Many innovative new products fail. I believe that too many innovation teams focus on their own innovation capabilities and neglect brand and culture. Teams are too quick to think about all the products they can create, without considering why they might do this. Innovation agencies often focus on process and design a process to generate ideas.
I believe that foresight and innovation are two sides of the same coin. If you want to create new products that genuinely resonate with consumers, then it needs to begin from a position of foresight and cultural intelligence. Innovation ideas must be generated in the context of the brand and culture that the product will live in. Too often ideas are generated with no context, and these products are not successful. Foresight is needed to start the process of innovation.
So what is foresight? First we must understand consumer insight. This is about finding out how consumers engage with existing products and brands. Foresight takes a broader view to understand the consumers’ cultural context and how the brand lives within this. By understanding culture, by which we mean the practices, institutions and beliefs of a community, brands can plan better for the future. This might involve emergent audiences, cultural changes and future threats and opportunities. New products and innovations need this broader understanding to plan for the future. I believe passionately that innovation cannot be divorced from the brand, and culture, it will operate in.
Here’s a classic example. I conducted foresight for a well-known oats company. They were known mostly for selling porridge oats. They had lost an understanding of their brand. Instead they were stuck in an innovation spiral. They produced lots of new innovations, such as oaty chocolate muffins that took them into luxury and indulgence spaces. They were making lots of products; the only thing in common were the oats. This divulged massively from their brand heritage and brand culture. Thankfully the company embarked on a reappraisal of their original core product – porridge – and reflected on their brand essence. We also alerted them to a new cultural shift: people were re-evaluating breakfast. People were understanding that breakfast was an important meal of the day that should not be skipped. They wanted a hearty breakfast that wasn’t too sugar-laden. People were also recognising that breakfast provided an easy (albeit rushed) time when the family came together. So the core product, porridge, was far from a dying category but was well-placed to benefit from a cultural shift back to a hearty, family breakfast. So they had a careful think about their brand positioning, incorporating plenty of this insight, and they reimagined the brand. They took inspiration from their founding father, the man on the box, and went back to basics about what the brand stood for. Their noble purpose was to provide good-value nutrition for families. So everything produced would be nutrient dense and reasonably priced. No more chocolate cakes. But this didn’t mean sticking with porridge oats and forgetting innovation. From this new perspective, they were able to produce new products in contemporary formats, such as that well-known, super successful, simple satchel oat product. They knew not to add artificial flavours and sugars. This also provided opportunities for them to innovate in other ways, such as providing nutritious formulas for overseas aid. Outstanding foresight leads to new, successful product innovation, as well as giving a brand confidence to align with appropriate social purpose activities. Time and money is not wasted in the innovation process because new innovations resonate with consumers and align with the brand.
But it’s not always about narrowing brand focus. Sometimes it’s about understanding the various cultural contexts that a brand lives in, to broaden the brand role. An example of this comes from a household-name antibacterial spray company. They had a brand that was all about “killing germs”. Thanks to our detailed international foresight, they were able to reimagine their brand essence; it is about spreading health. Why did this come about? We did research around the world about understanding the culture of germ killing. We learnt this means different things around the world. For example, in the Middle East the focus was on ritualised purification. Lots of cleaning was done at specific times and there was a sense of preparing for things important for family life, as well as spiritual cleanliness. Dirt and immorality were closely connected. In Europe, particularly in Germany, germs were understood to be about accommodation – how do we live with germs? Bacteria was considering a living thing and people did not wish to over-sterilise their homes and eradicating germs that might be important for their immune systems or the natural world. In contrast, in America, the concern was around the outside threat of germs and trying to keep this out of your home. Consumer narratives were about prevention. This type of international foresight is really important because it showed that the brand mission had to accommodate a range of cultural differences. The assertion that the product kills 99.9% of germs worked brilliantly in the Middle East, but in the USA they wanted to know about preventing mould regrowth. So the brand mission was redefined as spreading health. Having this higher order mission allowed for innovations not only for the product, but also for delivery systems, how the product was used, teaching people how to use the product. Broadening the brand role lead to educating children on handwashing in schools to avoid the spread of colds and flus – this lead to massive, observable decline in child sickness. You can see how liberating this is for an innovation perspective to be able to think beyond the physical product by understanding what are you here to do in more detail. I believe that the consumer cultural context and brand needs to be understood before innovation can take place. Otherwise your innovation activity is as effective as using anti-bac spray in the dark.
Foresight has three crucial dimensions. These are: 1. what your consumer does with the brand; 2. what social system your brand lives in; and 3. the cultural makeup of your consumer.
First, you have what the consumer does – their behaviours, rituals, regimens. How a brand is involved in people’s lives? You can learn an immense amount for innovation by looking at these things. Women in India comb additional shampoo into their hair after washing. Understanding this regimen, that has been established over hundreds of years, provides important understanding. A shampoo company was trying to ‘educate’ Indian women about how to wash their hair ‘properly’. Instead, accepting the existing practice of adding shampoo allows for innovation opportunities that support cultural practices, as the distinctions between shampoo, conditioner and hair oils become superfluous.
Second, you need to understand the different social systems that your brand lives in. This includes: family situations, living arrangements, religious practices, regulatory practices, retail practices, tradition and politics. Lots of Indian women living in rural locations shop in small, family-run retail spaces, and have no storage space and little disposable income. Understanding this meant that the shampoo brand adapted their packaging to sell their product in tiny, single-use sachets to be successful.
Third, you have the cultural makeup of your consumer. This covers notions of gender, body and mind, notions of work-money-play, and social currency. Young Indian men, like many other men around the world, want to only use one product to wash their hair and body, knowing this allowed the innovation team to focus on a product that would be good enough for skin and hair.
I believe that the innovation process has to be fuelled by more than just the very clever minds of the marketing people sitting in the room, or the product development people experimenting with new products. It must be fuelled by foresight. As I’ve shown, foresight helps in several ways. It helps innovation stay true to a brand. It provides an understanding of the essential elements of a brand, helping a team understand how to progress, and crucially what products to kill off. It provides an understanding of the cultural shifts taking place, but even more essentially warns what is on the horizon. It also provides an understanding of the product usage and culture to develop new products.
What is essential is identifying your brand’s purpose and gaining a deep understanding of how your product is embedded in people’s lives. To understand this, you need great cultural intelligence that understands this. What is your brand’s mission? What does it exist to do? What is the purpose? This alone is not enough, this has to be combined with a rich understanding of your target consumers, through a cultural lens. There are three dimensions to this: what they do, their social system and their cultural makeup. So an innovation workshop or process must involve an immersion of your brand and product development team in these things. This is where an insight agency plays an essential role. The innovation sweet spot lies at the intersection of foresight, brand, consumer and cultural awareness, and innovation capabilities.