Exploring the Boundaries Of The Traditional Concept

Quick Read: The idea of Traditional Concept and its reliance on metrics like Purchase Intent for validating product ideas is being challenged. More so in the realm of Retro Innovations.  

The Traditional Concept and its classic three part construct – Insight | Benefit | Reason To Believe – to represent a product idea for consumer research has been coming under scrutiny. In fact, there are even obituaries being written about it citing reasons like:

  • It is too rigid, rational and over – engineered as a construct to represent a product idea
  • Puts far more emphasis on our deliberative ‘System 2’ thinking
  • Fails to take into account how consumers tend to make decisions (unconsciously, quickly, swayed far more by emotional impact and immediate impressions)
  • Relies heavily on metrics like purchase intent for validation

Academic arguments apart, one thing that a Traditional Concept cannot possibly help with is screening product ideas that fall into the realm of Retro Innovations – new products that are designed around connecting us with the past and invoking our nostalgia.

Two recent product examples where a traditional concept could have had a tough time cracking the consumer code:

The ‘Miller Light’ Retro Design And Its Placebo Effect

Miller Lite is known as the first mainstream light beer in the US. But over the years, the U.S. sales of the beer had been declining, trailing Bud Light, Coors Light, and Budweiser. Revenue dropped 7 percent in just 2013 (source). So in January 2014, as part of a product placement tie in with the film Anchorman 2, Miller released a limited edition version  of its original 1975 white can.

bottle(The Retro Designed Miller Lite Can)

Surprisingly for Miller Lite, this retro designed packaging proved to be a success (it sold 32 million cans more than that during YTD 2013) that by September 2014 it decided to switch back to this packaging full-time, including on bottles and tap handles.

And reportedly, taken by surprise, when Miller marketers conducted some post launch evaluation, they learnt that the Millennials had liked it because it seemed iconic and old while their parents had liked it because it reminded them of what they used to drink. Strangely, customers even started telling the company its “new” beer tasted better even though they were still drinking the same old beer(!)

Obviously, a Traditional Concept and conventional testing for metrics like Purchase Intent, could not have driven the brand along this unexpected ‘retro’ direction.

Leica M Edition 60 – The Digital Camera Without An LCD Screen

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the legendary Leica rangefinder system, the company recently announced the Leica M Edition 60. The unique thing about this camera is that it does something bold – it ditches the back LCD screen and all onboard menus. One cannot even review their photos. It leaves photographers with physical controls of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. And it forces them to look through just one thing – the viewfinder.

Is this a good idea? Will consumers like it? Does it even make design sense? The debate is on.

But one thing is certain:  this reductionism as a celebration of photographic art – as Leica calls it – could not have been conceived of through the lens of the Traditional Concept and testing for Purchase Intent.

Is the Leica M Edition 60 too high end to be a realistic example here?

Well, then let’s get a bit ‘low end’ – Music CDs and online music.

Let’s think of product ideas in terms of Traditional Concepts and test for their Purchase Intent to sell online music to the Japanese vs the good old CDs. 

And good luck to us doing that!

JAPAN-MUSIC-01-master675(AKB48, a popular Japanese group, has sold CDs containing tickets to its performances, encouraging fans to buy multiple copies. Source)

(Featured Image: The New Leica M Edition 60)

On Looking Back To The Future

Have you ever thought about looking back to the future?

This is not about the acclaimed 1985 Academy Award winning American Science Fiction Comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg – which by the way is a must see.  The question is whether you have ever thought about the notion of ‘looking into the future’ as akin to that of looking back.

Let’s talk about the Aymaras

Apparently this tribe of indigenous people in South America called the Aymara have an unusual way of referring to the future – when they talk about the past, they point to the space in front of them and when they talk about the future, they point behind them. Wonder why?

As Austin Kleon succinctly puts it …

The reason they point ahead of them when talking about the past is because the past is known to them — the past has happened, therefore it’s in front of them, where they can see it.The future, on the other hand, is unknown, it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s behind them, where they can’t see it.

A very thought provoking concept if one begins to think about it.

After embarking upon a mini thought + search experiment, I have come to appreciate that looking back to the future can be more than just a conceptual metaphor of the Aymara’s. My three riffs on this concept:

1. First a relatively straight forward one –  in a very practical sense, the notion of looking back into the future can be said to be closely related to the concept of Retro Innovation. Think about it. Isn’t it? More about it here.

