Consumer conversations in the co-creation of innovations

Innovations come about in several ways. The innovation process is often powered by technology. In other cases, marketers have sufficient knowledge and intuition to independently create new products. Occasionally, a good innovation is created by accident. Today’s active and empowered consumer is however prepared to innovate in cooperation with brands. Co-creation is the joint creation of innovations by customer and producer with the goal of better meeting customer needs. This is why co-creation is a very valuable, even necessary, supplement within the innovation process.
My Starbucks Idea is a good example of how co-creation based on consumer conversations can support the innovation process of a brand. The platform allows consumers to help think about new products. The ideas are shared with others who can vote for, and discuss, them. Platforms like these provide an open and honest opinion by the target group and demonstrate that the company values the opinions of customers. They do however remain marketing tools. The platform is open to anyone (as far as confidentiality permits) and it remains difficult to assess whether all suggestions should be examined. Companies also often underestimate the workload of such an initiative. Some consumers expect that precisely their idea will enter the market, and do not understand why they get no response, sometimes becoming quite upset. Support is needed in situations like these and this requires resources. The question, therefore, is how to apply ‘reverse engineering’ on My Starbucks Idea and translate it into a systematic and objective market research process of co-creation for innovation. This requires a specific approach with regard to target group and market research process.
Target group
Not every consumer is suitable for co-creation. This is nothing new in itself. Eric von Hippel already formulated the idea of leading edge users back in the 80s. Lead users have the same needs as the rest of the market, but much earlier than anyone else. These users are very interested in finding a solution to their needs. For innovation research, we can best approach consumers who are among the first within a specific product category to try new products and are willing to take a risk doing so. Based on theories from social psychology, the co-creation process of InSites Consulting adds a dimension to the innovation process: social independence versus interpersonal influence. We therefore approach two target groups:

  • The socially independent innovators. These customers form their own opinion about an innovation based on their own personal experience, regardless of what is popular in their social context. In evaluating an innovation these consumers mainly consider the functional operation of a product; the social impact they achieve with it is secondary.
  • The social influencers (influentials). This group of consumers view innovations from their immediate social environment. Influentials are regarded by their environment as a form of creative experts who easily see the benefits of innovations. Consequently, they are often asked for their opinion about certain innovations and the mainstream market follows them in terms of adoption behaviour. They enjoy being creative with products, they find it important that others approve the innovations they use and proactively talk about innovations. They are more concerned with the concrete benefits of an innovation than the technical features.

Process/method
In terms of research method, co-creation requires a different approach than traditional research. The methods must meet the intrinsic motivation and interest of consumers in a contemporary way. They include tools that allow participants to design and adapt ideas in a concrete manner.
To begin with, the right profiles are recruited: only innovators and influencers are considered. The first group are given access to a closed online platform where they generate ideas on an individual basis. All participants are regarded as “innovation-developers” here. The objective is to search for innovation in a targeted manner with a small group based on previously validated insights.
The second phase is one of cross-pollination. Innovators can evaluate the concept ideas of others, comment on them and in turn be inspired further.
During the third phase, the influentials discuss the ideas generated from a social point of view. They refine the concepts with the purpose of making the innovative concepts relevant, memorable and interesting. The influentials are instructed to adapt the ideas in such a way as to be memorable: they must be simple, credible, unexpected and concrete and contain sufficient emotion for people to talk about them with others. Concepts are also proposed as an endpoint from the perspective of the customer and innovators and influentials have tools available to adapt or tag concepts, or load audio-visual material.
Traditional qualitative techniques are intertwined with ethnographic observation methods and creative exercises throughout all phases to provide context and inspiration. All participants are given a clear briefing on what is and what is not sought as well as insights into previous research. It is of great importance that the end customer actively participates in the research conversation and provides feedback. This increases the involvement of participants and gives a face to the initiators. Our experience shows that such an approach truly works. Recognition is more important to consumers than a financial reward: managing the conversation for innovation is what keeps them going.
Results
Based on the methodology described, InSites Consulting has conducted extensive co-creation projects for Heinz, Kraft and Friesland Campina. That experience has led to the following conclusions:

  1. Innovators and influentials are easy to identify for different product categories.
  2. Both groups generate more and richer innovative ideas than the average consumer.
  3. Besides a reality check, innovators generate other ideas than those developed using other methods (e.g. internally in the company).
  4. The ideas developed by innovators are more relevant for the market after they have been reviewed and adapted by influentials.
  5. The influentials assess innovations differently and identify innovations that are not recognised by the average consumer, but which do in fact have potential in the market.

Want to find out more about co-creation? Contact one of our experts: Tom De Ruyck, Tom Goderis or Prof. Dr. Niels Schillewaert
This article is also available in Marketing Driven (attachment of Pub Magazine – edition 24/06/10)

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