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Simple Questions and Game Changing Innovations
What do our customers want?
This was the question Neil McElroy posed in 1931 at P&G. He then wrote the famous 3-page memo, that gave birth to Brand Management as we know today. He advocated for the role of “Brand Men”, who would understand what customers want, segment strong and weak markets and analyse promotional spend. His recommendation, “Find out what consumers want and give it to them”, gave birth to brand management and helped P&G become a champion in consumer goods marketing.
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This led to P&G coming up with an idea to sell more soaps during recession. The target market was housewife’s who would consume hours of radio and later television during their daily chores. As McElroy put it, people who listen to our programs are not intellectuals, they’re ordinary people, good people and they use a lot of soap.
In 1932, P&G launched its first radio soap opera, the "Puddle Family" and followed it with "Ma Perkins" in 1933 and later daytime TV commercials, making their brands like Tide household names. Soon P&G revenues crossed $1 Billion, and their method of segmenting markets based on demographics or usage became a standard across the industry.
As McElroy said later, “Soap Operas sell lot of soap”.
Why do players lose so much weight during the games but urinate so little?
A question Dwayne Douglas, Assistant Coach of Florida Gators asked UF renal specialist Robert Cade in 1965. Douglas, a former Philadelphia Eagles player, told Cade that he would lose 18 pounds during a game, but never felt the need to visit a restroom.
Cade and his team hypothesized that the players were losing electrolytes, sodium and potassium with sweat, upsetting the body’s chemical balance. They conducted tests on players from the university’s freshmen team and confirmed it.
The solution was “Gatorade”, named after the Gators. The proposed name Gator-Aid was dropped as the word aid would require FDA approvals. Over the next few years, the impact on the Gators was obvious and NFL teams from across the country were ordering it.
Gatorade was not the first sports drink. In 1927, William Owen introduced Lucozade in UK, but was not marketed well. Gatorade gave birth to the lucrative sports drink market, having developed specifically to support athletes. It became a household brand after signing up Michael Jordan to promote it in 1991. Today sports drinks are a $23 billion market and Gatorade has 70% share.
What if, instead of jumping the conventional way, jumping backward is better? This was an idea that came to Dick Fosbury’s mind.
When Dick Fosbury was ready for his high jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, the spectators were about to witness not only the setting of an Olympic record, but a complete revolution in the sport of High Jump. Fosbury was just another teenager from Oregon, USA who was interested in Athletics. He wanted to compete in the high jump but failed to clear the school qualifications. Then Fosbury had a stroke of genius. What if, instead of jumping the conventional way, with your face towards the bar, you turn your body, arch your back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on your neck and shoulders?
High jump is a simple sport. The athletes jump over a bar and whoever jumps the highest wins the event. Till the time that Fosbury questioned the technique, usually each athlete would toss their body over the bar and crash onto a padded landing pit on the other side. Most landing pits till the time were made of wood chips and sawdust. But Fosbury’s high school became one of the first to install a foam landing pit and that gave him the crazy idea.
Fosbury’s new style was criticized by everyone, and he was called the “World’s Laziest High Jumper”. But Dick Fosbury had the last laugh. He not only used his unconventional technique to qualify for the Olympic Games, but also set a new Olympic record by jumping 2.24 meters (7.35 feet). In the process he also changed the entire philosophy of the sport. Within 10 years his technique became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere and almost every gold medal winner and major record holder in the past four decades has used the “Fosbury Flop.”
How do we keep lipstick on store shelves always?
This was the question Kevin Ashton asked in 1997 at P&G. He was trying to solve a boring old problem that turned out to be interesting. As a brand manager he puzzled why a shade of popular brown lipstick always seemed to be sold-out and never on the shelves, while plenty of that colour was available in the warehouse.
He discovered that the cause of the problem was insufficient information. The IT systems were blind. The only way they captured information was through bar codes or manual entry, for which someone had to go looking at the shelves. Store workers did not, but customers did.
Inspired by the RFID system he came across, he built a patented “Storage System”, putting a tiny microchip into the lipstick, connected to the internet and an antenna in the shelf and coined the term “Internet of Things”. He then moved to MIT in 1999, started the Auto-ID research centre to study the potential for "smart packaging". By 2003 it had 103 corporate sponsors and labs around the world and MIT had struck a deal to licence their technology. In 2013, “Internet of Things” was added to the Oxford Dictionaries.
The problem was old, but the right questions paved way for new thinking and solutions, creating an industry.
What if we can use this principle for the shape of the Bullet Train?
Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains had a problem. They were conceived as a means of high-speed travel, but as they got faster, at 200 miles per hour they generated booming noise travelling through tunnels. This was due to changes in air resistance when the trains entered tunnels creating low-frequency atmospheric pressure waves. The trains needed a structural redesign.
One of the engineers on the design team was a birdwatcher. He witnessed a kingfisher bird diving down through the air, going into the water and creating very little splash. Kingfishers have long, pointed, wedge-shaped beaks, which limit water disruption and noise production that keeps their prey unaware.
The engineer wondered if they could apply this principle to the shape of the front of the bullet train. Tests showed that objects shaped like the kingfisher’s beak created less pressure waves, and this was a perfect design for the train, and it saved them 15% energy as it was more aerodynamic.
Shinkansen trains are some of the fastest and largest in the world. Their design was based on the adaptations of one small bird.
Why are Milkmaid’s immune to Smallpox? Edward Jenner was puzzled by this and wanted to understand it better.
Smallpox was a pandemic that killed millions, before being eradicated in 1979. It was a disease that caused devastation world over and wiped out the indigenous population of the new world after Columbus’s voyages.
