Innovation Starts With Empathy

The Heart of Game-Changing Innovation

Everyone gets the power and potential of new ideas—but there is precious little research and understanding about how to create consistent processes around generating them. Yet enlightened companies with good innovation track records agree on one critical point—meaningful innovation is fueled by understanding customers’ lives and needs. In The Game Changer, A.G. Lafley and Rom Charan make it abundantly clear, “The most essential component to game-changing innovation is deeply understanding your consumer at both the rational and emotional levels. This goes well beyond basic demographics and psychographics. It requires deep understanding of what drives their emotions. It requires understanding not only their need but, also their aspirations. You must get an appreciation for who they are, how they live, and—yes, of course—how your product can best improve their lives.”

How Does It Make Them Feel?

The most innovative and successful companies think and behave this way. What customers think, feel and need is never far from their thoughts and finds its way into every aspect of their operations. Our client Harley-Davidson is a good example. When the weather is nice, several hundred Harleys line the parking lot at corporate headquarters in Milwaukee. When execs ride their own Harleys to work it changes how they feel about features for new models. In the same vein, Zappos studied consumers and realized they would have to completely remove the risk of buying shoes online. So, their shipping is free and they allow you to return unworn product even months after purchase. Many competitors have since followed suit. Meanwhile, Starbucks built an empire by deeply sensing the nuances of the experience consumers were seeking. And, mind you it’s an empire of coffee shops. Other legendary brands including Southwest Airlines, FedEx, Facebook and Nordstrom are all built on sensing and meeting customer needs. Even when it means creating a completely new approach to how business is done.

Method Marketing

At Brandtrust® we call this approach “method marketing.” We all know what a method actor is—someone who completely immerses themselves in a character in an attempt to emotionally become that character. In the same way, we all need to become “method marketers.” We’re convinced the most innovative companies do this instinctively. They become the customer so they can feel what the customer feels. They get into the customer’s head. They know exactly who their customers are, the intimate details of how they live their lives and their deeper unarticulated desires and needs. Then they become quite intentional about making sure their brand is meeting those needs. Of course, there are brands that didn’t live this way. Edsel and New Coke come to mind.

Think Different

There is an argument that consumers don’t know what they want and research is pointless. When a reporter asked Steve Jobs about the market research that went into the iPad he famously answered, “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Obviously, he meant traditional market research, not the empathy-based insight that comes from deeply understanding customers. He was right. Simply asking consumers what they want is an exercise in futility. Instead, you have to get into their heads to learn what’s really motivating them. That’s why at Brandtrust we urge clients to forget about the “voice of the customer” and focus on the “mind of the customer.” Jobs clearly understood this. He didn’t bother obsessing on market data and analytics. Instead, he spent a lot of time thinking about consumers and being an active consumer of technology himself. That’s how he knew what to do next.

For example, there were a number of excellent MP3 players on the market long before iPods were introduced. Apple struck on an amazingly simple insight—it’s about the music, stupid. Apple recognized that they could vastly improve the experience of music players by actually making a wide selection of music available. So they developed and launched iTunes to make it easy and affordable to select and download your favorite songs. Apple tried the competitive products, felt the unmet needs and smartly figured out a way to, quite literally, change the music business and the world. It was the insight that would create huge market advantage. It was the insight we might expect from a company who urges us to “Think Different.” It was the insight that would propel Apple’s brand meaning and status even higher. It was the insight that delivered almost eighty percent market share for the company. Oh, and they make quite a bit of money with that little empathy-based insight.

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