.

But naming of the product is only part of the solution.  Working to systematically redefine the category is the rest of the answer – and this takes strategic thinking and planning.  Looking at your innovation, and building a familiar path for the consumer – sometimes using close-in innovations to pave the way – is the strong way forward.

Familiar is truly your friend - and when trying to build something new and innovative, we need to acknowledge our friend.  By doing so we will take consumers along with us, and allow them to see the new innovation in a familiar way – thus allowing them to find their own personal benefits.

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