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The Untold Key Success Factor of Innovation

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I’m a heavy category buyer of coffee – and I credit this (or should I say, blame) my mother for this. She used to sprinkle coffee on the milk that my younger brother and I had before school, as we disliked the flavour of plain milk. The rest is history.

Being a heavy category buyer means that I am more attuned to new brands, new products, and new innovations within that category. We’re the easy target for new and shiny things.

Let’s talk about coffee for a minute …

While travelling to different parts of the world, I discovered competing formats and technologies to make convenient and good coffee at home. Whilst I’m happy with coffee pods, I always feel quite guilty when I discard used pods and contribute to the landfill. Yes, I am aware that I can buy reusable metal pods, but I don’t want to potentially wreck my coffee machine. Besides, it’s still fiddly having to manually fill up the pod before use. I have also bought compostable pods, but the range is very limited and somehow I prefer different flavour profiles to what’s on offer. After all, that’s why we drink coffee, right?

So, while travelling to Indonesia at the end of last year, I came across the easy-drip format from a leading coffee brand in Indonesia. Each box only contains five sachets. All I have to do is to rip the perforated top, attach the two paper wings to each side of my cup and pour hot water for a delicious cup of coffee. It’s a premium offering. On grammage basis, this format is 8x more expensive than ground coffee. It is also 9x more expensive than the popular coffee format in Indonesia: three-in-one (coffee, sugar, and creamer) or two-in-one (coffee and sugar) sachets. Other than the sachet wrapping, the coffee bag is more environmentally friendly as I can discard the ground coffee into my compost bin and the empty bag takes less space than a pod and would degrade more easily. I brought some boxes home to Australia and tried to find the format locally. Unfortunately, I can’t find any except for a small online-only brand.

Which brings me to the theme of this post — the untold key success factor of innovation: presence – one of the pillars of physical availability. Presence is not merely a different word for distribution, as it also covers considerations such as store and shelf location, and online purchases. Physical availability relates to how easy it is to find and buy the brand or the product in the market. I have alluded to this in my post when I discussed product failures in 2023. The reason why VHS succeeded and Betamax failed across different video cassette formats in 1980s, was not due to VHS’ product superiority. This was more likely due to VHS’ wider availability and acceptance. Arguably, that could also be the main reason why the original coffee pod format as popularised by Nespresso is performing better in many countries compared to competing formats such as K-Cups or Caffitaly. There are so many brands and options to choose from in Nespresso pod format. I will have to stick to the pod format for now, until one or more big brands offer the easy-drip format here in Australia.

Innovation needs a whole lot more than providing an alternative to the status quo. It needs the same key ingredients for brand growth as researched within the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute: physical availability and mental availability. It may be a new flavour, scent, colour, capacity, speed, format, size, technology, or a new way of doing things. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of investment just to produce the innovation – but this is just a first step in a long marathon for survival. It’s not enough to just please heavy category buyers, millions of light category buyers are likely to be oblivious about the innovation and they are vital for product survival and growth. This is only achievable through corporate commitment in investing for its distribution and advertising support.

As a final remark, being an early adopter of the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform I have seen good innovations come and gone. Some products are just one-time wonders with the inventors not budgeting enough money for its scalability, distribution, and support. Some were absorbed by large brands who see innovations offered by small brands as a litmus test whether certain features or products are attractive enough for buyers. Good crowdfunded products I supported like the Pebble watches, Nura headphones, or Nebia shower heads were gobbled by large brands – Garmin, Denon, and Brondell. The original products no longer exist. The feature or technology has been absorbed into the bigger brands’ product line-up. There’s a higher chance of sustainable success within the bigger brands, as the innovations is equipped with the resources and support for them to survive and grow.

Innovating is only a small part of the journey – surviving is a whole lot harder.

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