Creating Amazing Customer Experiences Through "Soft" Innovation

To generate growth, companies seem to love "hard" product innovation--the type of expensive breakthroughs that require engineers and PhDs to toil away deep in the lab. Think Teflon, Viagra, or the Segway scooter. The challenge with this type of innovation is that it's expensive and high risk because it requires a lot of marketing dollars to educate consumers, not to mention the cost of developing the product itself. And because mass advertising is not as effective as it once was, it's becoming more lengthy and expensive to recapture this type of significant R&D investment. The growing glut of technology and patents is creating a lot of noise, making it harder to predictably execute big innovations. What if your amazing new product doesn't take off?

On the flip side, soft innovators establish new standards for quality, experience, and sales in their categories without actually doing anything profoundly innovative. Think Ben & Jerry's, which introduced the ice cream pint to the world as a more personal alternative to the half-gallon or gallon tub.

At Method, we try to balance soft and hard innovations. Don't get us wrong, we love big innovation -- such as our radical 8x laundry detergent, which has received global accolades -- but many companies underestimate the power of soft innovation, which can enhance the consumer experience and drive massive differentiation within a category. The advantage of a soft innovation is that it treads lightly on the R&D budget, requires less marketing support because consumers "get it" right away, and is predictably successful because the idea is familiar and the consumer learning curve is quicker.

Despite this comparably minimal risk, soft innovations have the power to disrupt or shift entire categories. Consider our cucumber all-purpose cleaner, our teardrop hand wash, or our new pump dish soap. Similar products have been done before, but each of ours brings a new scent, shape, or interaction to the customer experience.

For us, soft innovation includes the fragrance, design and witty personality of our products. None of this is individually groundbreaking, but collectively it has a big impact. Going back to the original big idea of "Aveda for the home," bringing a personal-care approach to home care was revolutionary, but the steps to get there were very evolutionary.

We build emotional points of difference into every product to create an engaging consumer experience. We do this by dramatically challenging existing alternatives on every front, from the use of unexpected fragrances like sea minerals to packaging copy that talks about angry squirrels. Great experiences are about being human, and humans want to be surprised. Basic categories like soap offer few opportunities for differentiation, so you have to sweat the details. The way the label feels in your hand, the shape of the bottle on your counter, the sound of the trigger being squeezed, the writing on the back of a bottle that makes you chuckle, even the little surprise of an owner's manual inside a candle box. Soft innovations collectively create an experience whenever you provide something different and unexpected.

Appropriation is a great technique for creating soft innovations. It's the act of taking a small part, like a quotation, from something created by someone else and using it for your own purposes without permission. It's a fancy word for stealing (on a small scale), but it's vital to any artistic business. We "steal" all the time. We stole the idea for the huddle from Innocent, and we stole the fragrance idea of sea minerals from Bare Essentials. Take the upside-down dish soap inspired by a stapler that sits on its end for easier use, or our original squeeze-and- pour laundry detergent bottle design borrowed from Act mouth rinse. Furthermore, we invite you to steal ideas from us. These are victimless crimes. There's a big difference between appropriating an idea from a foreign category and doing a knock-off of a whole product in your own.

Creating a knock-off (stealing other people's work to compete directly against them) says you're not only an asshole, but you also lack the talent to come up with your own original ideas. (Can you tell we deal with this all the time?) But appropriating ideas from another category is about being inspired and translating someone else's innovation to a new purpose. It's about spotting a trend in a distant category or country and recognizing that the same consumer motivation being satisfied there could also be satisfied in your category. It's a way to create more predictable innovation, because you are taking something proven and applying it to your product. In essence, the brand concept for Method -- Bring personal care to home care -- was an appropriation play. We looked for ways to translate what people loved about personal care and brought it to home care. Beautiful fragrances, like lavender, bottle designs that made a personal statement, and formulas that were healthy to touch -- all stolen from our friends a few aisles away.

We have specific categories that we continually look to for inspiration. Ours include housewares, cosmetics, and functional beverages, but we don't limit it just to these categories. The idea for our biodiesel shipping program that allows us to ship products using veggie oil was borrowed from local food distributors in San Francisco. We challenge you to use appropriation to avoid the gravitational pull of your category and apply lessons from others that will help achieve the vision you have set for yourself.

Whether you are inspired by an unrelated category or putting a unique spin on a small detail of your packaging, soft innovation will help you build great experiences without reinventing the wheel with every product you make.

Excerpted from The Method Method by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry.

[Image: Flickr user bored-now]

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2 Comments

  • Shmoo

    This makes sense if you sell soap, mascara, paper-clips, or flip-flops.  It doesn't make sense if you build satellites, software, medical equipment, or weapons.  Maybe I'm in the wrong business...

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I agree with the content, and I agree with the idea of borrowing, or allowing yourself to be inspired by a bunch of different ideas and products, but this article seems a lot like a commercial

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coachwww.DarkMatterConsulting.comHeroes and Heroines need a Guide:Arthur had MerlinLuke had Obi-WanBuffy had GilesYou have MeTime to be Extraordinary!