Monday, June 22, 2009

A better mousetrap

The American philosopher Emerson once said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”. Rats. The man was clearly a philosopher, not an entrepreneur. My experience is that there are thousands of different mousetraps, some better than others, and no-one’s door is in danger of being beaten down. Let’s call it the Incrementalism Trap. Product changes tend to be minor, but instead of facing this truth and working with it, many companies use marketing to promote their products way beyond their contribution. A mousetrap that kills the mouse a nanosecond faster is heralded as ‘the humane trap’, the one that has an easy clean surface is sold as the ‘less-mess trap’, and so on. Consumers respond to the hype with a yawn and another product hits the fast track to commodity status. Some companies fall into the Incrementalism Trap again and again because they don’t understand their consumers and they certainly don’t value emotional connections with them.

Let’s take a counter-example. Our client Toyota has a great record on reducing emissions, but the car they know is making a real difference in the fight for sustainability is the Prius. This giant leap of the imagination is about more than a shift in fuel type and usage; it is a change in behavior. As soon as you sit in a Prius, you enter a world that cares about the future and this engagement is graphically underlined by the controls on the dash. You can see exactly when you are using the car at maximum efficiency and it’s this sort of engagement that shifts minds. And isn’t shifting minds the name of the game?

I’ve said before that it’s 'No Sustainability, No Lovemark', and I now feel that the tide is running with us. You can take your pick from the studies coming out every week about how consumers choose, but one from Hartman reported that around a third of consumers are now willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods. And that’s in a time of deep recession. People aren’t looking for better mousetraps, they’re wondering about why the mouse is in their kitchen in the first place. They are making big changes in their own behavior and are looking for companies that are doing the same. Not redesigning the pack, but redesigning from their need up. That’s why I give a cheer when I see supermarkets developing areas that reflect what they know their shoppers care about.

The baby aisle, where everything related to motherhood is gathered together has become an institution in every supermarket. I think it's fantastic to see this family fundamental joined by sections where all the sustainable products are gathered together. Not down the back with the hard-to-move loss leaders that lost, but proudly up front declaring the sustainability principles the store works on.

So far, we are at the very beginning of developing credible standards around what is and what is not sustainable, natural, organic, and all the rest, but we’re on our way. I was amazed to see Nielsen research claim that just under two-thirds of U.S. households read labels on food and beverage packages. That’s a lot of shoppers putting a lot of care and attention into their choices. As some brands get it right, the pressure will be on the rest to develop smart and compelling ways to connect their products with ideas that matter. Caring for our kids and families has always been central but it is now being joined by caring for our planet, our communities, our neighbors.