Concepts and prototypes as “Conversation Starters”

Method consider their concepts and prototypes as “conversation starters” internally with their teams, and externally with advocates (their super fans).

Consumer Inspired
by Etienne Fang
September 20, 2011

By Etienne Fang, director of consumer strategy, Method products

Method looks to consumers to guide and stimulate thinking, rather than dictate direction. We are on a constant quest to understand and learn about our consumers’ lifestyles, attitudes, behaviors and actions to get better at anticipating what “could be” tomorrow.

As director of consumer strategy at Method, I lead a people-centered practice that seeks to defy the conventions of CPG companies. With support from our highly integrated teams of business managers, designers and scientists, we infuse the consumer point of view into brand marketing and product development to help our company strategize, innovate and execute across platforms, categories, businesses and across the master brand.

CONSUMER STRATEGY LESSONS FROM METHOD

Consumer strategy at Method is a problem-solving discipline – one that not only delivers insights, but helps to figure out the world of possible solutions. We’re involved throughout the new product development process, from pre-ideation to post-launch. We help envision what can be, and improve what has been. Here are five consumer lessons that help shape and inspire our ideas.

Keep vision at the core.

It all begins with a strong vision. One of Method’s greatest strengths, since our inception, is the unique way we view cleaning. Our founders looked at the dreary world of cleaning through a personal care lens, and saw it less as a chore and more as a way of taking care of the home. We strive to keep this differentiated point of view central in all the work we do.

For instance, we recently set out to envision the future of hand care at Method. First we looked at what the original vision was 10 years ago when Method first launched: to make hand care fun through color, form and fragrance. Then we did a consumer deep dive to learn more. We segmented the world of hand care consumers, combining a quantitative study with in-home ethnographies and “shop-alongs” to create a holistic picture of consumers’ priorities in the category. We asked them to tell us about their favorite hand and personal care products and asked for feedback on Method’s products. Then they took us shopping for hand wash so that we could get a glimpse of what they found most compelling.

This consumer research helped us realize that, over the years, as the brand and the green category have grown, we have evolved from being the “fun” hand wash and have become a “beautiful basic.” In order to get back to our vision, we’re rethinking our entire hand and personal care business to reignite the fun and bring something new and unexpected to the consumer.

Understand people.

Consumers play with Method hand and personal care products in their homes during ethnographic research.
We continually strive for a deep and holistic understanding of consumers. To get a true sense of people, we meet them in their world, in context – and not behind the two-way mirrors of research facilities. Focus groups have a role in consumer research in validating concepts, but in order to really understand consumers’ attitudes and behaviors, we have found it invaluable to spend quality time with them in person.

At the beginning of a new product development cycle, we get into the field for exploratory ethnographic learning. Our goal with this type of research is to get a sense of the category from consumers’ perspectives. We meet with people while shopping, or in their homes as individuals, families or as part of a group of friends. We talk to them for hours and watch them clean. We ask them to document their thoughts and actions in the form of video, audio, photos and writing. Then we spend hours analyzing all of this rich, raw data to gain a deeper level of understanding.

Riding on the success of our recently launched dish soap, we sought to learn more about how consumers do their dishes. Method is not new to dishwashing, but we had to suspend our knowledge in this category in order to gain a fresh perspective to drive future innovation. After a round of field observations in kitchens of all types and in-home ethnographies, we’ve hit on deeper insights about the way families do dishes that we’re using as a platform for ideation.

Tap the collective brain.

Method “advocates” at a co-creation session designed to reinvent specialty cleaning.
Unlike the consumer insights function in many CPG organizations where the discipline’s role is to provide information or “deliver insights,” consumer strategy at Method requires that we solve problems. Method is a truly cross-functional business environment, and consumer strategy is a cross-functional affair that involves bringing together team members with divergent perspectives to harmonize and dissent, to derive unique insights.

I work day-to-day with people in design, business, R&D and sales. They are my internal clients, as well as close collaborators in defining problems, asking questions and arriving at possible answers. Tapping into the expertise of diverse team members means accelerating learning processes exponentially for everyone.

Visualize, prototype, make tangible.

Concepting is ongoing at Method. We think of our concepts and prototypes as conversation-starters—internally with our teams, and externally with advocates (our super fans) who we also involve in our consumer research.

In co-creation sessions with Method’s advocates, we ask them to be the designers for a moment. Though, the focus of consumer co-creation is on the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ that they create. These creative exercises (e.g., asking them to design the perfect cleaning product through words and sketches) are great opportunities to get below the surface to gain a deeper understanding of their emotional motivations.

Once we’ve landed on some clear insights, we conduct what Method calls “concept auditions” with consumers, to present strong ideas for feedback. We’ve auditioned concepts that have put the audience to sleep and ones that have received standing ovations. Any and all reactions are useful feedback in our strategy and product development processes.

When we began the recent redesign of our all-purpose cleaning sprays, we explored several ways to position these products against the competition. There was a wide range of concepts that dialed up different pillars of our brand: fragrance, health, design and efficacy. When we auditioned these concepts, we found the ones with the most direct communication were the most powerful. This work helped inform the new “PowerGreen Technology” positioning for our line of cleaners and gave us the confidence that it would resonate in the market.

Get messy before getting neat. Repeat.

Qualitative consumer research lives in ambiguity. Things can get very broad and messy before the process converges on concise, usable learning. That’s why it is helpful to synthesize insights through informal debriefings with our team during the course of the research process. It’s a way to incorporate various perspectives on what we’re hearing.

Communication is in what is heard, not what is said. We have found that short iterative loops that go from divergent learning to convergent insights — rather than straight, linear paths — yield the best results. We often have brief work sessions throughout fieldwork so that we learn as we go, allowing room for course correction along the way – rather than waiting until the end to discuss what we’re learning. The trick to maximizing our learning throughout the consumer research process is to maintain an open mind and to be careful not to draw conclusions too early, which could short-change our opportunity to gain a new perspective.

What can consumers do for you?

Method’s mission has always been to “inspire a happy, healthy home revolution.” Revolutions don’t come from following. They come from leading. This is why, ultimately, we don’t rely on consumer research to lead us into the future, but rather to inspire the way we work.

Consumer strategy is an evolving discipline at Method. We are always seeking new ways to leverage consumer learning to inspire a revolution. Through close integration, forward-thinking consumer learning can drive better strategy, cross-functional collaboration, improve speed to market – and ultimately, create a superior brand experience for consumers. BP

Etienne Fang leads the consumer strategy practice at Method products. She has a combined background in design, research and strategy and thrives at the convergence of all three disciplines to create new value.
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