Customers Don’t Innovate

When looking for inspiration or for innovation, many marketers turn to focus groups. This is "tried and true", makes us feel like we are gaining insight and a valuable understanding of consumer behaviour. And while, yes, it may yield some insight, it won’t necessarily lead to breakthrough innovation.

Focus groups reiterate old stories. The participants talk about your brand and your products or services and (depending on the strength of your brand) will tell your story according to their experience. In general, the story you will hear in focus groups is already yesterday’s story (or last weeks’ or last years’).

But innovation is about future stories. Innovation doesn’t start with "once upon a time", it starts with "imagine if …". Innovation is hard work, but it must be done by YOU. You can’t expect your customers to innovate for you (and I know there are some who do … but I am talking about customers not evangelists) … it is not their job. As Steve Cone says "Focus Groups are a waste of time and money" … and quoting Henry Ford:

"If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse."

The innovation that a customer may have about your business is to move to your competitor who is engaging them in product development via blogs, updating them with podcasts and serving them with truly unique products. So start imagining your future today, and start telling a whole new story (maybe in a whole new way).


8 thoughts on “Customers Don’t Innovate

  1. Great post. Innovations don’t have to be as large as Henry Ford’s to make an impact. Listening to nags people have with the status quo is a great way to find innovative opportunities. And where can you listen? Blogs. And who will promote your product when you address their concern in the next release? The very same bloggers.

  2. Found this post through your latest post – Kissy Kissy. Wondering how many of the business schools out there who are training the new brand managers to pay attention to blogs? I graduated from the Smith school in December of ’05 and I can say that we did not cover Blogs as much as we probably should have. There was definitely a lot of focus on the focus group – how to lead one, etc.

  3. Customers certainly DO innovate. Eric von Hippel has been writing about it since the 1970s. Certain you have heard of the open source movement in software.
    The issue is that focus groups do not give you access to customer innovation. Groupthink like focus groups and brainstorming kill ideas. Rapid prototyping, probe & learn, experimentation, open source are methods that tap customer creativity.

  4. Check out the current issue of Inc. They have an article on Threadless — describing how they totally rely on customers for design and selection.

  5. Gary … thanks for the conversation!
    I would not class open source as innovation — certainly not as it pertains to most companies. If someone starts an open source project because of frustration with the existing offering, then the benefit of that innovation accrues to the project/project leader, not the original company.
    And while I get von Hippel’s view on the crowdsourcing — to me that is still tinkering on the edges of the consumer experience. The real innovation with Threadless is in the area of business models.
    Communities of practice/innovation that draw upon informal knowledge networks are a different kettle of fish. However, even once you have these in place and they are feeding into your NPD processes, the hard decisions about product strategy, feature inclusion, costing etc still need to be owned by the company. Someone still needs to be responsible for driving the innovation and bringing it to market.

  6. Hey Gav… since you just sent me this link (27 Feb 2009) after I posted “Slingshots and paintbrushes: Joe Trippi’s real point” (, I thought I’d add some thoughts.
    1. I feel this stance is too simplistic and generalistic, and using qual groups as a frame of reference misses the point in my post.
    2. I don’t believe formal groups are always the best way to get ideas about the future. But they may provide stimulus. Life insights, words, language, emotions.
    3. Not all innovation has to be sweeping. A simple mailto form may be enough to help a company innovate and improve.
    4. Every company has a set of customers that REALLY knows its stuff. They may rarely be in a group but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I shop at Coles sometimes – and I reckon I’d have a tonne ideas for them. There’s a cafe in my building that could probably learn from Single Origin – and I’ve experienced Single Origin… so maybe I could help them innovate.
    5. I think your main point is really about the ‘process of innovation’ not the inputs or outputs.
    Now, where’s that dinner?

  7. Yes, I think you are right. I am really talking about the process of innovation – the part where businesses take on the input and insight and use it to transform the way they do business.
    However, this post was also a bit of a reaction against the “wisdom of crowds” mantra (if I remember rightly). Business transformation is hard work. Getting people to change what they do/believe/want is hard work. It is why so much advertising doesn’t appeal to, or interest me. Talk is cheap.

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