Research Insight

Why Innovators Can’t Just Tell Consumers What They Want Anymore



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It’s been more than 15 years since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously commented in a Business Week article that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Since then, the degree of innovation that has taken place not only in the realm of consumer technology but for science and technology has exploded.

The pace of and drive toward the development of new products, materials, designs and thinking – homogenously described as “innovation” – has become almost cliché in today’s business lexicon. And yet evidence has emerged that consumers’ willingness to passively grab at whatever is the next best thing may be waning.

In fact, that was one of the key takeaways of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer. The data were indisputable. Canadians firmly believe the motives behind the business world’s persistent pursuit of innovation are self-serving – driven by greed, profit and technology. A little more than half of both the informed and general public believes the pace of innovation is too fast.

To be sure, the degree to which that cynicism exists varies by industry. By far, innovation in the food and beverage sector – particularly with respect to the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – earns the lowest level of trust among consumers at 24 percent (despite trust in the sector as a whole netting out at 65 percent). Other advancements are viewed just as cynically such as the energy sector’s use of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) and the health world’s implementation of personal tracking devices or “wearables,” which are trusted at 39 percent and 41 percent respectively.

That heightened cynicism coincides with a dramatic decrease in the overall trust in business this year. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the drop in business trust in Canada fell by a greater degree than in any of the 27 nations surveyed. One need not look much further than the headlines that swept the media in 2014 to understand why – from data breaches at major retailers, to misuse of temporary foreign worker and intern programs, to a growing wage gap between business leaders and the people who work for them.

For businesses in Canada, the drop in trust and the heightened suspicion of the real benefits of innovation present a new paradigm that can’t be ignored. Innovation for innovation’s sake can no longer be marketed to consumers the way it was 10 or even five years ago, when Canadians were eager to snatch up every shiny, new object that adorned store shelves.

Businesses must pursue their innovative developments with special attention to the genuine quality-of-life improvements the developments will facilitate for the eventual end-users.

Moreover, the manner in which the business world chases the next best thing will need to become much more transparent. The Trust Barometer data is clear: 80 percent of consumers want to see test results available for public viewing. In addition, 69 percent want to see those innovations developed in collaboration with an academic institution and 53 percent would like to see business partner with an NGO in the pursuit of innovation. Translation: such partnerships enhance the credibility of the final product and work toward an end that is as altruistic as it is profitable.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for brand managers and communicators. The challenge will be sourcing the appropriate information and deciphering what is and is not relevant to scrutinizing minds. Equally challenging will be finding simple, creative and engaging ways to present what can often be complex, technical and often misunderstood research.

The opportunity, however, is for businesses to tangibly demonstrate that they and – if they’re strategic about it – their leaders are genuinely transparent about anticipated offerings and the motives behind them. But equally as important, it sets the stage for open and sincere dialogue between brands and the consumers for whom they develop their wares, offering the former unprecedented insight into the real needs and demands of their markets, and the latter a suite of innovation that is practical, useful and worthy of future exploration.

The world of technological and scientific advancement can no longer go by the premise that consumers must be told what they want. It’s time for the great innovators of our day to talk less and listen more. The outcome will be mutually beneficial.

John Clinton is chair and CEO, Edelman Canada and North American head of Creative and Content.

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