Customers Do the Strangest Things

Customers Do the Strangest ThingsOne recent evening, while in my desk chair working on the latest and greatest open-innovation initiative, I was reminded of one of my favorite innovation stories.

As the long evening hours stretched before me, a squeak in the chair became progressively worse. What started as barely a mouse squeak morphed into a shrill shriek by late evening. I tried not shifting in the seat to minimize the sound, which only led to cramping in my legs and a stiff back.

More decisive action was needed.

I stomped off to get the toolbox, and much to my unhappiness it was bereft of oil. Next I pulled down the ladder to the loft where I keep all my additional home tools and equipment. I know I have something up there but between skis, Christmas decorations and now-stored summer clothes I couldn’t find what I needed. I then ventured out to the late-night store where I knew I’d find what I was looking for – a trusty can of WD40.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, WD40 is a multipurpose lubricant and can be easily found in any store. Armed with this most manly of products I set about hunting down the squeak’s source. Within a minute the figurative mouse was dead. Happiness and peace was restored.

As I went to put the can away where it should have been, I glanced at the livery. The brand design has changed little over the years. That great blue primary color with yellow lettering is instantly recognizable on any store shelf. But then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before – a request for me to submit a new use of the product. From the domestic chore of de-squeaking my chair I was back in the world of open innovation. So I read their request:

Tell us what problem you sorted and win £1,000 –

I liked this a lot. The request was neatly framed as a simple problem statement – no jargon or complex
instructions. Nice carrot to get people engaged.

Open Innovation can so often be a complex matter, but this one was a good example of a simple request that could be easily understood by anyone. It connected directly with the end market. No need to run expensive marketing campaigns hoping to connect with your consumer – but target them directly in this very simple but focused way. They in turn can provide valuable insight on product uses.

This is particularly helpful when you have such a diversified market as WD40, even though there are a few core uses. WD40 of course share these uses and have identified more than 2,000 to date and I’m sure more will be added over time. So with a bit of website engineering you can more fully inform your market of your value proposition.

On reflection, this campaign perhaps has less to do with finding new things but letting consumers know what else they can use it for, as higher rates of consumption will undoubtedly lead to increased sales. As new uses are identified, the company can look at sharing those uses with other potential users – thus increasing the market.

This was the spark and reminded me of a great “hunting ground” for focused customer ideas. Discovering existing or potential new uses/markets for products that requires little or no product development can be a real low-hanging fruit innovation challenge for companies to undertake.

WD40 has taken it to an extreme – with some 2,000+ uses. But for many this is something new and rarely considered. It could be something hidden to you or yet discovered. Many people can help from your sales force, account managers, distributors to customers themselves in bringing these ideas forward. Who will help you explore this area of opportunity?

I recall two examples from our archives. One company brought in a school bus and was looking for new ways to innovate and add/improve the offering it produced for this product. One keen individual inspecting the bus scratched the window – as any rebellious teenager may do. The connection he made was that their company produced scratch- and graffiti-resistant glass for bus shelters, which he could see being used on the bus itself. Some quick research identified this was a known problem and there was a need for a solution.

In another company, account managers were asked if they sold any of their products to someone unusual. The product itself was in the building trade and used as a sealant. One account manager reported back that instead of selling to the building trade he was selling to a marine shop. After contacting this company, they discovered that their sealant worked perfectly well on marine vessels. This resulted in a quick bit of re-branding and marketing on the same product and instead of selling to one marine shop they sold to hundreds – massively increasing revenues from a simple line extension.

It may not be that you have 2,000 uses for your product to market, but you could probably find one or two great line-extensions in new markets. With very little effort, imagine what your company could achieve by unearthing these hidden possibilities from customers, account managers and your sales teams.

Think about your products – are there hidden uses or line extensions you need to investigate that will add real dollars to your company’s growth?

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Matt ChapmanMatt Chapman is a senior innovation solution consultant at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software company based in Boston. He has helped companies all over the world adopt innovation cultures, and is a regular speaker and writer on innovation best practice.

Matt Chapman




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No Comments

  1. Gordon Whalley (MR) on May 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Last 6 cans of wd40 expired half way through – spent the afternoon shaking same – next door neighbour thought I was having a funny turn
    it was to no avail

  2. Gordon Whalley (MR) on May 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Hope the good lord makes you produce a spray can, that works to the end.

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