Cathy asks: what is innovation? Should we assume it’s good?
I was thinking of just this question the other morning. Charles Duhigg was on NPR talking about the air-freshener Febreze — more or less covering the same ground as pp.4-5 of his NYTMag article, or this blog post from the CEO of Innovative Disruption. Proctor and Gamble had a big problem with Febreze; it worked fine, but people weren’t buying it. P&G’s market research quickly identified the issue. People with smelly houses were fine with the way their houses smelled. Undaunted, the marketers zeroed in on those few consumers who actually liked the product, and found a new angle. They could sell the idea that your cleaning wasn’t done until you’d spritzed some Febreze around the house — even if your house already smelled fine. This was a huge success. People are always receptive to the message that what they’re doing isn’t good enough, and that everybody else is doing it a little better. Anxiety is a unit shifter.
On NPR, Duhigg said that this innovative strategy made $50 million in the first year. But in what sense did it really “make” $50 million? Shouldn’t we say it transferred $50 million from other people to Proctor and Gamble? To be tendentious, why wouldn’t you say the innovative disruption cost Americans $50 million?
Here’s a truly innovative marketing strategy for Band-Aids; hire a bunch of unemployed people at minimum wage to run around town slashing people’s arms with penknives. Presto — an unmet demand for sidewalk Band-Aid kiosks!
That’s not how Proctor and Gamble would describe what they’re doing. They would say that people already wanted to lengthen their housecleaning routine; they just didn’t know they wanted that until P&G’s marketing team alerted them to the opportunity. If they didn’t really want Febreze, they wouldn’t keep buying Febreze!
This is not, to me, a convincing story about what people really want. Then again, I don’t really think Febreze is a pure exercise in arm-slashing. It’s a mix. The point is simply that its success can’t be judged purely by the amount of money it transferred to its originators.
(P.S. I contend that a company called Innovative Disruption is very unlikely to be either innovative or disruptive. Discuss.)
Update: Innovative Disruption blogger sticks up for marketing in the comments at some length — click through!