Fish where the fish aren’t

Part 2 of our series on innovation. Part 1 here.

There are all sorts of stories about innovation “eureka” moments. That flash of bath time inspiration which led to the inventor re-mortgaging their house to fund the wonder product. Or the entrepreneurs scouring the supermarket aisles looking for tired or dominated categories to disrupt. Stories like this lead the narrative but are incredibly rare and only the successes get recalled. More often, sadly, re-mortgaging the house leads to moving back in with mum and dad.

And it doesn’t reflect the situation that most marketeers face – corporate cultures; byzantine approval processes; complex supply chains; retailers demanding ‘one out, one in’; sales teams wanting to be ‘wowed’; fractional differences in product masquerading as ‘game-changers’ allowing competitors to copy fast.

The question is therefore: where do you look to innovate to increase your chances of success?

Here are five thought starters to consider when framing up projects and shaping the challenges:

Frame your start point
Starting with your consumer base, it’s possible to draw up a robust picture of the market opportunities that are ripe for some new thinking and creativity. Start by defining the territory. What’s important to consumers in your category? What are the big needs that people want fulfilled? What are the over-arching attitudes to the category? What are the ‘rules’ or accepted practises that be challenged or twisted? Which brands already ‘own’ needs? Should we tackle them head on or out-flank them in some way? Disruption comes from understanding the order. Creativity from understanding the constraints.

Framing your start point and clearly mapping the terrain gives you the space to innovate in not just in one campaign, but again and again – the base from which to build a meaningful pipeline of new products or services.

…but be happy to go off-piste a bit too
When you understand the shape of the market, you understand when you’re taking a flyer too. There’s no harm in investigating what may turn out to be cul-de-sacs. By exploring the odd snickets and ginnels of consumer need and desire, you may find a new path to the prize; indeed, you may find a whole new area of opportunity. But stay in control too – you can spend a lot of time with the metaphorical machete cutting through the undergrowth of possibility, only to quickly wear yourself out and lose the alignment and focus of the group.

Improving lives not stealing share
This might sound like it’s stating the obvious but really – really – start with your consumer. Don’t start with your issues. Don’t start with your target. Be mindful of course of your company needs, personal aims and ambitious goals, but if you start from there, you’ll pursue categories that are big and competitive today rather than those that can be big tomorrow and where you can lead not follow. But more than this, if you start with the question of ‘how can I make my customer’s life a little bit better?’ you’re much more likely to come up with ideas that work for them and you. And it is about improving lives: however small, however insignificant you may think it is – that’s your role as brand steward and that’s your responsibility to the category too – to seek ways to expand consumption in meaningful ways, not just slicing the salami ever thinner.

Needs, desires and problems to solve
There’s a whole marketing narrative around digging deeper for insights. Asking ‘why?’ 5 times…and then ending up with an ‘insight’ that is often unusable. There’s a need for balance here. Yes, be curious and ever watchful about why people behave the way they do around our products and why they hold the attitudes they do. But don’t miss the obvious. Don’t miss the opportunities masquerading as itsy-bitsy usage patterns that can drive significant commercial growth. Why isn’t it resealable when the product goes dry? Why aren’t there enough in the pack for two servings each? How do we make it lighter? How we can improve the spout so it pours better? How can we improve the closure so people don’t crack a nail when opening it? How can we show more easily that the product is ready to serve?

Budweiser changed the best before date from a ‘use by’ date (= old) to a ‘born on’ date (= fresh), knowing that beer drinkers want to drink beer as fresh as possible. No change to the packaging other than some letters on the date code. But with some serious investment in consumer comms, brand equity was grown and consumers knew what to look for to check how fresh their beer was.

Finding the trend transitions
It’s human nature to get excited about some fancy name given to three spots of some weird behaviour in Boulder, Colorado. It’s altogether different to identify a pattern of behaviour linking people in Bathgate, Bournemouth, Ballymena and Brecon. And even harder to calculate whether it’s a trend that hasn’t been exploited yet and is going to have consumer traction going forwards. But that’s what you’re after, the transitions from something that’s emerging to something that’s mainstreaming. To fish where the fish aren’t now but will be tomorrow.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 295100;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2021