Innovation Done Right – The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Sara Lee SoftIn my last post I kept referring back to that old simile of building the next great thing since sliced bread. Well, believe it or not there is innovation in things as common as sliced bread and Sara Lee is an example of a company who gets it when it comes to listening to consumers, identifying the real problems they are trying to solve, and then implementing a product that exceeds their expectations.

Sara Lee was one of 11 winners in the Chicago Innovation Awards in October and the success the award celebrated was their new Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread. If you click on the CIA link and select “2006 Awards” at the bottom of the page you will see a brief video of Peter Reiner, VP of Sara Lee brands, discussing how they came up with the truly innovative new bread by leveraging deep consumer insights.

What is it: a whole grain white wheat bread with the appearance, texture and taste of a refined white bread that young kids and adults love.

What problem it solves: Consumers in general realize they need to improve their diets and “whole grains” is one of the areas that the FDA and nutritionists have identified as a lack in many Americans’ diets. Heather Hawkes on the Harvard Medical School Consumer Health Information site explains,

New government guidelines recommend that Americans make half of their grains whole, eating three or more 1-ounce servings a day. Yet it’s estimated that the average consumer eats less than one-third of the recommended amount of whole grains — and 40% of us never eat whole grains at all!

Moms want to feed their children healthy food and despair that their children refuse to eat wheat bread because it doesn’t taste good or is too “crusty” to eat. Kids want great tasting sandwiches made with white bread (that light and airy stuff with no nutritional value – think Wonder Bread when you were a kid). Just try to get a young child to eat wheat bread, experience shows they can be pretty intractable. One of the best insights I’ve seen came from a director of nutrition services in the Omaha Public Schools, “The hardest thing is to get a kid to eat something that’s brown or anything that looks like it has seeds in it.” Given the focus on children’s health and obesity, the Public Schools clearly have an interest here as well. In my house it’s not a problem, the girls eat nothing but Great Harvest whole wheat, but for most families this is a deep set issue.

But it’s not just about children either. As Heather Hawkes explains further in her article, research in the Harvard Medical School’s Nurses Health Study demonstrates that a diet with greater emphasis on whole grains also contributes to weight loss or maintenance for women.

Now if you know nothing else about food, you should quickly realize that children’s health and women’s weight are probably the two biggest lodestones when it comes to trends and issues in American eating. Find a product that reasonably and effectively answers these issues and you have just hit the mother lode.

So Sara Lee’s product captures both of these insights and satisfies both the target consumer and the target purchaser.

What are the results: The #1 selling bread in the bread aisle of your local grocer – a hotly contested shelf space. According to IRI data, Soft & Smooth sold 16.7 million 20 ounce loafs or $30.2 million in sales between the launch in July through December 2005. That’s $30 million in 6 months! Again, for those not in the know, a single new product launch into grocery that delivers $30 million in the first year is a homerun. Sara Lee knocked this one out of the park and on its way to the moon just on revenues. But other indicators show that this is not just a one hit wonder where consumers try it once and move on. A survey done by Sara Lee among the target audience showed that 90% of Women with Children in Household rated the bread in the top two boxes of Very Favorable or Somewhat Favorable and again 91% indicated a high intent to purchase again after first trial. The bread did so well for Sara Lee at launch that they cut ad spending and dedicated the marketing dollars to production in order to meet demand.

How did they do it: Sara Lee partnered with a K&A client, ConAgra Foods, (and by this I’m not implying we had anythig to do with the product development) and is leveraging their Ultragrain Whole White Wheat as a key ingredient. What is White Wheat you ask? According to Ms. Hawkes, it is essentially albino wheat with none of the tannins and acids that make traditional wheat bread (made from red wheat flour) taste bitter:

Traditional wheat flour comes from red wheat. The bran layer contains tannins and phenolic acid, which are bitter and account for much of the taste difference between whole wheat and white bread. The red bran coloring is responsible in part for the darker color of whole wheat.

White wheat is a natural albino variety. It does not contain the tannins or acids that red wheat does, so the taste is sweeter and milder. The flour coloring is lighter, more golden. What’s more, it is touted as being the nutritional equivalent of its red wheat counterpart.

Sara Lee has leveraged this success into Whole Grain hamburger and hot dog buns and other breads that are equally experiencing strong success. So not only is this a great product, it also established a great platform for further product development in related spaces. There you have it, a great example of how focusing tightly on the problems customers face can lead to significant product success and strong customer loyalty. Sara Lee did go out and ask customers what they wanted, but they also went deeper and worked to identify the underlying issues and emotional drivers. This is the key to new product success in any business. Most marketers nod their head and say “Yup” when you say, “Thou shalt know thy customer.” Yet all they know is quantitative data which will tell you whether or not they like your product or brand, but it won’t tell you the kind of data that is gathered through ethnographic interactions and cultural research. You have to peel back the layers on the realities of your customers’ experiences. You have to REALLY know your customer, the world they inhabit and the true sources of the problems they face to see this kind of success. Either that or be extremely lucky.

