I’ve always tried to teach my kids to see both sides of an issue. I try to do this personally, too. To stay open to how thinking differently can enhance my overall life view. And it usually helps me find better solutions.
I’ve found, over the years, that this same practice is an advantage in business, too. Many companies have forgotten the truth of what their product is all about. Has yours? Every company should make a habit of digging into the culture, finding out what customers really think, and understanding the sacred cows people hold on to.
Innovation from the top-down, inside-out is being flipped on its head, as we know, but it still must be supported and nurtured from the top-down. With the right support and encouragement, innovation can spring from where your business meets the culture in which it exists.
For example, the outdoor brand, The North Face, was able to stay relevant at the core of the outdoor sports market even when it became mass-market by tapping into the deep culture of people that usually disdain the mainstream. They’ve innovated and stayed authentic by keeping a team of climbers, skiers, snowboarders, and endurance runners involved with the brand.
While most brands might pay lip service to their community with thin sponsorship relationships, The North Face made their program the centerpiece of their product design and marketing. They stayed genuine and relevant by funding expeditions and creating product and stories that could be told by their athletes. The deep commitment of The North Face leadership allowed the core customers to create the brand’s story that aligned the marketing and product innovation. They know that you have to live your products and services—or understand those that do—to find the truths and the inverted truths of your business.
Know Your Category Well Enough to Identify Truths
For big companies, it may be impossible to test-drive every product individually. The solution is to get everyone involved. Start using your products, but more importantly make it part of your culture. It should be common practice to call your own customer service, to work on the floor of your own stores, to try to return something. To know the truths, start using your competitor’s products and services, too, especially your smallest competitor. And don’t rationalize away what you learn. Find the truth they are exploiting that you are not.
Start by getting rid of the artificiality of many research tools. Investment that time and money in spending real time with real customers. Focus groups have a place but don’t stop there. You should seek to understand how people use your products in their daily lives, not how they act when they’re stuck in a sterile room outside the context of everyday living.
Patrick J. Cescau, the CEO of Unilever solved this problem in a creative way. He commuted once a week between the UK headquarters and the global headquarters, which is an hour away. He hired a van, recruited a few customers, and did his own shop-alongs at the grocery store. Instead of sitting in focus groups or looking at a bunch of data about customers, he went out and experienced shopping with them.
Make a systematic plan to get to know your category well enough you can identify truths about your products or services. Start by making sure you’re using your own product or service, then begin to use the competitors’. Don’t accept help that would be above or beyond what your average customer would get. Make it a part of every week and don’t allow it to be pushed aside.
What are the Truths?
Draw a line down the center of a page. On the left side begin to keep a list of the truths surrounding your product and your industry. On the other side of the line write down all the places where you have seen the exact opposite to be true, either in your category or in another. What if you began to design for the right side of the line? What are the opportunities? How would that change your products or services?
In the end, being open to other perspectives will bring unexpected insight and who knows. It may even give you the ideas you need to lead in your category.