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
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
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]