Between 80% and 90% of innovations fail. The main reason? The product solved a problem the customer didn’t have1. Product innovation is often led by a particular division of an organisation, and usually not the consumer insight team. Historically, research has been sidelined in the innovation process, destined for a world of testing and optimisation, rather than aiding creative development.

But recently, consumer-centricity has increasingly been put at the heart of many organisational strategies, and clients are spending more of their innovation budgets early on, at the front end, rather than in the later testing stages. Good qualitative research to understand consumer behaviour and identify needs, which are then activated properly within a business ‘further up the innovation funnel’, is proving enormously worthwhile and effective.

The Household Cleaning Art Gallery that Ipsos conducted for Unilever was shortlisted for this award because it did exactly that. It took a piece of global behavioural research and activated it via a three-day immersive experience in which Unilever marketers could ‘explore the world’ and consumer behaviour, market by market, and then create new ideas based on the needs they had identified. Research was at the heart of the innovation process, rather than ‘just another step’ taken at the concept stage to aid a go/no-go decision.

“Sometimes we are so stuck in tweaking concepts, testing and re-testing, we have to stop and get back down to basics and remind our teams what it is like for real people tackling their cleaning challenges.” Dawn Farren, CMI Director, Unilever

Complementing old and new with experiential activation

With apparent gaps in its innovation funnel, Unilever’s challenge was to create global product and communications propositions for Domestos, Glorix, Cif and Sunlight. To create robust innovation ideas that would test well, it was essential to connect with the daily needs of consumers in six diverse markets.

We took an ethnographic approach to understand the lives of women there. Ethnography is one of the oldest techniques around, derived from anthropological investigation, stressing the need to examine cultural practices and behaviour. Cleaning the home may seem mundane, but it is imbued with more cultural and environmental nuance than anyone could ever explain and any report would struggle to communicate.

This traditional technique was complemented by delivering the insight in an art gallery format. By using visual communication techniques normally confined to galleries, we created a space where insight could be experienced rather than simply learnt.

For example:

  • re-enacting cultural rituals (e.g. removing shoes to experience ‘keeping dirt outside the home’);
  • stimulating different senses (e.g. listening to the sound of cleaning or eating culturally-relevant food);
  • absorbing insight via various media (e.g. watching ethnographic films, exploring cleaning tools and products, and reading the ‘insight posters’ from each market);
  • creating new ideas from carefully-crafted creative exercises (via a creative workbook).

Over 70 Unilever staff spent two days in the gallery absorbing the insight, and participating in both individual and group ideation tasks. Their objective was to generate innovation ideas for four global brands. The team created a staggering 250+ ideas, all based on new consumer insight stimulated by their experiences. These ranged from new communication and product ideas to possible product formulations and new pack design.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The trick with all new techniques is to complement them with tried and tested methods. The teams spent the third day organising, amalgamating and prioritising the ideas against their brand strategies in order to identify the most relevant. These 32 selected gems were then rapidly quantitatively screened in all six markets to determine which should be pursued. Ideas were given an opportunity score, an assessment of their relevance, believability and differentiation, as well as direction on the power of the written concept. Importantly, this detail allowed brand teams to identify the best potential ideas, and provided input on why others weren’t resonating well with consumers. This strategic direction allowed teams to work immediately on concept development.

It worked

The ideas that emerged from the Art Gallery are some of the best-scoring ideas that Unilever tested with Ipsos last year! In 2015, Ipsos tested over 1,000 ideas for Unilever. Impressively, eight of the top 20 ideas — including the top three — were all born in the Art Gallery. These nascent innovations are now being developed into complete product mixes, with initial planned launch dates in early 2018.

Furthermore, the Art Gallery inspired many additional workstreams within Unilever, including to support the creation of a new subcategory, and the development of a new-generation approach to innovation within household cleaning at Unilever.

At the same time, the insight from the Gallery exists as a fantastic foundation of knowledge for anyone working in the category — in innovation and beyond — meaning it lives on in Unilever.