Authentic Innovation

Is it just me, or is every beverage at risk of being an ossified commodity? Name one. Isn’t vodka trading on heritage or quality? Isn’t beer? Soda? The vast majority of these liquids are trading on image. But that’s okay. Really. Because, you see, the only place for new product development these days is in something called “authentic innovation.” Now before you go off and consult another business article or book, hang tight, because this one’s pretty straight forward.

Authentic innovation is all about you – the producer – looking to address narrower markets or different demand areas. It isn’t about stacking it high and letting it fly; at least not in the beginning (big wink!). Authentic innovation means that you have to step out of your process, your marketing agency, your research session in that white room outside of Tulsa. It means that in order to narrow your focus, you have to shed a few pounds’ worth of preconceived notions and process. You have to step outside of the business and seek out three key elements:

1. Personal experiences rule. Remember the time your friends got together and thought it was a really good idea to mix grapefruit soda and gin? What about that time you and your girlfriend went to Tijuana and put a lime in the beer so that you wouldn’t (supposedly) get sick from the water in the beer? We’re so focused on the business that sometimes it’s difficult to see something that’s right in front of us; a need that is so great that everyone’s just walking by it. Think about the last time you weren’t listening to others in the business – you were hearing from the bus driver, the nanny, or (wow!) your mother-in-law. My father-in-law has personally launched a campaign to bring back seltzer water in those old bottles in South Florida. You’d be amazed at the nostalgic tendencies of former New Yorkers over 70.

2. Tap into a community. Instead of bringing together strangers in that white room to talk about what iced tea means to them on a personal level, bring members of a specific community that already know one another together. Even bring them together in the beginning stages of product development. You see, people who already know one another have already exposed their weaknesses to one another; they’ve been honest. These people know what works and doesn’t work for them. Don’t focus on a single community. Don’t even focus on the ones that get together all of the time. The point of dealing with a specific community is that not only will these people talk to you when you’ve got an idea (in fact, they’ll be flattered you asked), but they’ll stick with you throughout the whole development process because it’s social currency for them. They have a vested interest in the success of the product because they were there in the beginning, so “they knew you when….”

3. Take many chances. Make mistakes, quickly take responsibility for them, learn and then correct them. Just because you sold a regional distributor in on a new product test in their market doesn’t mean that you can’t quickly come back with a new formula or package during the test! That’s what a test is! I’ve seen too many presentations where producers are attempting to answer every question going into the test and unfortunately end up managing the expectations of their distributor or wholesaler instead of communicating to the end consumer or retailer. Small or large, you need to be prepared to deliver the goods in a manner that is both expedited and excited. Your audiences will reward your persistence.

In order to truly take advantage of a space in the marketplace that no one else occupies, and to be successful at it, you have to be able to tell a story that is authentic. That is at the heart of authentic innovation. Personal experiences, community relationships, persistence of effort without fear of mistakes all combine to form a rather flexible process that can add or give you a simple platform with which to start your NPD efforts. Ideas can come from the most innocent (or less-than-innocent) places; bringing them to life in an authentic manner will enable you to bring the ingredients to life. Imagine a world where image, heritage and quality work together? Got the picture? Good – it’s time for a pint!