The Archive April 06, 2016

Product Innovation’s Increasing Importance and Some Lessons From the Past

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

The only way to promote a bad or boring product is to lie. Over the decades, marketers have tried it — some still do. But we’ve gotta ask, “How’s that working for you?”

In an ever-changing, ever-quickening, increasingly competitive world, mastering product innovation is more important than ever for companies, according to Sridhar Balasubramanian, professor of marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

The only way to sell snake oil in 2015 is to make snake oil that actually works.

“Customer expectations are … sky-high,” he said in an interview on the UNC Kenan-Flagler business-school website. “Customers today have very little patience with products that are old. If you think about baby boomers, they often think about a product as being around for, say, 30 years as tried and tested. Whereas a Generation Y member thinks of such a product as simply being tired.”

“Innovation cycles are becoming rapidly shorter,” he added, “which means that companies have to be constantly on their toes, turning out new products, new services, and often-new solutions because customers today don’t just want a product or a service. They want companies that solve their problems.”

In short, a successful new product is one that solves a problem.

Balasubramanian said fostering innovation at a company comes down to three things: employees must feel motivated to innovate; employees must be given opportunities to be innovative; and employees and managers must know how to be innovative — they must know what it means to be innovative in their fields and in their workplaces.

Here are five examples of moments in history when product innovation changed the way we live.

Product Innovation: Architectural Paints and Coatings — the Paint Can

The biggest product innovation in the history of interior and exterior paint had nothing to do with the paint itself. It had to do with the paint can. The year was 1877 and the innovator was Sherwin-Williams.

In Colonial times, according to the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co.,, itinerant house painters wandered the countryside carrying pigment that they mixed with a homeowner’s milk and lime to create what was known then and is still known as milk paint.

A successful new product is one that solves a problem.

Before the invention of the paint can and the ready-mixed paint that went into it, paint was always mixed fresh, Leslie Poster wrote for the website of the National Museum of American History. “Not only was the mixing process akin to a chemistry experiment, but paint also had to be used immediately since there was no good way to store it without it becoming unusable.”

Sherwin-Williams’ tin can, with its tight lid, meant that paint could be shipped and stored, with no loss in quality. It essentially birthed the commercial architectural paints-and-coatings industry.

In 1879, Poster wrote, Sherwin-Williams founder Henry Sherwin “introduced a way to grind pigment so finely that it could be suspended within the paint’s components for a long amount of time instead of quickly separating out, thus making ready-mixed paint a reality.”

Poster’s story describes a 400-mile journey to see one of Sherwin-Williams’ original paint cans, which is on display at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence in Cleveland. It is well worth a read.

More than 130 years later, Dutch Boy — in an “open-innovation partnership” with Sherwin-Williams — developed the Twist & Pour paint container.

According to the business innovation firm Nottingham Spirk, it was named “one of Brand Packaging Magazine’s ‘10 Best Packages of the Decade’ because it eliminated the challenges that the design of traditional tin cans presented to manufacturers, retailers and consumers: It’s easier to ship, shelve, carry, open, pour and store.”

Disclosure: Sherwin-Williams is a client of Britton Marketing & Design Group’s.

Product Innovation: Fashion — Denim Jeans

There are cases to be made for the brassiere, synthetic polymers, the zipper and the miniskirt as the most important innovations in the fashion history. But I am going to go with denim jeans.

In 1853, a Bavarian immigrant living in San Francisco named Levi Strauss sought to cash in on the Gold Rush, not by panning for gold, but by panning for gold miners. He created tough trousers for the miners out of cotton tent canvas. Strauss later swapped the canvas for twill from the French city of Nimes. The twill was known as serge de Nimes (or “denim” for short).

Customers also want companies to solve the problems they don’t know they have yet.

In 1873, Strauss purchased an idea from a Russian immigrant that involved riveting the pants to make them stronger. The trousers were later identified by people who ride horses — from cowboys to polo players — as the ideal pants for that activity, according to Jennifer Wright in her article “The Complete History of Blue Jeans, From Miners to Marilyn Monroe.

Jeans did not become ubiquitous as casual wear in American culture until the 1950s, when hot, young actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley and the aforementioned Monroe wore them in popular films, Wright wrote.

