Vision Critical

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"Listen to your consumers, but do not believe them."

During the World Innovation Forum this past summer, Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo's chief design officer, declared that consumers cannot be trusted to drive innovation. It's a bold assertion - and a view that other designers certainly hold as well - but I wonder if it tells the whole story.

Companies listen to consumers for a variety of reasons - improving communication tactics and packaging design decisions, to name a few - but in talking with dozens of Vision Critical clients who employ our insight community platform specifically for innovation, it is clear that it is not necessarily what their consumers are saying, but rather when in the innovation process they are providing this input that is most important.

Do you have a dead zone?

Traditional innovation research approaches seem to be geared toward the margins of the innovation pipeline. Foundational identification of 'whitespace' development areas are often uncovered with qualitative ethnography and quantitative landscaping studies, while standardized approaches to concept testing and volumetric forecasting of new product launches help to mitigate risk prior to full commercialization of new products.

And while the concept of consumer co-creation has permeated the innovation conversation for the past several years, very few insight approaches effectively bring this to life at the crucial early stage of the innovation process - before standardized innovation protocols consume product development mindshare and budget. It is this gap in the insight continuum - what I refer to as the "dead zone" - where organizations develop new product ideas without deep, iterative and ongoing consumer perspective that can transform a good idea into a truly breakthrough innovation.

In talking with clients over the past several months, it is clear that many feel their organizations don't work hard enough to bring consumers into this critical stage of the innovation process. Sure, they do consumer immersion and quantitative market landscape work, but then they are often left to develop new product ideas and debate their commercial potential internally before deciding which to move into their global concept testing protocols and which ideas to discard. A recent conversation I had with a global food manufacturer revealed that they are literally making decisions about which products to advance based on the input of 4 to 5 brand and product managers - with consumers conspicuously absent from the discussion. Clearly the ideas that make the grade in this setting will lack the perspective of the most important constituent in the innovation process: your customers!

Consumers want to help - you just need to engage them.

In a recent Vision Critical study of roughly 1,008 American adults and their views on brands and products, 4 out of 5 indicated they would be more loyal, more likely to recommend a company to others and more likely to purchase a product from a company that they believe had listened to their feedback. Furthermore, a similar proportion of American consumers report they would love to participate in developing new product ideas for companies they like.

Clearly, consumers want to be a part of the innovation process, and incorporating their opinions can improve customer-focused product design and serve as a catalyst for advocacy once these products hit the market.

These sentiments are precisely what drove Vision Critical to develop specialized solutions to serve the early stage innovation process. Our Innovation Insight Communities application let clients recruit high-value customers, prospects and even employees into an ongoing online community that can be continually mined for seamless qualitative and quantitative insights during the early stage innovation process. From mobile ethnography to online collaging, ideation, co-creation and idea screening, Innovation Communities can provide a complementary platform for insight during this "dead zone," allowing innovation professionals to quickly and cost effectively integrate the consumer voice into their efforts prior to moving new product ideas into standardized global concept testing protocols.

One client recently leveraged their community for deep longitudinal learning about Millennials, which subsequently fueled the generation of new products designed to appeal to this groups' eclectic taste preferences and need for meal portability. Another client has leveraged our application to test, refine and retest over 200 new product ideas in the past year alone, with the top performers being subsequently moved along into their later stage concept testing and volumetric forecasting process. And my favorite is a client who tested a new product concept idea with their insight community members and encouraged them to share their opinions on their social networks on the eve of the product's launch - the subsequent viral results of which showed up on the radar of their social media monitoring service - and caught the curious attention of their CMO.

These first-hand client experiences clearly illustrate how filling the "dead zone" in your early stage innovation process can help you to better understand your customers' needs and unlock ideas that win both their hearts and wallets.

What do companies need to do to drive innovation? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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