2. We have heard about Chris Anderson‘s concept of The Long Tail. Of comparable significance is Bill Buxton‘s concept of The Long Nose of Innovation – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of Innovation and Design. Flip through the following slide deck to get a gist of what he meant by this in just under 50 – 60s.

He makes a strong case that – any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. And thereby says The Future Is History and goes to conclude with the advice –  “Use history to evaluate new concepts and ideas instead of only gut feel”.
So may be next time we ideate within a category/segment for innovation ideas, it might be worthwhile to look for trends that go back to nearly 10 years from now for a change.

3. Lastly, in many ways the concept of looking back to the future could also be related to the idea of photography as time travel.

Irina Werning was a virtually unknown photographer till she embarked on a project called Back To The Future in 2010 (and subsequently in 2011) and the rest as they say is history, with her photographs going hugely viral – even becoming Internet Memes and her project becoming a big sensation. Read more about Irina’s obsession as a photographer to take her subjects back and forth in time through her unique project here. Enjoy the behind the scenes video of the project here.

I find the idea of looking back to the future hugely fascinating and as Austin Kleon says, the Aymara’s way of referring to the future continues to blow my mind no matter how long I think about it.

And you thought History and Innovation make strange bedfellows?

Marketing Nostalgia – Retro Innovation

The first thing you notice about Paperman – an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film (2012) –  is how different it seems from most modern cartoons.

paperman_title

See the full 6mins version here. It has a distinct retro black & white look not just because it is a story based out of 1940s Manhattan, but also because it clearly feels like as if real people have drawn it  it on a piece of paper as opposed to say – like machines creating it on computers.  The result of Disney’s new in-house software called Meander, it seamlessly  blends the best of ‘hand drawn cartoon kinda’ look with CGI animation in a way the animation industry has never seen before; a game changing animation style so distinctive, innovative and beautiful that WIRED magazine even bills it as the future of animation as a whole!

This can be called out as an example of a unique kind of innovation – new technologies, new products or experiences that are designed around connecting us with the past that is nostalgic. Something that  calls as Retro Innovation.  In this FastCompany article he writes that Retro Innovations roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Innovations that authentically mimic a product or experience of the past to transport the user back into a gone era.
  2. Innovations that use a nostalgic format to meet a new need.
  3. Innovations that use a new format to meet an old need.

Read the whole article here and get a dose of some 10 emerging examples of Retro Innovations. My favorite example is Moleskine, regarding which he says..

The Italian paper notebook maker MDleskine, whose recent IPO was valued at more than $600 million, is a stunning anachronism in a business environment that glorifies tech startups and digital business models.

There are reams of case studies out there that extol the brilliance of Moleskine’s branding. But the best example of its retro innovation is its Moleskine Evernote Smart Notebook that bridges the digital and the analog world.

The key insight on which most successful retro innovations thrive on is brilliantly articulated in this Washington Post article that says..

With the rise in computing power, there has been an acceleration of the rate in which we build on new information technologies, leaving us clutching awkwardly for things we recognize from the past. The pace of change at times seems so overwhelming that it’s no wonder that sometimes we want to be transported back to an earlier era.

Think about this insight and you could possibly have explanations for things like:

  • The emergence of  a ‘modern retro’ trend in the  retro gaming culture.
  • The popularity of Mad Men – the only basic cable series to win Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series besides 14 other Emmys and 4 Golden Globes. (source)
  • Brands like Adidas and Puma having a dedicated innovation pipeline specially meant for their retro line ups: Adidas Originals and Puma Classics. In fact by many accounts, Adidas Originals can be considered to be a top of the pyramid brand in terms of their positioning and price points. Besides, the corporate logo of Adidas is distinctive from that of Adidas Originals recognizing the unique appeal and potential of this retro innovation line up from the sports brand.
  • The popularity of classics that are remastered to the new digital world – Jurassic Park 3D anyone?

And  in extreme case it might possibly even explain the rationale behind the existence of Skeuomorps – which might be a different discussion altogether!

While the jury is still out to argue whether the ‘retro trend’ actually cripples innovation, a few venture capitalists do concede that  retro innovation is indeed the most lucrative kind. After all, if innovations are about elevating and enriching human experiences, there would always be a market that values a more traditional notion of this experience and that’s where Retro Innovations kick in.

What other examples of Retro Innovations can you think of?