Companies of every size are looking for that magic equation that drives innovation and provides true value to the consumer. There is, of course, no simple answer, and in the new reality during and after COVID-19, it might be even less clear. However, based on my experience working with brands of all stripes and sizes over the past 25 years, the ingredients of innovation are universal and can be distilled into four elements: obsession with consumers, data, creative bravery, and a competitive spirit.
Obsessing Over Consumer Behavior
I’ve been obsessed with studying people since I was eight. I grew up in a tiny village in England, where the proprietor of the local corner shop let me hang out and experiment with remerchandising the store. I was fascinated by how shoppers interacted with the bottom shelves vs. the checkout counter, and how certain eye-catching packaging stopped them in their tracks. Years later at Walmart, I had a front-row seat to the ultimate consumer laboratory — observing some 145 million consumers per week. Their behaviors produced massive amounts of data, useful observations and anecdotes that further informed my perspectives on consumer behavior and marketing today.
Now at another family-owned company, BIC, I realize that while each organization may be different, understanding its customer is the foundation of true innovation. As people all over the world shift to the “new normal,” it will be imperative that we understand their needs and how our products can meet them.
Knowing Your Data and What It Can’t Do
Data is the ultimate utility. Whether it’s digital and e-commerce performance, leading and lagging indicators, sales figures, competitive information, or market forecasts, data plays a critical role in building a picture of consumer behavior and product performance. However, empirical data can only tell us so much. Often, real insights come from actually talking to and collecting data from consumers.
For example, a couple of years ago we asked people about a stationery product — how do you use markers? — a standard, open-ended product research question. Much to our surprise, about 40% of BIC’s target customer was drawing on their skin — reminding themselves with a note, drawing a picture, or creating a tattoo — and they were doing it with permanent marker. Combining this insight with trend data on personal expression, we created the BodyMark by BIC line of temporary tattoo markers in 2019.
Unleashing Creative Bravery
Data is a great resource for telling you what’s happening today and what happened yesterday. However, consumers sometimes can’t tell you what they want until you show it to them. Who knew they couldn’t live without a smartphone before they existed? Therefore, when we’re thinking about tomorrow, it’s courage that plays the starring role.
We're seeing creative bravery today across the food industry. The idea of someone creating a plant-based hamburger is one thing, but watching Impossible Burgers take alternative protein from the freezer aisle to fast-food and fine dining menus takes creative bravery. This is just one of many instances where companies took a leap of faith based on a belief in something new. In industries increasingly driven by research, winning innovations are time and again the ones that come from instinct and the bravery to make them a reality. Often those going the opposite way are going the right way!
Igniting Competitive Spirit
You’ve got to have passion to truly succeed in anything, but competitive spirit takes passion a step further. It’s not just about doing your best. It’s being better than other companies trying to achieve the same thing. There are more competitors in more categories than ever before, and they come from across the globe and the house down the street.
Leaders who are driven as much by a disdain for losing as the thrill of victory are most likely to succeed. It’s a philosophy that must be part of the DNA, the culture and ingrained into every team in the company. A competitive spirit fuels urgency and action like nothing else can. It’s about never giving up despite any hurdles that stand in your way. There's always a way.
There’s no simple path to innovative ideas. However, by focusing on these four elements, companies of every size can foster innovation to almost alchemistic results.
Customer obsession + data + creative bravery + competitive spirit = innovation.
Mary Fox brings more than 25 years of experience in the consumer goods industry, where she’s worked in a range of functions including M&A, e-commerce, merchandising, supply chain, operations and global brand management for companies like L’Oréal and Walmart. She is currently the general manager of BIC North America, where she leads the region’s strategic vision and oversees day-to-day operations.