Innovation, but What Kind of Innovation?

Innovation is generally a good thing. Without it, new products and services would not be possible. Innovation has pushed design to higher levels and resulted in making life better, more convenient, safer. It continually adds value to branded products.

While innovation and new products are the lifeblood of consumer product companies, there are times when the push for constant innovation can lead brands astray. Some well-planned, well-executed ideas have been a bust in spite of or rather because of the fact they represented some kind of “innovation”.

Companies always seem to be tweaking even great-selling products. How many packages have touted “new and improved” products within? How many times have consumers purchased a favorite commodity and found no appreciable difference from what they’d grown accustomed to and like? Conversely, how many times do consumers encounter such a drastically different product, they became disappointed and vow never to purchase it again?

Sometimes the best thing companies can do is leave their flagship products alone. That is, resist the very human inclination to tinker. Remember when Coca Cola launched its “New Coke”, thinking it would retire its original formula? That mistake cost the company dearly. Coke saved face by reintroducing its signature product as “Classic Coke”, but the company learned a valuable lesson after consumer approval and sales plummeted.

Starbucks staggering expansion over the past few years led to some management decisions that came back to haunt the company.  The decision to cut down on the preparation time — and romance – involved in creating its divine caffeinated concoctions led to a sharp decline in volume. Consumers responded in a loud, clear manner: they didn’t mind paying more as long as the baristas’ careful custom crafting added to their experience. This was the most important value component of the Starbucks brand and diluting it led to a precipitous decline.

Even leaving iconic products alone but revitalizing packaging can create consumer disconnects. When Tropicana recently contemporized its OJ packaging, consumer outcry was loud and immediate. The redesign disregarded Tropicana’s heritage brand assets. The “straw punctured orange” mnemonic device conveying “100 % real orange juice” disappeared and along with it, the wholesome, nurturing, approachable persona conveyed by the previous design. Worse still: consumers couldn’t find their favorite varieties!

After spending millions of dollars to repackage, and about two months, Tropicana announced it would reinstate its heritage packaging. Rather than a total package innovation, Tropicana would have been wise to contemporize slightly, making sure its “ownable” brand assets were left intact.

There are heritage products that consumers have always liked just as they are. No innovation required. Smart companies ought to consider that, especially if their product has become a basic commodity to legions of consumers.

Rather than tinkering with success, and trying to innovate the product or packaging, how about innovating messaging instead? When a product is straight-forward, pure and simple, why not tout it? Why not tap into the prevailing consumer mood and current consumer climate to reinforce the fact they can continue to trust the simple goodness of products that have always brought them enjoyment?

Right now, the hottest trend in food and beverage marketing is all about promoting “simplicity”—that is, a handful of preferably healthy ingredients—in a highly transparent manner on packaging and in advertising. In a complex and complicated world, this concept taps into a very deep desire among consumers.

Kudos to Post Shredded Wheat’s brand managers who get this. Their product is and always has been, natural and simple. It’s a heritage product, made from 100% whole grain wheat. It has been for 117 years. A new marketing campaign orchestrated by Ogilvy, featuring the tagline: “We Put the ‘No’ in Innovation” is simply brilliant.

Face it: consumers are hungry for simplicity, and back-to-basics goodness. Post is tapping into this with its new messaging. New messaging might be just the right kind of innovation now. New messaging might be better than dusting off nostalgic old taglines and ad spots to re-air as some CPG companies are doing, of late. While consumers are yearning for simpler, more secure times, new messaging points to the future, not the past which none of us can return to.

Marketers: stop and think. Is product innovation what’s really needed right now? Will innovation of your heritage product and brand lead to desired, projected results or will it lead to consumer disconnects?  If you already have a great product and packaging the consumer continues to connect with, then maybe what you need to innovate is your messaging.