Innovation starts with how you gather consumer insights at the front end

By Reach Brands

Traditionally, consumers have been brought into the innovation process primarily to validate new product concepts. But those companies at the forefront of design thinking are now soliciting consumer insights and ideas to jump-start the ‘fuzzy front end’ (also known as the ‘front end’, ‘phase 0’, ‘stage 0’ or ‘pre-development’) of the innovation process.

However, this is easier said than done. According to a Business Week report, gaining consumer insight is the fourth most cited obstacle for the world’s most innovative companies. The old methodology of just trawling through quantitative and focus group research reports does not cut it anymore – and the old thinking that ‘consumers can’t innovate’ is being turned upside down.

Conventional consumer research is no longer enough to create a competitive edge. This has forced many companies to think more creatively about how and when they engage customers. Increasingly, businesses are trying more radical and innovative approaches to gain upfront ideas and inspiration from consumers, rather than just falling back on traditional methods.

Since 2001, P&G have invested $1billion on improving and developing how they gather consumer insight – leading the way with many initiatives, such as:

  • ‘Living It’ – where P&Gers live with consumers for a number of days
  • ‘Working It’ – where P&Gers work in a retail outlet

The Clay St Project was created to bring together bright sparks from across P&G’s global business – and give them a single business challenge to solve. During the exploratory phase of a project they use in-home visits, shop-alongs and weekly small qualitative working groups. P&G’s market performance speaks for itself. They are seriously reaping the benefits of pioneering quality consumer insight to feed the innovation funnel.

Digging for consumer insight to kick-start any innovation project is the most fundamental part of the process. After all, if you don’t get it right, you don’t build the right, or most desirable, thing – and the principle of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ definitely applies.  No matter how good the ideas generated, they will be based on faulty or weak foundations.

What is a good consumer insight then for innovation purposes? Well, let’s start with what it is not:

  1. The insights you need for innovation are not the same as those collected for U&As, tracking studies, advertising focus groups, eye tracking etc. These are based on the assumption that it is possible to ask people what they want, what they need, or how they behave – and get a reliable answer. But this just isn’t so when you are trying to create new and innovative products or services. Yes, there might be some clues as to where to look or even help generate some possible hypothesis – but that is its limit.
  2. Most companies would claim they are “customer-driven”. And in some ways, do involve customers in their product development processes. What consumers say – and what they really think – are often two very different things. Many companies make the mistake of accepting whatever consumers verbalise about their needs and wants as a given. But real ‘consumer-driven’ insight seeks to uncover what is unarticulated. Purposefully seeking out the unarticulated is the basis of true innovations.
  3. A consumer insight is not a product idea – yet we see this misunderstanding a lot with new clients. What organisations often do is have a great idea, then re-engineer a consumer insight to fit it – working the solution into the consumer insight. It’s like the consumer is asking for your new product without even knowing it exists.

So what is wrong with more traditional insight gathering methodologies?


Surveys work by expecting to get reliable answers from questions. However, for a survey to be effective the respondent needs to fully understand the question, be aware of their own behaviour, be able to articulate the behaviour or need, have a reliable and unchanging opinion and then be able to score it on a scale. And even be able to describe it in an open-ended question.

Traditional interviews

Traditional interviews generally work better, especially if they are one-on-one as they are much more interactive. Interviewers ask their questions – the burning issues they want resolved based on discussions with the design team, marketing, or business. Again, the answers all depend on the respondents understanding and remembering the question and caring enough to spend their time thinking about what they need, do, and want.

Focus groups

Naturally, in a group setting, users become influenced by each other. On the one hand, they may remind each other about some issues that otherwise might have been forgotten or omitted. But on the other, one person could dominate and influence the flow of discussion. Because everyone knows they’ve signed up to give their opinion, they will give it – and everyone can always find something to say! After all, they use the product – how could they not know what it does or what they want?

In summary, consumers know everything about what they do. They just can’t tell you.

The kind of information that will really ignite your innovation process and create great product ideas is:

  • Understanding what people actually do and not what they say they do
  • Knowing the glitches – the annoying irritations, the “if only it just had/did…”
  • Uncovering what ‘works around’ consumers, i.e. finding a way to make a product work better or compensating the lack of the thing that it’s not doing
  • Identifying what is stopping people from purchasing and using your product
  • Grasping what consumers are doing with your product that it was not designed to do
  • Having a good idea about what they would like to do with your product that it won’t let them
  • Discovering what is being substituted for your product – or vice versa
  • Uncovering how consumer behaviour – and attitudes to your product, brand or category – are changing
  • Pulling out what people would like to have more of from your product or brand
  • Painting a picture of what is exciting or inspiring people in your market or adjacent ones. What are friends and family talking about – the tips and news about products that are being passed on?

If you had all these insights to throw in at the very start of the innovation funnel, you would find both ideation – and the resulting pipeline fill – quick and easy. And, of course, it would make your insights highly relevant and appealing to consumers, which is the absolute key to a successful new product launch. So how do you dig these up?

The answer is: the principles and ideas of ethnography. That is observation and questioning which take place at the site of consumer behaviour and decisions. So to gain real insight from consumers, you need to see how they act in real-life situations. For example, how do they behave in their home, in a supermarket aisle or in the pub with their mates? This information can be gathered in a number of ways including field observation, depth interviews, video ethnography, cultural inventories, video diaries, creative labs and visual stories – or a blend of several of them. Where focus groups offer opinion and speculation, ethnography gives you a real insight in to the genuine behaviours, rituals and actions of consumers – providing valuable material to inform and drive innovation.

To observe behaviours, and describe them, is a fairly straightforward exercise – many people can do this. But just before you plonk yourself in your consumers’ homes, remember that they are source of information, not answers. Consumers can’t tell you what to do. But they can tell you about their experiences – and perhaps suggest improvements to what you are already doing.  They can’t directly guide innovation. Those deep and impactful insights are not lying out in the open to be easily mined. You have to look beyond what consumers say to work out what motivates them – even if they don’t know themselves. You need to connect motivations and identify patterns to see clarity amongst complexity – and disparate fragments. Making the right connections is hard – it requires strong creative and critical thinking.

The key lesson is that innovation and creative thinking does not start at ideation or even in reframing questions. It starts with how you go about collecting consumer insights to feed into these later activities. If your competitors are using the same kinds of established methods as you, then the probability of uncovering a competitive advantage is very small. You need to be imaginative and work on finding powerful interactive techniques and exercises to stimulate consumers’ creativity – helping them, and you, to pull out what they don’t know or can’t initially see about themselves.

This is where a true competitive advantage can be found. So it really is a case of “It’s not just what you do… it’s the way that you do it.”

By Natalie Reed, Strategy Partner at Reach
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