Creativity Should Start at Home

By Floyd McMillan

Consumers are much better at responding to good ideas than innovating on behalf of the brands they buy.  This statement may inspire some healthy debate, but in my experience it’s true.

Personally, I’m a strong supporter of customer-centricity in making strategic marketing decisions. Our customers are our most important stakeholders, and meeting their needs should be a primary consideration in business success.  However, in my experience, a heavy emphasis on customer consultation can in some cases be counterproductive, and nowhere is this truer than in the area of innovations.

In today’s environment of open innovation, it is tempting to delegate the generation of new ideas to existing or potential customers.  Over the past 10 years, it has been increasingly common for clients to seek participant creativity, out of the box thinking, and for customers to hopefully reveal the next big thing that will disrupt the market.

Unfortunately, unless research participants happen to be innovation and design experts or futurists, the results of these exercises can fall short of the mark.  Consumer psychology tells us that most people’s imagination is limited by their own education and experience, so the ideas generated by customers are generally variations on what already exists or so fantastical to be commercially impractical.

Sadly, customers rarely innovate very well on behalf of the brands they buy.  They don’t lay awake at night thinking about the next big step in the skin care or banking markets.  They don’t spend their days dreaming about how easy their life will be after the next disruptive washing machine innovation.  So how can we practically expect consumers to serve up innovations from a two-hour group discussion or a few questions in a survey?

Ground-up co-creation approaches, such as crowdsourcing and dedicated product building workshops, have gone some way to meet the needs of organisations seeking to adopt an outside-in approach to their innovation process.  I’ve personally worked on some highly successful innovations projects with FMCG, financial services, government services and white goods clients in the co-creation space that have delivered excellent outcomes for consumers and clients alike.  However, these types of projects are long-term programs and co-creation sessions are best delivered via full day or multiple day workshops, requiring a long-term commitment that does not always fit with the quick turnaround appetite of many contemporary market research exercises.

In my experience, when a client is asking for out of the box thinking from consumers, in many cases, they are really asking to have their internal thinking challenged in some way.  Another more agile approach I have successfully used with some clients is more consultative in nature: to facilitate a series of creativity workshops with a range of internal and external stakeholders designed to provide that challenge to the established way of doing things and produce new product and service concepts to take into consumer research later in the innovations process.

Leveraging the considerable knowledge bank of consumer psychographics, lifestyle influences and path-to-purchase behaviours that is held by experienced market research and consulting professionals can deliver enormous benefits to an innovation strategy prior to investing heavily in consumer research.  In the past I have facilitated brainstorming sessions, ideation and creativity workshops resulting in a range of product and service concepts that have tested well and been improved on when taken to consumer research.

Because consumers are much better at responding to good ideas, thought should be given to involving experienced market researchers in the innovation process early.  That way, we can facilitate internal workshops that aim to challenge how we think and how we do things before we even get to recruiting consumers into the process.

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