Why Holidays are Good for Innovation

It is Holiday Season, and while Black Friday and Cyber Monday are fading in the rear view mirror, holiday shopping season remains in full swing. And holidays are good for innovation. Santa delivers a fair number of gadgets, electronics, luxury items and other new stuff that has roots in innovation.

The innovations that make holiday gift lists are by definition commercial as well as technical successes. However, as an innovator, I know how easy it is to get so invested in the technical and/or functional aspects of an innovation that we forget about designing for commercial success. The result can be that design and marketing become afterthoughts, tagged onto the end of the innovation process. Or worse, we end up with ‘build it and they will come” innovations that we toss over the wall to our marketing colleagues to sell. But design and marketing are integral to the process of turning good ideas into successful innovations. And I believe that these are best integrated into the innovation process as early as possible, making the product story and the user interface an integral part of our innovative product or service.

So in the spirit of building commercial success into the front end of innovation, I would like to gift three ideas to incorporate Mental and Physical Availability into our innovation process. These two concepts borrowed from evidence based marketing and shopper psychology are key to commercial success, but present some unique challenges for innovative new products.

 Mental availability, sometimes described as mindshare, this refers to how quickly a product or brand springs to mind when someone shops a category. For example, if I am in a supermarket shopping for fizzy drinks, Coke and Pepsi have high mindshare, and are quite likely to pop into my mind. They are category archetypes (if you ask someone to imagine a soda, they are quite likely to visualize Coke or Pepsi in their minds eye). This ‘top of mind’ effect is an important pathway to purchase, as it influences what grabs attention, and also what shoppers they like and choose.

Familiar choices tended to be safer, and so we have evolved psychological mechanisms like “Mere Exposure” that make the familiar ‘feel’ good. This ‘feel good’ effect, together with social signaling processes like herding and the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect, can have a significant positive impact on sales of both established and new products and services.

Physical availability is the other side of the same coin. Once a product or brand springs to mind, it is important that it is physically accessible. At risk of stating the blindingly obvious, if we think of it, but cannot find it, we will often buy something else. We all know that for this reason, distribution and placement location are key to the success of innovative new products. But this concept goes beyond simple distribution.

If we are in the ‘bricks and mortar’ consumer goods market, physical availability is also impacted by how easy an innovation is to physically pick up, place in a cart, and take home. Or if we are selling via the web, where it sits in a search hierarchy, and how easy it is to ‘check out’ both impact ‘virtual’ physical availability. .

Another Innovator’s Dilemma: Of course, both of these concepts offer challenges for new innovative products and services. Established brands and products are by definition more familiar, and more fluent (require less cognitive effort to understand). They tend to have larger advertising budgets, bigger shelf areas, place higher in e-commerce searches, and often enjoy the advantage of past consumer experience.

Indeed, evidence based marketing models, such as Ehrenburg Bass, make compelling cases for markets evolving towards a few large brands owning very large shares, via self supporting feedback loops that increase both Mental and Physical availability. Put another way, the big get bigger, and the small, or the new, often get squeezed out.

 Triggering Consumer Curiosity: However, humans are complex creatures, and while the fluent and familiar often feels good, we also have curiosity that drives us to try the new and exciting. Without this, we would not have spread across the globe, or have experienced the pace of change that we currently live with. The challenge is how to design our innovations so that they trigger this exploratory, curious side of human nature, rather than a safe preference for the familiar. This is not easy, but below are three suggestions based largely on psychology and perceptual science:

  1. Steal Familiarity.  Just because something is new and innovative doesn’t mean it cannot also be fluent and familiar, at least to some degree. It is hard to match the mental availability of an existing category leader, but we can borrow some of its ‘familiarity cues’. By incorporating these into an innovative product we can reduce cognitive barriers to adoption, allowing curiosity to take center stage. To do this, we need to know the iconic cues for a category, and blend them into our designs. This reduces how much we ask people to think about our innovation, and helps ensure that what mental effort they do put in is focused primarily on cool new elements, instead of trying to understand basic function. For example, the driverless car could be an opportunity to completely rethink automobile design. However, adoption will likely be more comfortable for most people if early versions look a lot like a contemporary car.
  2. Wow potential consumers with surprisingly familiar designs. People are ‘wowed’ when a product delivers performance or features that are both surprisingly good, but also intuitively easy to understand. Automating and simplifying previously challenging tasks, or eliminating frustrating negatives are a couple, but by no means the only ways to deliver ‘wow’.   For example, cameras that allow you to go back and change the focus of an image, or that recognize and automatically focus on faces were ‘wow’ to many people. This was because they did something that was unexpected, replaced a negative with a positive, but were intuitive and surprisingly obvious when the function was revealed.
  3. Design for point of sale as well as usage. Unfortunately, when busy, our visual system skips over a lot of information. This causes one of the biggest barriers to the commercial success of innovations. All too often people simply don’t see the new, and instead automatically grab familiar products and services they’ve used before. Fortunately, we can leverage understanding of visual science to grab attention, and help avoid innovation invisibility. And we can often do this using subtle visual cues that work with our unconscious attentional mechanisms, so we can do this while still tapping into familiarity cues, or painting every new product fluorescent pink! We can also increase physical availability by leveraging retail affordances. Affordances are a concept borrowed from psychology that describes how an object unconsciously invites us to touch or manipulate it in specific ways. For example, handles, indentations, or grips on products that make them easy to pour, lift or leverage, depending upon what function they have to perform. But a handle that can make a liquid product easy to pour in a usage situation can also make it difficult to grab on supermarket shelf, where products are often squashed up against each other.   Or secondary packaging often covers handles, or intuitive gripping spots on small electronics. Poor retail affordances effectively reduce physical availability, because they unconsciously discourage people from interacting with or picking up a new product. While intuitive behavioral design means that we often build usage affordances into our innovations, we often forget to build in retail affordances that make them easy to buy.

What these concepts all have in common is that they are easier to do if they are built into the front end of the innovation process. Some can potentially be bolted on at the end, but this risks ‘Frankenstein’ designs. Incorporating retail affordances, familiarity cues and wow functions is much easier if they are part of the core design.

image credit: bigstockphoto.com

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

Pete Foley




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