Innovation in products, services and increasingly business models has endless possibilities. This is not just in what you develop, but also in what you communicate. Clearly innovation and communication to customers should be aligned, with the focus on the product benefits that will be most competitive.
Many of the best products have very simple communication that gets the core message over very clearly. The classic example in the UK is Ronseal, a range of varnishes and wood protection products. Their communication says simply “it does what it says on the tin”. So for example, the quick drying woodstain is a woodstain that dries quickly. They are the ultimate example of the classic “single-minded message”.
The same principle can be applied to innovation. There are many features that can be built into the innovation, often driven by the enthusiasm for the product and brand. You may have also been in meetings where the features are compiled into a long list in the project development brief; but not every feature or claim brings a winning benefit. It may still be a benefit to the user, but not one that drives a differential decision to buy your product over that of a competitor.
There are many ways to assess the competitive advantage of your innovation; one practical approach that I like is the principle of Qualifiers and Differentiators. A Qualifier feature or benefit allows you to compete; it’s an entry ticket to the game. A Differentiator will help you to win.
Consumers only notice Qualifiers either when you don’t have it, or you fail to deliver it to category standards. Remember when quality was shouted loud from the rooftops by many products in many industries? Now it’s a given. If you don’t perform on quality your product is dead in the water. Such qualifying parameters only get noticed when you fall short of customer expectations.
Usually, great customer service is also a Qualifier. There are some industries, for example car rental, where my perception is that it’s extremely difficult to compete on anything other than price, or marginal superiority in customer service. It’s perhaps why Avis says, “we try harder”.
Apple differentiates their products on design and simplicity. Every other computer company of course tries to design great products, but rather than deliver on that, they appear to talk about features like memory, processor speed etc. Their hoped-for differentiators simply become qualifiers or features with marginal advantages.
Often, a product can own a claim by being the first to make it, and solidifying it in the consumer’s mind by constant and consistent communication. Good examples are Lysol and Dettol, where the Differentiator is superiority in germ kill.
So when it comes to innovation, you need to do the following:
1. Really challenge yourself to know your consumer and understand what really makes a difference to them.
2. Match this knowledge against your product development targets.
3. Decide your “single-minded message”, the one that will truly differentiate your innovation from that of your competitors.
4. Deliver category standard performance on the Qualifiers.
5. Focus as much effort as you can to innovate on the Differentiators, those parameters that will drive preferred purchase.
6. Develop the communication of your innovation to the same principles.
Understanding the Qualifiers and Differentiators not only allows you to play the innovation game, it gives you a great chance of winning.
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Kevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.