Dealing with R&D

I’ve always believed that good marketers are consumer focused but technically inspired. Real innovation comes in that spark between a market insight and a technical possibility. I recall a conversation with the head of R&D in Unilever – sadly one that happened so close to me leaving that nothing ever came of it. We were shooting the breeze in my office. We’d just been in a research debrief where some new detergents powder had failed to deliver much in the way of a significant consumer preference (even in a paired comparison test which normally exaggerates any differences). I asked him whether we had got to the stage where all innovation was going to be so incremental that it was not worth the effort. What could we do that would genuinely be a dramatic step forward (apart from new formats – liquids and tablets etc – which is the direction the market was going)? He gave me a wry smile and said “I could develop you a product that would give a huge improvement in washing performance and I could deliver it at a much lower price. But you’d have to do something for me. You’d have to persuade people to change their habits and use 3 separate products”. I sat up and paid attention

He explained that washing powders are a cocktail of chemicals. I knew this. “Yes, but what you don’t appreciate is how much performance we sacrifice and cost we incur keeping them all stable. A washing machine has 3 dosing compartments”. (They don’t these days but this was 20 years ago). “If you could persuade people to buy 3 separate products and use each one in a different compartment we could give them a performance improvement even an idiot would notice and we could do it at half the price of a normal powder”.

What is the point of the story? Firstly, the kind of conversation I was having is unusual for a marketer to have with the head of R&D. It was relaxed, friendly and we were exploring possibilities in a much more constructive way. Secondly, I could understand what he was saying. I am not showing off here – all the Unilever Marketers understand the technical side of their products (at least they used to). I gave up chemistry at school but nevertheless I had a good understanding of all the chemical ingredients in any of the products I marketed for Unilever. Marketers have to make it their business to understand the technology, processes and systems behind their brands. It is essential to be able to work collaboratively with R&D.

Finally I had asked him a stretch question with no constraints. How can we do something amazing? Most times this kind of question is much more conservatively put and framed with many constraints in terms of cost and deadlines. To get the best out of R&D you have to ask challenging questions and neither constrain nor allow them to double guess you. Here are some examples:-

If money was no object what would the most expensive product in the world look like?
Another way to ask the same question – what do professionals use? (this has driven most of the innovation in photography)
If we had to sell this at half the price what could we offer that would meet peoples’ basic needs?
If we designed a product that was the best for just this one occasion or that particular person what would it be? (Market Segmentation is the most reliable way to innovate).

I could go on but you get the idea. The last time I tried this was with Pilsner Urquell. Everyone knows that the fresh Pilsner you drink in bars in Prague tastes like nectar. The bottled product we drink around the world is still a fine beer – the best in the view of many experts – but not as good as fresh draught Pilsner Urquell. There were many reasons for this and I think I had a basic grasp of the technical reasons why. The question I asked the Chief Brewer was how we could deliver the same drinking experience with a packaged product that had been exported (all Pilsner Urquell is brewed only in Plizen – hence the name, Pilsner Urquell, which means the ‘Original Pilsner’). I stressed that there were no constraints in terms of cost or packaging format. Before the brewing expert could answer several of my senior colleagues, especially the boss, started to explain with patronizing patience why this was impossible. The conversation never progressed. There has been some work done I believe but to my taste the bottled Pilsner still disappoints – I have tasted the real thing and this is not it.
Simple consumer insight – everyone prefers the taste of the fresh draught Pilsner. Challenging question – we want that in a packaged product that might be 3 months old or more – but no constraints. That is where you get the best out of R&D.
You don’t often get perfection but you can force yourself to change the rules and in doing so you can take a big step forward. The next time I go to Prague I will look forward to a great big glass of draught Pilsner Urquell. At home I drink Guinness in a can – the one that has a widget because Guinness asked the right question and imposed no constraints. The first prototype of Draught Guinness in a can involved a separate syringe of beer that had to be injected into the glass after the can had been poured. Clearly crazy but people liked the end result, which was very close to fresh draught Guinness. With that encouragement they developed the in-can widget (which does what the syringe had done i.e. inject a shot of Guinness under pressure to release the nitrogen and create the creamy taste).

Understand your product in every technical detail and spend at least as much time with R&D as you do with the consumer, talking their language, asking the right questions. Or as Mark Twain said – “you can do what you always did and get what you always got”.

3 Responses

  1. Shame you didn’t stay at Unilever Mark, they could’ve avoided Persil Power!
    Still, as Mark McTwain said – “ye can only piss wi the cock you’ve got”

  2. Finley Peter Dunne: Ye can lead a man up to the university, but you can’t make him think.

  3. I’ve got really bored recently with lots of blogs and Linkedin discussions about re-branding ‘internal comms’ to ’employee comms’, ‘change management’ to ‘polishing turds’. All fairies dancing on the head of a pin.
    BUT if there ever was a profession that could do with a bit of post-rationalisation it would be the Tefal Heads. R&D stands for RESEARCH and DEVELOPMENT for goodness sake. The two dullest words in the OED joined at the hip. And BTW ‘Innovation’ takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous.
    So post your alternative suggestions for R&D here…

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