Irrelevance Looms Large

“You’ve Got to Ask the Question…”

It seems appropriate that I’m writing this on Star Wars day, May 4th. You’ll see why in a moment. Not to mention, the sci-fi movie, Alien, turns 40 years old this year. That fact, alone, makes me feel a bit ancient. So, I’m sitting here thinking about aliens and feeling ancient.

I don’t know if you have ever seen the show Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. There’s one phrase that is stated repeatedly on that show. It usually goes something like this, “The artifact you’re looking at was built without mortar or tools, yet the joints are so close you can’t even slide a piece of paper between the stones. You have to ask the question, ‘Could this have been built using alien technology?’”

While I have trouble believing the theories about ancient extraterrestrials, I do believe that statement has power. “You have to ask the question…” However, the challenge is to ask the right question. In the above example, the question asked is based on a pre-existing assumption. That’s the danger we face. In other words, you have to ask the question, without influencing the answer with your existing beliefs.

Irrelevance Looms Large

I’m not sure I have to state this but the greatest threat we face as marketers and innovators is irrelevance in the minds of our decision-makers. Irrelevance leads to reduced revenue, tight margins, and eroding market share.

When it comes to product innovation, this has become more critical than ever before. The proliferation of products and the expansion of messages have made irrelevance more dangerous than ever before.

The most important question to ask is, “What are the jobs our purchase decision-makers are trying to accomplish?” This seems like such a simple question. Perhaps you are thinking, “We already know the answer to that question.” But I would suggest that’s when we are on shaky ground. We are too easily influenced by our beliefs regarding our products, our customers, and our competition.

But the Question is Bigger

The good news is we can do something about it.

First, we must change the way we think about competition. We, as marketers, think in terms of categories and subcategories, rather than thinking about our competition as anyone or anything that can fulfill the task or job our purchase-decision makers are trying to accomplish. Our competition is not just other products but anything that solves the problem for the consumer.

Second, we have to change the way we think about our purchase decision-makers. We must have a greater understanding of the complete context in which decisions are made. As we engage our consumers in interviews we should be asking questions like, “How did you get to the store?” “What was the weather like on the day you shopped for  the product?” “What were you thinking as you walked into the store?”  “What did the store smell like?” These might seem like silly questions and of little use in research. However, studies have revealed the right questions can take the consumer back into the moment when they “hired” a solution. Moments they may have forgotten. Hidden within those moments are critical insights.

We often talk about understanding the consumer’s context. We need so much more knowledge than just which products they buy, which brands they prefer, and what stores they shop. We want to climb inside their heads. Sometimes this means leading them into remembering why and how they connected with other solutions.

Third, change the way you think about your innovation process. Having a solid, repeatable process gives us a chance to critically judge each innovation project, perfecting it through iterative efforts.

Here are three suggestions to get started.

Hire fresh eyes. The edge a great internal innovation team has over outsiders is the knowledge of the category and awareness of the company’s legacy. On the other hand, the benefit of outside resources is that they come to the process with no baggage, no preconceived ideas. That’s why hiring fresh eyes i.e., an outside resource, is of significant benefit while keeping the inside team intimately involved is also critical.

Listen when they’re talking. Never in our history has there been an ongoing focus group with hundreds of millions of participants publicly available and easily accessible. But social media gives us just that! Consumers are talking; we just don’t always listen. Using social media as a qualitative research platform works best with consumer-targeted products but this illustrates the need to have our ears to the ground continually.

Develop funnel-brain. Think in terms of a simple funnel that includes interest, urgency, priority, and intent. This concept has been around since the late 1800s, but is often forgotten. This funnel should be reconfirmed early and often.

Let’s remember: to remain relevant, you have to ask the question.