Spring renewal – or reinventing a product

Ah Spring in Chicago, you never quite know what you’re going to get.  In fact it is the ultimate in failed consumer experiences because in early March you often get a couple of days of really warm weather (up to 70 degrees this year) and if you’re not careful you develop the false expectation that the days will be warmer and sunnier from there on out.  But you have to remind yourself that YOU live in CHICAGO, where it can shift in a matter of hours from a balmy 75 degree morning with no clouds in sight to a wickedly windy 30 degree afternoon with snow and freezing rain.  Which was exactly the weather we experienced yesterday – the snow part I mean, definitely NOT the balmy part.  Praise the weather gods that my commute started at a quarter to 6 when no one was on the roads still, it was much worse for some of my other colleagues trying to make it down to Lincoln Park from the outer burbs at the typical rush hour.

In many ways, the unpredictable weather is like a poorly released product all hyped up with insufficient substance to support it. 

Follow me here and I’m sure you will recognize the symptoms of the 9 Steps to the Vault of Irrelevance

1. Marketing has identified the top 3 problems that they believe consumers are trying to solve and have tweaked the positioning to get the masses all excited about how this product will be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

2. The product requirements documentation is developed to match these specifications but no significant research is attached to it that provides the emotional expectations of the consumer and how they perceive each particular problem area.

3. Compromises are made in the development process to the point that only one of these three features is likely to make it into the initial release.  One feature would take too long to meet the release deadlines that the corporate honchos are demanding to cover the investments required and the other feature was caught up in a political debate about whether this is the type of product that “our company” or “our division” would build for “our consumers.”  Further arguments around the third feature force it to be shaped in unnatural ways to support the company’s proprietary solution or brands (think Sony portable audio equipment using Memory Stick technology, the Playstation 3 and Blu-Ray, or Microsoft software if you need examples).

4. In the meantime, Sales and Product Management are hyping up the soon to be released product promising that it will be the greatest thing since sliced bread while demonstrating all three features with the caveat that two of them will probably make it into the next greatest thing since sliced bread otherwise known as “version 2” or better yet, “service pack 1.”  One reason why they hype the product in this fashion is because they believe that this will convince consumers to adopt our product line and brand rather than the competitor’s.  Note: this used to work back in 1995 – todays bloggers and reviewers have seen one too many “phantom” vaporous releases such that they will pan your product hard if you attempt to overhype it – and they will be merciless when you attempt to release version 2 if it takes too long or fails to deliver the “forgotten features.”

5.  Beta releases or perhaps early R&D versions of your product are reviewed by journalists and enthusiasts and they really want to love your product because it seemed so cool when they learned of the concept, but they keep tripping over the interface, the unnatural lock-down to your proprietary technology, or the missing features that would have made this the “perfect product.” 

6. After two unfortunate delays due to [name your hardware, software, or manufacturing issue] which were completely foreseen but improperly planned for, your product is finally launched with enormous fanfare and so much enthusiasm by your target consumers that it’s absolutely guaranteed that yours will be the fastest adopted product ever, besting the Palm Pilot, the Apple iPod, Playstation, and Windows 95…oh wait, that’s right, Vista is now the fastest adopted OS ever, sorry Microsoft. (Only one problem, my totally unscientific poll (n=7) shows that in spite of the numbers claimed, every enthusiast I have spoken with tells me they have yet to adopt Vista for full time usage because it’s too slow, buggy, or incompatible with their existing software and hardware – and these are software guys who jumped at Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP).

7. The first month’s sales report rolls in and little red flags are raised – people are kicking the tires but they definitely are not buying in droves.   Sales and Product Management continue to hit up the reviewers, the key influencers, and press interviews and push hard on their channel sales contacts.  The word that comes back is people want those missing features and they just don’t find your product very usable.  Or they find it very usable but not very deep in being able to help them solve their problems.  Either way, they’re not buying so you pray that it’s just early adoption issues.

8.  The first quarter’s sales report rolls in and not only are you not on track to be the fastest adopted product ever, you’re in serious consideration for being another one of those products that made it just out of the starting gate before collapsing. The consumer response is so deafening you can hear the crickets chirping.  Add to this the complaints that are coming in because the bugs and incompatibility issues are causing customers to call in requesting support for a faulty LCD, a general protection fault, or a locked up device when they hit the play button (or some other common action).  So even where you are selling product the margins are being further eroded by costs of technical support and RMAs.

9. A year later, your product continues to limp, even though you’ve released three “improvement packs,” and you’re trying to convince consumers that the forthcoming version 2 truly will be the next greatest thing since sliced bread. 

You simply cannot figure out why your presentations are greeted with hostility at best and indifference at worst.

So what’s the problem?  The problem started at the very beginning.  The product was pre-defined before truly capturing the insights of what problems consumers are trying to solve.  Now look, some of the issues identified above in the 9 Steps  are going to happen even if you do have a well defined product – they’re part of Murphy messing around with your process and bad things happening to good products.  But for a product to succeed you have to have a VERY clear message and a very simple solution path that resonates with everyone on the development and product teams.  They have to KNOW your target consumer so well that they can understand why a tweak in one direction would violate expectations.  What this does is clear the path such that you are not wasting time arguing over what is best for the product but instead focusing on avoiding the typical development, production, and marketing issues that can founder even the best of products being developed by the best of teams.

