Thursday, March 26, 2009

Innovation in a time of plenty

I was listening to a local radio show just recently and the host had as his guest a gentleman who was running a small gourmet food and beverages store. The proprietor was a person who had built and run a small grocery chain, but who had tired of the breadth of depth of a grocery store and who was now focused solely on wine, tea and coffee. To hear him talk about his experiences and the commitment his brokers and buyers have about the coffee, tea and wine they select and choose to sell was to listen to an almost religious experience. He talked about the authenticity of his teas and coffees, and the care that went into getting to know the wine makers whose wine he sold. It struck me then that this is the next iteration of innovation. Innovation around experience, product relevance and authenticity.

I was struck, thinking about the discussion at a later date, about how far we've come, at least in the US, from where even our grandparents were in relation to food. My grandmother lived through the Great Depression, and scratched out barely enough food to eat to live. Food choices or considerations about authenticity or how the food was grown was beyond anything they cared about. That was only 80 years ago.

The next evolution, once there was enough food to eat, was in augmenting and improving food. We added supplements and "fortified" the food to make it taste better or provide more nutrients. Then, once we had extended the existing food, we sought out new food types. Suddenly Thai food, Sushi and other foods that had been extravagances became mainstream. Then we innovated with existing foods, creating new "fusions" of food - mixing different cuisines. Now that we've run that gamut, and we have in most cases enough food to worry about obesity rather than scarcity, and enough selection that a trip down a grocery store can literally flummox most shoppers, we are now innovating and differentiating around authenticity, the "roots" and history of the product and the intent of the product.

Using food innovations as a metaphor for innovation more generally, we can easily see that the next wave of innovation is not product innovation, or service innovation, or even business model innovation, although business model innovation still has a lot of legs. No, the next iteration of innovation is in customer experience and authenticity. People want their products and services to have "meaning" and to understand the origin, history, purpose and intent of the product or service. They want to buy from firms that have a purpose, not nameless, faceless organizations. They want innovation that ties them back to genuine issues and creates meaning in the acquisition, use and ownership of the product or service. As conspicuous consumption falls, meaningful, purposeful acquistion will arise. We may have less things, but those things will need to have purpose and meaning - will need to provide a worthwhile experience for the consumer. It's not enough to have the lowest priced product, or the highest priced brand for that matter. Your product must have an authentic story, and create an experience that ties the customer to something that's meaningful. See the next wave of innovation about to unfold - the innovation of authenticity, purpose and meaning.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:07 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

There is an even higher level.

When I buy a box of cereal, or a packet of biscuits, or a can of drink I might consider the brand. But .... if I'm buying meat, or bread and it has a brand name on the packet I know I'm buying cheap junk. The really good stuff has a different way of passing the message, it's what I buy, where I buy it, even how I buy it, or indeed whether I buy it, that says the most.

Often the best food of all is a gift from the fisherman, or the hobby farmer, a meal cooked by a friend.

Surely the real end of the journey for food is when we return, if only briefly, to where it all began - producing or catching our own and sharing with those we love. All attempts to do otherwise just look like the food equivalent of computer dating.

9:26 AM  
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