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Launching innovation…why so difficult?

Finding the holy grail is a tricky business – sometimes marketers appear like modern day archaeologists, sifting the lives of their consumers for clues, hoping to find the next big idea

David McGowan Pi Global

Given that we are such a conservative industry, why do we find it so difficult to identify opportunities that resonate with our consumers? And when we do have an idea for launch, why does it takes us so long to take it to market?

Part of the issue is of course identifying those ideas that we think are clear winners – do we take the arguably easier option of building on what we know, launching flavour variants that represent the latest tastes or health options, hoping to steal sales from our competitors? Or do we try create a completely new market by launching a truly disruptive innovation? 

History is littered with examples where we have chased the wrong option…which of us hasn’t been involved with launching an alcohol brand aimed specifically at women? Products such as Animee, Copenhagen and Chick Beer have disappeared very quickly.

Whereas a quick trip to Belgium, where 33% of the women like to drink beer, would have shown that for beer to be an attractive choice of refreshment, it simply must taste great! Seen as a convivial drink, best enjoyed in great glassware, with friends, in a café.  It is that simple (If only!)

What do we need to do to alter the course of history?

Well, I would argue that we need to keep it “rigorously simple”. Be dogmatic about what we launch & why we are doing it…but take the simplest route to prove the potential of those ideas we believe in.

Most critical is to truly identify the problem to be solved, the opportunity to be explored, the clear consumer need to be met and a profile of who we are targeting – without that our efforts are often unwittingly misspent.

We pour our ideas into our stage gate funnel, assess, score and prioritise them. Sometimes we ask our consumers, often we work with trend agencies. Then we trust on the emotionless spreadsheet to identify the ones to take forward. Is that what successful entrepreneurs do? I don’t think so.

To deliver, we ask our teams to act like owners, demonstrate entrepreneurial behaviours…but those traits don’t often fit within a large FMCG organisation.

Entrepreneurs have to be adaptable, multi task, manage risk, get their hands dirty, be resilient, learn from failure, make decisions…whereas FMCG have to deal with functions, egos, job descriptions, conflicting objectives and sometimes angry suppliers before then awaiting decisions from the monthly stage gate meeting. Of course entrepreneurs have the luxury of answering to themselves, passionate about their product; often having invested time, sweat and possessions on bringing their baby to market. They have a lot to lose - we often don’t.

But as leaders we can of course influence the process & people that will make the significant difference.

On process, my packaging team and I once completed a Value Stream Mapping exercise on the development process…mapping only the critical inputs and outputs that drove an action. Wonderful to discover that there were only a handful of people that critically had to be involved to get the product to market.

On people, key decisions can be made by those with the correct experience and behaviours – but critically with the clear support of a senior responsible stakeholder. Upon completing the VSM exercise with our supply base, we reduced time to market by approximately 50%. A few suppliers even found it refreshing to be asked what actions they could take to minimise lead time – without reducing their margins. With hindsight, I wish we had included a design agency into the process because I believe we could reduce even further. Perhaps a project for the future.   

Most critical for me is to have an experienced project manager. I remember the times when the Innovation guy from head office would rock up out of the blue for production trials, boss us all around and expect an energised, motivated workforce…looking frustrated that no one was listening to the stranger with the funny accent (yes he was English). In truth, most of my team were just thinking of their next break! Something to be said about managing expectations and empathy when it comes to effective influencing.

And our industry is old. It is still possible to find employees who have followed in the footsteps of their fathers and mothers. It is a culture in which leadership skills simply cannot be underestimated. 

Ultimately managing business expectations is critical. Trialling to learn is challenging…but there are few “overnight successes” that have not faced failure or change before becoming that big success – we tend to forget that products usually take between 5 to 10 years to gain critical mass, brand awareness and distribution.

The clear example of this for me is Hendricks Gin. A wonderful creation of smooth fruity product and theatrical packaging that personifies premium gin, it was launched in 1999 but took nearly 10 years to really succeed.

William Grants showed true insight about gin consumers and demonstrated the nurturing that is required for success. They deserve great respect for that. Often brands undergo a change of owner ship or Dragons Den support from an established corporation before finding true success. That seems a more common option these days, especially within the beer sector - If you can’t create it, buy it!

So why don’t we make it simple for ourselves…invest in real insight, truly understanding the real opportunity that our consumers desire…empower a small team of experienced experts that have the ability and power to make decisions, to push the boundaries, manage risks and possibly even to learn through failure. Then support them with unique creative skills to visualise their ideas, make fast decisions, test concepts and validate choices.

And motivate those with the ability to deliver…our employees, our suppliers and our sales teams – by trusting them through involvement. Wise investment indeed.

David McGowan, Innovation Realisation Director at Pi Global - Brand Shaping Specialists.

18 April 2017