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Testing concepts Featured

6:29am EDT March 22, 2005
If you perform a Google search on the word "innovation," you'll find yourself searching through more than 31 million entries.

You'll sift through page after page of listings for museums, foundations, institutes, PBS documentary Web sites, online tools and business professionals dedicated to fostering and honoring innovation. And it's no wonder -- with ever-expanding global competition and a slow domestic economy, creative new ideas and products are more valuable than ever.

Just ask Jack Gordon. After serving for eight years as a military intelligence analyst, he launched a civilian marketing career, working for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Beatrice and My Own Meals, and introducing more than 50 new products to the marketplace. He gained first-hand understanding of the make-or-break effect new product and service launches can have on companies and of the pressure on employees to come up with bright new ideas.

In 1991, Gordon joined consumer research company AcuPOLL Research Inc. in its founding year as its CEO.

AcuPOLL uses the Internet and local polling stations to gather the thoughts and opinions of consumers, introduce them to potential new products and provide clients with feedback. The company also offers comparative data pulled from an extensive database and actionable advice based on research results.

Over the past decade, AcuPOLL has tested more than 30,000 product concepts, advertising campaigns and services from clients including The Coca-Cola Co., Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive. With its headquarters in Cincinnati and offices in Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, AcuPOLL has its finger on the pulse of markets worldwide.

Smart Business spoke with Gordon about the secrets to creating the next great innovative idea and tried-and-true tips for making that product a market success.

What makes for a successful product rollout?

We're a concept testing company, to a large degree, so we test the basic idea before [the client] even has a product. The biggest mistake manufacturers make is that when they develop the idea, it's not complete. It doesn't have consumer insight behind it. There's no wow factor, where the consumer says, 'I really have to have something that does this for me.'

The second thing is if they do have the consumer insight, they don't state the benefit well enough. There's not a very clear benefit to the consumer coming out of the idea.

The third thing is, if they do have the benefit, they often don't have the support for the benefit. They'll make wild statements like, 'We're going to clean better than anything you've ever had,' and then they don't tell them what they put in the product to make it clean.

Those are just common pitfalls that can keep you from getting trialed, because it's the idea that gets you trialed. Then, of course, it's the product that gets you repeat (customers). Once you get the idea and you understand that you have a winning idea, it becomes a matter of, 'Can you develop a product that will deliver all those benefits to where the consumer isn't disappointed in the product?'

And then you've got all the problems of execution. Can you build awareness? Can you make advertising that's really going to support and elevate this product?

What's the best way to get your advertising noticed and build that product awareness?

Some point of uniqueness you can leverage is the best way, because if there's nothing unique about your idea, if you haven't added anything new, why would somebody switch from what they're using?

I use Tide as an example. If you're introducing a new detergent, and your detergent cleans well, and you say, 'We have this really good-cleaning detergent,' consumers might say, 'Yeah, I'd like to try that. I would buy that.' But there's nothing unique about it.

So when they're are out there in the grocery store looking at that shelf, they see your new product and they see their Tide, and they say, 'You know what, I've been using Tide for 20 years. My mom used Tide. I trust Tide; I know it's going to work. Why should I switch?' And they won't pick (the new product) up.

Now, all of a sudden, you change the category parameters and introduce something unique. You introduce the very first detergent that has fabric softener in it. OK, so now you've got two products in one, and you've got a unique detergent in the marketplace.

Now they're standing there looking at their Tide, and they know they're going to have to go buy another product with it. Or, they've got your product, which says it cleans ... and it softens as well as anything on the market, and it's the same price as Tide.

Those are the kinds of products that tend to do well. If you don't have uniqueness, if you don't have a point of difference, your chances of having a profitable introduction are very slim. Without that uniqueness, what you have is a commodity. And the only way you're going to get trial is to promote it on price.

Are there products that have done well in consumer testing but not fared well on the market?

The most famous one, unfortunately, is Crystal Pepsi. Crystal Pepsi is a classic example of an idea that did well, and a product that did very poorly. Truth of the matter is that Crystal Pepsi got all of the trial that we predicted it was going to get, but what Crystal Pepsi didn't get was any repeat.

And there's two reasons for that. One of them is that the company did not make a product that delivered what they were promising. But the second piece with that is I don't know that they could have. What somebody should have done is caught that idea and said, 'This is not a product that can be made in the first place.'

The promise for Crystal Pepsi was that it was kind of halfway between a cola and an uncola, or a lemon-lime drink. People kind of think that there's a big gap between those two products, but there isn't. The truth is that a cola is just a lemon-lime cola with additional flavoring in it. So, of course, they famously missed.

What are the best ways you've seen companies innovate?

When they use an outside innovation expert. A lot of companies try to innovate year in and year out internally. And they do a very poor job of that because they're not really trained. They call these meetings, and people come to these meetings with the same ideas they had last year, that nobody accepted last year.

When a company tries to innovate internally, they just resurface old ideas. Or, a lot of companies will try to use their advertising agencies for innovation. And ad agencies aren't very good at this, either, because advertising people are very good with words.

What works for a basic concept or a basic new product idea is a simple-to-understand, straightforward statement of the benefit of why it works. And as soon as you turn it over to your advertising agency, it tends to become this long thing with lots of great words, and nobody can understand what the benefit is.

So the best people at it are the people who do it for a living. And there's a lot of those people around. Doug Hall at the Eureka Ranch does a very good job. Marco Polo, also in Cincinnati, does a very good job. Some of the design agencies actually do a pretty good job of doing new product work when they're turned loose.

When a CEO has a great innovative idea to implement, who should he or she get involved in the project?

Well, you have to have internal people involved. And the people that are usually best at that are marketing people, product development people. The people that understand what it's going to be like to make the product, because that kind of grounds you in reality and won't let you go out too far.

And then marketing people, who are usually better at seeing the big picture and the objectives behind the whole thing. Those two groups are very critical to get involved.

Once that great idea is ready to roll out, how do you get everyone in the company to buy in?

That's the $64,000 question. That's what leadership is all about. There are many, many techniques for doing that. I think the most successful way of doing that is to create ownership in the people that you want to help you get there.

What you have to do is not hand them a finished idea and say, 'Go do this.' If you do that, they may do it because they're afraid of you, but they're not going to say, 'I really believe this is the right way go.' What you have to do is convince them it's the right way to go and let them help craft the finished idea.

Then they'll have ownership. And if they have ownership, they'll do a heck of a lot better job of executing.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned when you were at Procter & Gamble?

This is the truth -- the first thing I learned at P&G was if you get the product right, you can make a lot of mistakes in sales and marketing and still sell a hell of a lot of product. So what I learned is the importance of the product.

It's nice to have the messages, but if the message is off-base, you can fix it. But the hardest thing to do is to get retrial. Trial is a difficult thing to get on a new product. But once somebody's tried it and they're disappointed, trying to get them to buy it a second time, even though you've changed it, is one of the hardest things in the world to do.

If you get the product right, then you can experiment with all the other marketing angles to find the right message and the right way of delivering the message, and you can do all of those things over time. But if you don't get the product right the first time, you've killed it.

How to reach: AcuPOLL Research Inc., (800) ACUPOLL or www.acupoll.com