For his book Blue Jeans, Danny Miller traveled the world and discovered that in every country he visited “almost half the population wore jeans on any given day,” according to a BBC article by Stephanie Hegarty. Asked by Hegarty why denim caught on, Paul Trynka, author of Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks, responded, “Because the denim changed as it aged and the way it wore reflected people’s lives.”

Product Innovation: Advertising/Marketing — the Birth of Television Advertising

In the early days of television, the new medium borrowed the radio model when it came to advertising. Advertisers created, then sponsored, entire programs. Every show was owned by a single advertiser.

One of the problems, according to Cynthia B. Meyers in her book From Sponsorship to Spots: Advertising and the Development of Electronic Media, was that the sponsorship model didn’t cover the costs of television production, which were astronomical compared to the costs of radio production.

Network chairpersons were also more than a little uncomfortable with having so little control over content.

Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, NBC’s president from 1946 to 1956, advocated a solution that was considered extremely radical at the time. It was inspired by magazines, where many advertisers each purchased a single page. Instead of pages, Weaver posited, television advertisers would purchase small slots of time within programs. Television networks, like magazine editorial boards, would assume control of the content.

Weaver’s idea was the wackiest of the bunch. Yet it’s the one (obviously) that caught on.

Interruptive advertising (advertising that interrupts programming) ruled the roost for 60 years before alternative entertainment models and savvier consumers altered the game for advertisers. That’s quite a long run for Weaver’s supposedly wacky idea.

Product Innovation: Technology — the iPhone

Choosing one technological innovation from human history to emphasize is like choosing your favorite pine needle from the branches of a Douglas fir. A person could make an excellent case for the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone and the television. Other people might be more partial to refrigeration and air conditioning.

But I’m going to go with the iPhone, even though it would have been nothing without the personal computer and the Internet.

“The first iPhone was a mishmash of ideas, and it was nowhere near as refined as what Apple’s producing now,” designer Dale Evans told Men’s Health. “But it pushed the boundaries in so many ways — with new technology and new ideas — that it launched this whole new category.”

The release of the iPhone meant nothing less than this: that anyone who wanted to could carry the world in her pocket. Even if all anyone wanted to do was look at cat videos.

Product Innovation: Food — Frozen Food

Eight decades before Dos Equis beer was widely available in the United States, Clarence Birdseye was the world’s most interesting man.

In the 1920s, Birdseye was a field naturalist for the U.S. Geological Survey who traded fur on the side when he witnessed an quick-freezing process performed by the Inuit people that did not damage the fish being frozen. He returned to the States and invented a machine that mimicked the Inuit methods and started the General Seafood Corporation.

Birdseye wasn’t the first one to offer frozen food. He was the first one to make it palatable.

“He realized that was because it froze instantly because it was so cold — that was the key to making frozen food good,” author Mark Kurlansky told Smithsonian Magazine. “An old principle that salt makers know is that the quicker crystals form, the smaller they are. So if you get really small crystals the ice doesn’t deform the tissue. So that was the first important thing.”

Kurlansky said Birdseye got the DuPont Company to invent cellophane wrappers to address his packaging challenges. “Then there were all these things like transportation, getting trucking companies and trains to have freezer cars, and getting stores to carry freezers. There was absolutely no infrastructure for frozen food. He had to do all of that and it took more than a decade.”

Birdseye’s company, which came to be called Birds Eye, still fills supermarket freezers with food preserved by a version of Birdseye’s original process.

Customers Like Flash But They Crave Substance

An ancient English satirist once opined: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Translation: The only way to sell snake oil in 2015 is to make snake oil that actually works.

As Balasubramanian said at the outset, customers want companies to solve their problem. A germane corollary to that (one that Apple has embraced to profitable effect) is that customers also want companies to solve the problems they don’t know they have yet.

Apple rescued the moribund tablet computer category by releasing a tablet computer that was so good and useful, it became a necessity.

As superlative as its marketing strategies have been, Apple owes its success to its products. Other companies would be wise to imitate Apple, not that they need any encouragement in that endeavor.

Photos: Shutterstock and BMDG

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