Why Product Innovation Starts with Materials

by Randy Millwood

Why Product Innovation Starts with Materials

Designers, marketers, and retailers alike know that products have to stand out in order to attract attention. The problem is that there’s no clear definition of “what makes a product innovative.” In our business, we are focused on How foam can help designers create innovative products.

What we do know is that sight alone is not enough to convey the message. A product may be genuinely advanced and exciting, but if it doesn’t appear that way on the shelves, the innovative appeal is lost. Much more important is how the product feels in consumers’ hands, a phenomenon known as somatosensation.

Research has shown that consumers are more likely to buy a product after holding it. They are also more likely to buy adjacent products if they appear to feel similar. Said differently, consumers learn more about products using their fingertips than their eyes.

That’s an important lesson for everyone invested in innovative products: If the goal is to communicate to consumers that a product is new, improved, and superior overall, then it has to feel that way.

Why Materials Matter to Today’s Consumers

Whether a product is perceived as innovative depends largely on how the product incorporates materials. The size, shape, and color form the visual perception, while the composition, texture, density, and weight form the physical perception. Crucially, how the materials are used to improve performance is the substance of what makes the product innovative.

Materials also create the balance between innovation and familiarity that endears consumers to products. By combining innovative designs with familiar or trendy styles, new products grab attention rather than sit statically on the shelves.

Using Materials to Highlight Innovation

Materials can elevate a product, to be sure, but using them incorrectly or ineffectively has the opposite effect. And because it’s hard to know how a finished product will actually look and feel in the hands of consumers, it’s easy to make mistakes in development.

Here are some time-tested strategies for creating products that are better, not just different:

  1. Solve a need.

The more complex a product design becomes, the more likely individual components are to fail. These designs are also more expensive and time-consuming to produce. Innovation is more about being clever than complicated, which is why designers should strive to make designs as simple as possible.

A great example is Glif, a product that allows consumers to mount their iPhones on a tripod. On the face of it, it’s hard to see what’s so innovative about such a straightforward product, but that’s actually what made it so successful. During a time when other

smartphone mounts were made from flimsy material, Glif’s strong, stable product solved a genuine problem. Backers clearly noticed: After setting a $10,000 goal on its Kickstarter, the company ended up raising $137,000.

  1. Forget the bells and whistles.

Adding extraneous parts or design features can make a product stand out — but doing so also makes it harder to produce. Typically, whatever is gained in novelty is lost in cost overruns, delays, and performance failures.

Keeping materials top of mind throughout the development life cycle leads to more reliably innovative products. It begins by understanding what consumers really want and need. The process then becomes about using materials to deliver the look, feel, and function that consumers have been waiting for.

  1. Prioritize packaging.

An innovative product in a terrible package is a lost opportunity. Almost 70 percent of consumers agree that effective packaging can make a brand seem more upscale, and 50 percent said they would buy from a brand again if it delivered “above average” packaging. An additional 44 percent of consumers said they’d be willing to pay a premium price for better packaging.

All that’s to say: How you present your innovative product is deeply important. Request and review the packaging specifications far in advance to ensure that products are perfectly showcased.

When people talk about inventing the wheel, they’re not talking about making square objects roll. They’re talking about moving from stone to wood to now galvanized rubber tires. Innovation and material have always been inextricably linked. Finding that link is the key to making products stand out.

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Randy Millwood is the national key account manager of PopFoam, the leader in the injection molded EVA closed-cell foam process that specializes in complex geometries.

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