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Where has all the innovation gone?

Last month I attended the annual Grocery Innovations Conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

These shows are always interesting to me, as I’m able to assess the trends food manufacturers are embracing. In the past there have always been one or two products that I think to myself “That was so simple, why hasn’t someone thought of this before!”

I spent quite a bit of time wandering from booth to booth and have to admit there wasn’t anything I found to be particularly unique.

Don’t get me wrong – there were lots of products I had never heard of, such as maple water and some interesting ethnic products. But I was hoping to see was something truly unique and different. There was no innovative packaging and no unique twists on old ideas. Have we simply run out of ideas, or is it more the case that we aren’t prepared to invest in true innovation?

It is a pet peeve of mine that companies use the terms product innovation and product line extensions interchangeably. Innovation is not a new flavour or a revised logo. Nor is it a product that is already out in the market but with a different product claim. Innovation should mean trying something different.

The TV dinner was an innovation in frozen meals back in the ‘70s. Since that point, all frozen meals meant to be heated, eaten and sold on a tray cannot be considered innovations, regardless of flavour, calorie count or product claims.  The Swiffer revolutionized cleaning the floor through a product with disposable pads. Flavourings for water, like Kraft’s Crystal Light, were innovations that made drinking tap water more interesting.  Crystal Light may had been available for years, but the uniqueness was in its brand positioning coupled with a new packaging format. Innovations can simply be using the same product in a different way. These products either created a category or changed a category forever.  Where are those innovations?

The best innovations have been, and I predict always will be, products that make everyday behaviours easier or more enjoyable.  The only way to know what these things are is to talk to your consumer. Get to know what they need. They are your best source for new product innovation.

Innovations are not universal. The idea has to fit with your brand and what it stands for. For example, No Name would have a hard time selling White Truffle Mac & Cheese. The No Name consumers wouldn’t buy it because it would be too expensive, and white truffle connoisseurs would never buy it because they wouldn’t believe No Name could produce a product of that calibre.

I often hear from companies that they don’t have the budget to do consumer research. I hear that and I shake my head because it’s akin to saying, “I can’t afford to buy new tires for my car.”

Eventually the tires get worn and you will be forced to replace them at the worst possible time.  The tires have blown, it’s pouring rain and you’re stuck on the side of the road. Consumer research is like those tires. If you have great consumer research, you know what your consumers want and are able to proactively react to those changes. When you focus your efforts on new products with great consumer insights. you will have the ability to develop true innovations that fit with consumer needs that send you racing ahead of the competition.

In today’s day and age of consumers who are brand fickle, and looking for product differentiation as a reason to spend more, innovation is no longer something just for the huge multi-nationals with big budgets.  All you need is a real desire to be different and innovative, some targeted and well executed consumer research and great consumer insights will set you far down the path to being a category leader.

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