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A front-end innovation process model

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How to create and own new innovations

The following article is a high level overview of the generic process approach that many FMCG companies take in front end innovation. Whilst not a one size fits all, it is however, a relatively consistent approach taken by many larger international companies. 

The approach is simple to manage if you are an individual starting out on a business making opportunity but how does it work in existing businesses? 

Well I suggest you need a process.

Why do you need a process?

1. To make the approach consistent across all parts of the company
2. To enable many ideas to be assessed and prioritised
3. To focus on the best ideas and turn them into consumer relevant concepts
4. To direct resources in the company to concepts with the best overall chance of success
5. To be confident that when a new innovation is undertaken it will have the best chance of success

What does a typical process look like?

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Before you even start making prototype innovation products it is critical to go through the first few stages of the process, this stage is often called FRONT END INNOVATION.

Front end innovation involves collecting and collating information both internally and externally, carrying out carefully structured ideation sessions, creating concepts with the consumer in mind, looking for technical ways to make it work and then validating the concepts with consumers. All this happens before you start spending money resources on making a product.
It’s commonly believed that innovation starts with a creative idea. But what makes something a creative idea? An idea is simply combining two known elements. A creative idea on the other hand combines existing elements for the first time. In most organizations a customer need is matched to a technology to address that need. Thus, innovation starts with information, not creative ideas!

The stages of the Front End Innovation process can be described as follows:

Knowledge foundation (Internal and External)
Many organisations will have a wealth of prior experience and knowledge in their existing product category built up over a number of years. Whilst in some companies this will be well recorded and accessible it is unfortunately often not the case. So one of the first activities is to bring all of this prior experience together review and summarise. It is often better for someone outside of the business to carry out this activity to give it objective impartial credibility. As well as internal knowledge there are tools available to identify and review external knowledge that may be relevant for the next stage, examples of which are product space mapping and technology trends etc. These techniques are a subject for a further discussion.

Consumer research (technical and consumer interactions)
It is worth at this very early stage getting some simple level of engagement with consumers. This may be as simple as company employees who use existing products, relatively unstructured focus groups and retail market trips to understand how consumers purchase product currently.

Ideation
Only after the above stages should the first ideation sessions be planned and carried out. Again, the techniques used for ideation sessions (of which there are many documented) are a subject for further discussion. The preparation of the sessions with all related information to hand is critical.

Concept formation
To be able to engage with consumers you need to be able to present the idea in a credible and consumer understandable way – “The Concept”. or even better described as a “consumer relevant proposition”.
How would we create a consumer relevant proposition? Lets’ look at an example

COLGATE Time Control is a product focussed upon gum strengthening. The consumer need is articulated as "As I get older I notice my appearance changing and part of this is my mouth and teeth." COLGATE have therefore developed toothpaste that aims to restore the youthful appearance of the mouth while providing healthy gums and teeth. COLGATES Time Control contains a unique specially formulated gum protection system aided by Vitamin E which helps stop receding and inflamed gums.

The concept describes a ‘consumer need’, a ‘reason to believe’ for the consumer and a technology that is described in consumer relevant language. The concept also provides marketers with a holistic picture of the innovation that they can relate too without a significant technical understanding.

1. Scouting for technologies
It would be unusual for any company to have a monopoly on all the technologies it needed for an innovation already in its pipeline. On a rare occasion that this was the case it is generally accepted that even in very large organisations, 99% of all good ideas/technologies exist outside the confines of that organisation. So, logic therefore suggests that as a minimum, companies should survey the external landscape for available technologies when considering an innovation path. Some companies have their own technology scouting teams whilst others use external suppliers to deliver this service. Whichever route is chosen, time and resource must be allocated to review uncovered technologies and to engage with filtered potential partners. This will take resource but the upside opportunity of shortening the development time and cost is worthwhile the investment. For more details on scouting methodology visit http://www.strategicallies.co.uk

2. Identify different technical approaches for concept
It is always preferable to have more than one technology route to deliver
the concept.

A simple process approach is good to start with.

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3. Prepare “marketing friendly” story boards/visuals for concepts

Well thought through visual material is critical for engagement with consumers. The words used must explain the concept in an unambiguous and simple way that a range of different consumers will relate to. Pictures that describe the benefit and reinforce the words of the concept are critical at this stage.

4. Consumer research to confirm concept resonance with consumers
Early stage focus group work can now take place with the story boards, the concept and any other relevant materials controlled and run by experienced and skilled facilitators.

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The author of this artice, John Sampson, has been working in Global FMCG companies for nearly thirty years before recently setting up his own consultancy company; JR Sampson Consulting. As part of a partnership with a range of different skilled consultants he specialises in the management and interpretation of front-end early stage consumer research, ideation innovation, concept development and product design.

tel: +44 (0) 7468 119288 email: jrsampsonconsulting@talktalk.net