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Creative Research to Test Assumptions

Kevin Leibel, President and Founder, innovation Management, LLC

How does a guy with an entrepreneurial spirit and no undergraduate degree wind up earning a MBA, starting a highly successful marketing company, and serving as an adjunct college professor? By always asking, "Why not?"

This mantra has served me well and is a key element in our success at innovationManagement, now in its tenth year. I believe you have to always challenge the conventional wisdom. It's okay to have a reasonable impatience with norms, rules, and the status quo. When something or someone says you can't succeed, you must ask, "Why not?"

And then continue to push back until all of the evidence and insight you can bring to bear on the matter is exhausted. This mindset is particularly relevant to the market research part of our business, as we work to validate or negate assumptions and help move our clients beyond what is traditional or expected to become more successful.

As a relatively small company, we're fortunate to do business with some of the nation's largest companies. We know they can work with anyone they like, so we have to be different-we have to solve their problems in creative new ways. We always ask ourselves: "Why not work with a small firm, and what can we give clients that the large agencies can't?"

This philosophy has led to the model for our business-one in which we focus on critical thinking and innovative research techniques to identify solutions for our clients. Because we use the clients' internal teams, they're able to take ownership of the solutions.

We'll begin working with a client's marketing or R&D staff, for example. We then take that team and work with other key stakeholders, bringing everyone together who has a role or interest-the company team, the end-user, anyone who touches or is touched by the company's product. Inviting them all together in what we call collaboration laboratories (or collaboratories) allows us to do better work and allows them to walk away with a better result for which they can take credit. We see our role as the catalyst for making great things happen.

Some of the kinds of research techniques we've developed to help meet our clients' goals include GameFrog Café®, a mall-based gaming environment that provides teens and young adults a place to gather and play their favorite interactive games. It provides the capability to conduct concept research, sampling, and Web-based research and is a great way to gather data on a highly coveted demographic.

TrendCity® allows us to place a client's team member and our researchers in major metropolitan areas to experience the flavor of a city, engage in collaborative sessions with cross-category experts, brainstorm, and uncover and validate trends. It provides a "Day in the Life" of a client's target audience.

MediaShout® uses video and still cameras, notebooks, and voice recorders to document behaviors and provide an uncensored alternative to traditional focus groups. Recorded images and words serve as group discussion triggers that can lead to deeper insights, a greater understanding, and expanded business opportunities.

These and our other techniques have one thing in common: they are designed to promote a deep understanding of an audience and related marketing opportunities. To be effective, we have to answer who, what, when, where, and why consumers relate to a client's product or service.

For example, we helped Coca-Cola® develop the Fridge Pak® for more efficiently storing and dispensing cold beverages from the refrigerator. We didn't start out saying, "We're going to go with a package that is longer than it is wide."

Package innovation has to begin with a better understanding of how people use the product in their home environment. We had to think about how they shop, how they get the product from the grocery shelf to the shopping cart, from the cart to the car, and from the car to the refrigerator or pantry. Then we began to look at how consumers use and consume beverages in their homes. People would typically put some cans in the refrigerator and the rest elsewhere because a squarer package didn't leave any room.

We quickly learned that cold products are served and consumed three times faster than those not refrigerated. So we began thinking about how to get more product into the refrigerator and how packaging could satisfy that goal. The FridgePak® was the answer.

For First Alert®, which makes smoke detectors and home safety devices, we addressed the question of how we could make homes safer. We wanted to figure out how to get people to use safety products more effectively. We worked with consumers to fully understand their likes and dislikes surrounding the home safety and fire extinguisher categories. Numerous research activities, including focus groups, in-home studies, and ideation sessions were implemented.

Research revealed that most consumers had fire extinguishers in their home but were afraid to use them and, if pressed into action, would most likely fail. And there was the perception that extinguishers were toxic and would damage property. Those who refrained from purchasing a fire extinguisher altogether regarded the products as too technical and difficult. These insights led us to the development of an intuitive, easy-to-use, family-friendly device. Now, with Tundra®, the company offers a fire extinguisher in a familiar aerosol-type can, which also meets the demand for a biodegradable, non-toxic product that won't damage countertops.

Our goal is always to apply the most innovative thinking to develop fresh, insightful answers to our clients' product, brand, and market concerns.

It's about looking at a situation or problem from every possible angle and understanding all of the different ways people relate to a client's services and products. It's being comfortable with the unexpected, continually pushing back, and always asking "Why not?"

© 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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