Don't Go Dark On Innovation

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August 06, 2020

by Andrew Wardlaw


Consumer habits are being broken like never before, but new ones are being created. So, now is not the time to put product development on the back-burner.

Last week, Unilever announced its intention to increase brand investment, indicating support for ‘product innovation tailored to the new environment.’ This is welcome news because we're all looking for evidence of increased economic activity. What is particularly significant about the company's statement is its reference to ‘the new environment.’ Unilever clearly acknowledges that consumer needs have shifted.

There has been an on-going battle of opinions over where consumer habits will ultimately end up. For my money, I believe that most of our old ways will return, but it’s unlikely they’ll all return to the same level of intensity. That’s because new habits are being created. Shopping for groceries online, for example. Psychologists argue how long it takes for new behaviours to become habitual, but 120 days in some state of lock-down satisfies most empirical studies. As an indication, Global Web Index recently reported that 90% of influential Generation Z have changed their daily routines to a significant degree.


This pandemic's legacy will be a re-calibration of people’s needs and behaviours, presenting opportunities for those prepared to go after them.


As Forbes columnist and author of ‘The Innovation Biome’ Kumar Mehta remarks – ‘never waste a down-turn’! There is compelling evidence that people switch brands significantly more after a ‘life event’, and it’s fair to suggest that virtually all of us are experiencing just that!

For players in fast moving consumer goods categories, there are several shifts that we need to prepare for. Here are just three:

Embracing fortification

After years of striving towards more naturally set products, manufacturers must now ramp up efforts to fortify foods that shore up people’s physical and mental health. Research has shown that young people already favour fortification more and are leading the charge towards products that can help with sleep, anxiety and mental focus. Recent global data released by MMR shows that these areas now have similar traction to immunity and gut health. But with most of the action happening on the fringes, now is the time for major manufacturers to innovate and drive this new era in functional foods, being mindful that people are likely to be thinking of their health beyond the breakfast table a lot more in future.

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Trailblazer: RE: NOURISH ‘Calm’ Soup brings in passionflower to underline its positioning. Other ingredients such as L-theanine, ashwagandha and magnesium are likely to surge in next 5 years as people prioritise mental well-being.

Creating experiences

Staying home is the new going out. This was an observation before COVID. Only now, it really is. So far, manufacturers have been prioritising larger pack formats and ‘Direct to Consumer’ operations online. What must follow is innovation that responds to people’s need for experiences at a time when out of home is either denied or much less attractive. Personal care and beauty sectors clearly have an opportunity to step up and offer home spa days. Zoom ready make up kits perhaps?

Trailblazer: Walgreen Boots Tea Tree & Peppermint Moisturising Foot Socks.

For low priced pampering, this product claims to stimulate the senses and deeply soothe and soften dry and rough feet. Products delivering simple rituals and create a sense of ‘carved out’ time to oneself could thrive in the new normal.

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Premium moments

Innovation is hard, and invariably margin diluting, so it is important that brands seek out opportunities in premium spaces. Data just released in the U.K by Kantar, suggests that despite obvious financial pressures, premium sectors are benefiting. It stands to reason: if people are avoiding high-ticket items, socialising less and generally feeling more miserable, then a spot of ‘micro-treating’ on a supermarket sweep is an appealing and low-priced option. For big brands, there is a chance to leverage the recent outpouring of love from the buying public, taking newly rekindled relationships upmarket with new premium options.

Trailblazer: Oreo’s Supreme. As the horror of lock-down began, Mondelez offered a well-timed premium moment. This high-profile launch with only limited supplies meant that eBay was soon offering this beautiful biscuit at over $30,000! 

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As people’s habits change, and their emotional and functional need states shift, brands must follow the lead taken by the consumer. Now is not the time to go dark on innovation. In fact, now is an unexpected chance to steal a march on competitors by reacting to the new consumer landscape that Unilever clearly understands.

And here’s a thought, for your innovation to be remembered, consider developing products that offer ‘sensory peaks’ - fleeting moments that cut through, like the crack of Magnum’s chocolate coating as you bite into it. Such events will help embed your new product into people’s memory structures – helping out with on-going adoption rates.

In changed circumstances, brands have a chance to stay relevant and show empathy with consumers. Whilst advertising can suggest this, it is innovation that shows that you really mean it.

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