At K&A we call this developing an Innovation Mindset and it definitely starts at the top of an organization but it must be inculcated into the culture of the entire organization in order for you to succeed more consistently than the average bear.  The point in developing new products is not to fail fast, in spite of what some may say and many may believe.  In reality, it is capture the majority of your failures earlier in the development process such that a greater percentage of your successes make it to market and your investments are better than the typical 1 in 10 shots of a VC.  If you’re going to play that game, why not just take your money to the racetrack or the poker table.  You’ll at least have more fun in the process while you do flush your money down the toilet. 

We’ll delve more into the Innovation Mindset in future posts.

Why Are Products Imperfect?

Products typically are not imperfect – they’re perfectly designed to fit a particular need as defined by the team responsible for building the product.  And yet everyday the targeted users of those products very often find themselves saying, “I wish they would make [some change] to this product, then it would be PERFECT!” 

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the eye of the customer.

Every product or service that is released to the market is a result of multiple compromises based on decisions made by the brand manager, the R&D product manager, the marketing manager, and everyone else who has skin in the game as they prepare the offering to meet the needs of their target customer.  How these decisions are made is the focus of this site and I will work to shed light on the keys to success using examples across many industries.

The title of this site was inspired by an article I came across a few years ago in USA Today (not the newspaper but instead a magazine published by the Society for  the Advancement of Education) describing the work of Henry Petroski, a professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University.  The text of this article is quoted below since the actual article is not available online. 

I take a slightly different stance on imperfect design leading to imperfect products.  I have a firm conviction that the real reason for product or service imperfection (or the product not quite matching the intended user’s needs) is due to imperfect insight where the brand or product manager has failed to truly grasp the reasons why you or I or my mother would want to use a product like theirs.  Or at a more fundamental level, the product manager failed to grasp the complete conceptual picture of the problem we are trying to solve in using this product.  Hence, “Picture Imperfect.”*

We’ll explore this in future posts.

Imperfect Designs, Perfect Products – INNOVATION

What do paper cups, toothbrushes, grocery bags, kitchen faucets, doorknobs, and automobile cup holders have in common? They all are the imperfect products of designers seeking to come up with something better for consumers. Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Durham, N.C., looks at the design of things we take for granted and concludes there can never be an end to the guest for the perfect design.

In Small Things Considered, Petroski notes that all plans involve choice, usually to satisfy competing constraints, whether they be cost, size, efficiency, or the myriad other factors that make the difference between a design that works and one that doesn’t. “. . . The design of made things, as opposed to design in nature and the artistic interpretation of it, necessarily proceed within the confines of the laws of science and economics. An . . . inventor or designer of practical things must accept the realities of gravity and budgets, keeping his feet on the ground and his eye on the price.”

Petroski examines a variety of common objects and how their designs evolved. Take the paper cup, for example, which was spawned early last century when people began to realize that the communal tin cup from which everyone-healthy and sick alike-drank at the public water barrel, well, pump, or spigot often was the source of germs and disease.

Inventor and entrepreneur Lawrence W. Luellen eventually came up with a design that had a flange around the top edge of a cup to stiffen it and make it easier to dispense one at a time from a stack of nested cups in a machine. Luellen and his partners later named the product the Dixie cup.

While most people now drink water from their own plastic bottles, the Dixie cup remains widely in use. Not so for the paper grocery bag, which was developed in the mid 1800s. The plastic bag was introduced into American supermarkets in the mid 1970s and its sturdy handles, which enable shoppers to carry many more bags at a time, are among its most competitive features. “The plastic bag has clearly become the container of choice, we shoppers adjusting to its limitations the way we adjust to those of all designs. The once near-perfect up-standing paper grocery bag has mostly been displaced by something that is at the same time superior and yet inferior. That is the way it often is with designed objects.”

*Note: the title of this weblog also has something to do with the fact that I am a bit of a shutterbug and still struggle at perfect image composition since I have way more power in the camera than I am able to handle.  So it is not unusual to hear me muttering about the shot that got away due to improper focus or depth of field or any of a number of other failures.  Thank goodness for digital photography where I can see the results immediately and recompose on the fly.  That is my saving grace!

Hello world!

Ah, those wonderful words, the first words to show up on the screen as you take the first steps in code writing in most common software languages. 

Every weblog takes its first breath when its creator puts pixel to monitor and authors the inaugural post.  So here I sit eyes staring at the white screen, fingers trembling as they await instructions from the brain, and palms beginning to perspire at the real question, am I serious about this endeavor?

The response dear reader, whomever you might be, is, “Absolutely!”

So here’s to many future posts and conversations as we explore the winding paths of how to build innovative new products and services that succeed in the marketplace by generating passion in the ultimate enduser.  How is this done?  Obviously that is our task to define but the key is to recognize that you must first capture the perfect picture of exactly the problem your customer is trying to solve.