Disruption requires vision and consumer insight

by Nigel Hollis | October 31, 2018

In her latest article in Marketing Week, Helen Edwards declares, “Unless you’re ahead of the consumer, you can’t be ahead of the competition.” And she is absolutely right. The problem is that too many marketers seem to have defaulted to blindly following their consumers, rather than trying to stay ahead of them.

You might think that as a consumer insight practitioner I might take exception to Edwards’ assertion that asking consumers what they want leads to ‘me-too’ products. After all, it is my job to provide and interpret consumer feedback. Far from it; I have always said that consumers can only tell you about the world as they see it today. And if you limit your insight to consumer feedback, then you likely end up on a level playing field with your competitors.

Even when we crowdsource new ideas, a useful part of the innovation process, the vast majority of suggestions will be rooted in people’s current experience. That is fine when people are asked to respond to something that needs to be effective in the current context but it makes developing truly disruptive new products more challenging. To do so Edwards suggests,

“that means heading into the space beyond what consumers can ask for today, and creating products and services that you know – even if they don’t – will make their lives better tomorrow.”

Edwards’ article reminds me of this quote from Jeff Bezos,

“You, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots.”

I do not think that either Edwards or Bezos is suggesting we discard consumer insight. In fact, it has two very important roles to play in the innovation process.

First, to create customer understanding. Consumer insight, whether qualitative or quantitative, social or survey, search or implicit, creates the map of needs, feelings, and interests of the people who might buy a new offer. But that map will not tell you where your brand needs to go, or what white space might provide the best opportunity for growth. That is your job based on all the information to hand, not just the consumer feedback.

Second, to help find the blind spots. Everyone had blind spots, and if they do not already exist, businesses are just brilliant at creating them based on data, processes, and protocols. Sometimes it blinds them to huge opportunities. Edwards calls out Bailey’s, the iPad, and Airbnb as brands that consumers never asked for but maybe we could also add Halo Top ice cream which has gained a 5 percent share of the U.S. ice cream market in two years.

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I cannot help but wonder why it took a guy in his kitchen to seize the low sugar opportunity rather than one of the incumbent brands. I fear that the answer might be, ‘Consumer feedback suggested that people did not believe the product would taste good’. And it is true that initial sales of Halo Top were less than stellar. But then that is what marketing should be good at, taking something different and making it meaningful and salient to a wider audience. And to do that you really do need to start by understanding your customer.

So how can incumbent brands be more disruptive? Please share your thoughts.

2 comments

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  1. Nigel, November 13, 2018
    Thanks Anita, I love the way Ben & Jerry's manages to take a stand and act differently, however, they do seem to have dropped the ball when it comes to disruption. Halo Top's success should have been theirs. 
  2. Anita , November 01, 2018

    Great and really interesting post, Nigel! No one ever said moving fast and breaking things was an easy mantra, so incumbent brands who innovate consistently deserve an extra special pat on the back. Ben and Jerry's and KitKat are some examples that come to mind (possibly because I am hitting a late afternoon slump!) and while not strictly disruptive, their continuous pursuit of doing things differently is pretty cool. 

    Particularly impressed by Pecan Resist and Ben & Jerry's promise to stand by women, immigrants and people of colour. Vive la résistance! 

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