During one such 18th century outbreak of Smallpox in England, Jenner heard tales of Dairymaids who milked the cows being immune to Smallpox. After probing and speaking to people, he realized the reason was their exposure to Cowpox, a mild disease that infected the cow’s udders and was like Smallpox.
Dairymaids picked them up while milking, which caused a spotty rash and went away after a few days, after which they rarely got Smallpox. Studying carefully, Jenner concluded that cowpox not only protected against smallpox but also could be transmitted from one person to another as a deliberate mechanism of protection. Jenner took fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of an eight-year-old boy. A single blister rose on the spot, but he soon recovered. Jenner inoculated the boy again with smallpox matter, but he was fine.
The vaccine was a success and further work proved it was safe and effective. It was the first successful vaccine to be developed.
The word Vaccine comes from the word for Cow in Latin – Vacca.
What If, this solution is commercialized? Willis Carrier asked himself.
In 1902, the Sackett & Wilhelms Printing in NY had a serious problem. The humid summer air was ruining their prints due to wrinkled paper and running ink. Willis Carrier, a young engineer with Buffalo Forge Company devised a system to circulate air over coils and cool them, that removed humidity and controlled temperature.
The machine not only solved the printing problem, but the cool air started to make people comfortable. Employees were spending lot of time around the machine.
Carrier realized that climate and comfort can drive the adoption for his invention, “Air Conditioning”. Manufacturers of everything from leather to macaroni faced problems with changing weather conditions and Carrier’s equipment generated tremendous interest.
But it was the movies that introduced AC to the general public. During the time, Nickelodeons were the popular and cheap entertainment for the public. The middle and upper classes kept away because the dark and enclosed spaces were smelling with stale air and sweat. AC changed all that and soon became a popular feature in movie theatres, changing the face of entertainment.
A simple question changed the social fabric for ever.
If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?
Tragically, aged 22 Van had his leg amputated in a motorboat accident. Frustrated at the clumsy and uncomfortable nature of his prosthetic foot, his focus was to build a new type of prostheses. He dropped out of his media program and joined Biomedical engineering.
He began to design an artificial limb that would be strong, lightweight, flexible and would allow the users to jump and rebound. Inspired by the C-shape of a cheetah’s hind leg and borrowing concepts from pole vaulting, spring of a diving board and a C-shaped Chinese sword, he spent years designing prototypes and testing materials.
His final design was a L-shaped foot, made from Carbon Graphite. He refined the prototype with the help of aerospace materials engineer, Dale Abildskov. Unlike previous prostheses, it stored kinetic energy from the wearer's steps as potential energy, allowing them to run and jump.
A right question Van Phillip asked in 1976, gave birth to Flex-Foot Cheetah. It was used by Oscar Pistorius and is used by many Paralympians. Amputees have climbed Mount Everest and completed the Boston Marathon and the Ironman triathlon wearing Cheetahs.
A right question that turned tragedy into a revolutionary invention.
Bill Bowerman had an idea while making waffles for breakfast and out of his curiosity was born an innovation and a legendary brand.
In 1971, Nike was not yet Nike. It was known as Blue Ribbon Shoes, founded in 1964 by Phil Knight and his former coach Bill Bowerman. The company was a product of Phil’s belief that Japanese shoes like their cameras would outdo German Shoes Puma and Adidas, in the future. On a visit to Japan in 1962, he struck a deal with Onitsuka Tiger (which later became ASICS) to be the sole distributor in the USA and by 1970 had grown to be a million-dollar company.
Bill Bowerman has been tinkering with shoes since 1950’s to make them perform better for runners. He had a special interest in developing lightweight replaceable spikes using different materials for better traction on different surfaces. He became famous for his design of Cortez shoes in partnership with Onitsuka during the 1968 Mexico Olympics. But in 1971, BRS association with Onitsuka was fraying and they were looking for an innovation that would be their flagship product.
They had launched their first product, a soccer shoe called Nike, named after the Roman Goddess for victory. Still, they had just moved from being a shoe distributor to being just another brand. During the same time, University of Oregon had installed a new expensive Urethane track. Traditional metal spikes were ripping it up and athletes struggled to keep their traction. Bowerman was looking at alternatives to develop softer spikes that would not destroy the track and would also work on other surfaces. He was curious to try out anything that might help him solve the problem.
And it happened on the Breakfast Table!
In late 1971, on a Sunday morning, Bill and his wife were making waffles in an old waffle iron that was a wedding gift. It was distinctive for its old-fashioned art deco design. As one of the waffles came out, Bill said, “You know, by turning it upside down, where the waffle part would come in contact with the track – I think that might work,". He poured Urethane into the Waffle Iron and though the initial trial was unsuccessful, he experimented with a few more and got his desired result.
Nike's Waffle Trainer debuted in 1974. The rubber spikes that came out of the experiment did not tear up the track and the shoe worked on every surface. It was embraced by passionate runners and amateur joggers for its balance and feel. The Waffle Trainer became a part of American history and cemented Nike's place as the iconic brand it is today. It was Bill Bowerman’s insatiable curiosity that was at the root of it. In his memoir “Shoe Dog”, Phil Knight calls him, "The Daedalus of Sneakers".
Curiosity and an open mind have been behind some of our greatest innovations and inventions. Rarely do innovations come out of, design thinking workshops, brainstorming sessions, spreadsheet modelling, or strategy retreats. It helps to observe the world around us and ask questions that challenge our basic assumptions and received wisdom. Asking, Why? How? What If? can help us look beyond the obvious.
· Are You Asking the Right Questions? Ask the Right Questions, and Answers Will Present Themselves!
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