A Seven-Step Guide to Innovation Amid a Crowded Market

JUNE 29, 2011

A Seven-Step Guide to Innovation Amid a Crowded Market

Published in Fast Company
Design | June 2011

By Peter Clarke, Product Ventures CEO & Founder

A plea for ingenuity, L.I.B.E.R.T.Y., and the pursuit of innovation 

    As an industrial designer and the CEO of a design agency with experience across many fields, I am struck by how difficult it has been for the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) industry to successfully innovate to meet the needs of the ever-changing marketplace. How did that happen? 

    The history buff in me looks back to the birth of our country and the many innovations that have come about through the ingenuity of our early pioneers, whose legacy includes everything from blue jeans, to the fire hydrant, to toilet paper. These innovations helped create a world of comfort and spurred America's ascent to superpower status. But today, we are saddled with a debilitating short-term focus. We lack the resilience and courage required to pursue breakthroughs. Where's the spirit of invention that formed our nation?

    The CPG world has spent far too long driving cost out of the brand at the expense of innovation. Manufacturing processes, long-established infrastructure, and an eye for quick profits and positive quarterly reports encumber today's CPG companies. Factories optimize the production of yesterday's ideas, but they're unable to satisfy tomorrow's needs. Scale and efficiencies yield lower costs, but also impede change. It's not easy to manage change when it comes to big-brand, high-volume, high-speed, low-margin companies. 

    So how do we address these competing challenges? Unlike traditional advertising, which has become increasingly fragmented, packaging retains its role as the tangible brand ambassador. It communicates, it delivers, and it delights. In this overcrowded marketplace, packaging has become the brand's best asset in the fight for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the consumer. 

    How can brands innovate through packaging? What will reignite those early survival instincts? How do we manage change, continue to adapt, and ultimately position ourselves to succeed in the competitive marketplace? The answer is actually quite patriotic:

    • Look toward tomorrow.
    • Implement a skunk works.
    • Break from current conventions.
    • Explore the possibilities.
    • Reveal the opportunities.
    • Translate for business.
    • Yield results.

    Look toward tomorrow

    What will people want tomorrow that they don't realize yet today? What kind of technology and infrastructure will have to be built to meet these needs? Cost concerns aside, how will your brand provide a preferred experience for consumers in the future? Consumers? needs, attitudes, and behaviors change. Resources ebb and flow, and new competitors enter the marketplace. Brands simply can't continue to produce the same products and rely on making them cheaper and faster. We must seek to discover and develop better ways of satisfying these shifting needs. 

    Implement a skunk works

    To foster an environment for invention, you need to establish a dedicated interdisciplinary team whose full-time and long-term focus is on radical innovation. The team needs to operate with a high degree of autonomy and remain unhampered by bureaucracy. Ideally, its funding should come from seed money that is not reflected on a particular brand's P&L. And the team will need a champion — a senior leader within the organization who can help break down barriers, obtain alignment, and continually support funding for the overall cause of radical innovation. 

    Break from current conventions

    Brands need to stop thinking about packaging as an expense and start viewing it as an investment. Innovation takes time and a shift in behavior away from risk aversion. It requires embracing the necessary trial and error that is associated with innovating, as well as freedom and permission to fail. It is through failure that one learns what doesn't work and brings solutions one step closer to meeting the needs of consumers, the business, and the planet. 

    Explore the possibilities

    We must be free to explore all possibilities and evaluate all viable technologies, existing and emergent. Set up a perpetual scouting mechanism to search for and catalog all compelling technologies. Rethink packaging distribution systems to maximize performance and sustainability. Seek to understand the competitive threat by being the first innovation team to realize future possibilities. 

    Reveal the opportunities

    If you have the ability to evolve your thinking quickly and change ideas as new information is revealed, you can expedite your path toward success. Today's process requires continued engagement with all stakeholders and a consumer-driven/business-aligned approach to the discovery, design, and development of new packaging innovations. Leveraging the power of rapid-prototyping ideas is essential to revealing the opportunities.

    Translate for business

    Today's designers have the ability to envision and embody ideas, but they also need to be able to speak the language of business. This entails enormous attention to details such as cost and timing of implementation, as well as calculating the potential return on investment. These are all important elements to the structural packaging equation and to presenting strategies to gain alignment.

    Yield results

    In order to achieve results and see profits, there must be courage and commitment to focus on the long term, acknowledging that innovation demands forethought and a financial commitment. We can no longer afford the tenure of short-term brand assignment to set the schedules for packaging change. Packaging innovation takes much more due-diligence than has been historically afforded. 

    Think about pursuing innovation by investing in a future that is different than the past. Embrace the reality that today's product offering has already started its journey toward extinction as needs, tastes, and desires continually shift, and our offerings must adapt accordingly. If you embrace the ultimate death of a product or package, only then will you be able to ignite the survival instincts that were the catalyst of invention for the American frontier. Necessity will always be the mother of invention. The CPG industry aches for a revolution in thinking as to the role of packaging within the marketing mix.


    Peter Clarke is a visionary entrepreneur who founded Product Ventures 15 years ago as the ultimate strategic creative agency for the research, design and development of manufactured goods.. His passion for excellence and dedication to helping shape products and packaging to enhance consumers’ lives have garnered Clarke enormous recognition. Product Ventures has been honored to create innovative and award-winning package designs for such notable clients as Procter and Gamble, Nestle and Bayer, among many others. As an expert commentator, Peter Clarke is frequently profiled in the media, including CBS’ The Early Show, Fox Business News, and news broadcasts discussing industry trends. 

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