The product innovations that generate the most excitement and public interest are the disruptive innovations. They could be a new way to call a cab, drive a car with little need for gas, or a completely new way to look at medical science, technology, or entertainment.
However, these innovations aren’t that common. The most successful, innovative companies strike a balance between core, adjacent, and transformational initiatives. A 2012 study found that companies that allocated about 70% of their innovation activity to core initiatives, 20% to adjacent ones, and 10% to transformational ones outperformed their peers.
To illustrate how this can happen, it’s helpful to look at innovations that evolved over time. Sometimes, you have the perfect solution already created. You just need a different perspective, and opportunity to look at it in a new way.
Listerine – From Surgery to Your Bathroom Counter
Listerine is well-known today as a mouthwash, but it didn’t start that way. This product innovation initially had an entirely different use, in operating rooms.
In the 1860’s, an English doctor named Joseph Lister was inspired by Louis Pasteur’s work on microbial infection. Lister was able to demonstrate that using carbolic acid on surgical dressing dramatically reduced rates of post-surgical infection.
Inspired by Lister’s discovery, American Joseph Lawrence developed a surgical antiseptic that was alcohol based and included eucalyptol, menthol, and other compounds. Lawrence named his creation “Listerine” in honor of Dr. Lister.
A licensee realized the potential of Listerine extended well beyond the operating room. With aggressive marketing to dentists and common Americans, Listerine became a runaway success in the 1920’s as a treatment for chronic bad breath. In seven years, the company’s revenue rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million.
Avon Skin So Soft – From Moisturizer to Hiking Companion
Some product innovations aren’t created by the company at all. Instead, the innovations are brought out by customers who discover a new way to use a product. This is why including various sources of input is so vital in innovation projects!
Avon’s Skin So Soft bath oil was long considered by customers as a useful bug repellent. The company points out that the product wasn’t intended as a bug repellant, but Consumer Reports found that it worked to repel some mosquitos and ticks for up to two hours.
Two hours isn’t as long as most bug sprays, but it is something. For many of its fans, the oil has a pleasant scent and a positive effect on the skin. Avon responded to the product’s popularity by creating a Skin So Soft Bug Guard, a similar product designed as a bug repellent.
By listening to customer’s reviews of its products, Avon was able to innovate within its product line and create something new in response to consumer demand.
WD-40 – From Bombs Away to Squeaking Hinges
There’s a joke that anything can be fixed as long as you have both duct tape and WD-40. What many people don’t know is that WD-40 was among many product innovations that initially had a totally different purpose.
When it was developed in 1953, WD-40 was intended to be used by Convair to protect the Atlas missile balloon tanks from rust and corrosion. The name means “Water Displacement, 40th formula”, which gives you some insight into how difficult it was to create.
WD-40 was later found to have a wide variety of household uses, and became available to the general public in 1958. While the product isn’t glamorous, the company has grown steadily, especially in foreign markets.
This simple innovation has caused WD-40’s stock to grow 200% in the last ten years, while the S&P Index has grown 70% in that time. The company positions the product as a multi-use item, allowing the flexibility in marketing and store placement, as well as ongoing profitability.
Minoxidil (aka Rogaine) – From Blood Pressure to Bald Heads
Medical product innovations often come from alternate uses that are discovered over time. Minoxidil was tested to treat ulcers, which did not work. However, it was found to be powerful in widening blood vessels. As a result, minoxidil initially approved by the FDA as a blood pressure treatment medicine named Loniten.
Unfortunately, Loniten had an unpleasant side effect – it caused excessive hair growth on both the head and other parts of the body. Patients who were balding were glad to have additional head hair, but it could also affect the arms, legs, chest, and back.
Researchers jumped on this side effect, seeing a big market in treating baldness. In 1988, the drug was approved for treating baldness in men, and was released under the name Rogaine. Now available in a dropper, foam, and spray, Rogaine has been available without a prescription since 1995.
Slinky – From Stabilizing Ship Instruments to a Favorite Toy
In 1943 a naval mechanical engineer named Richard James was working on creating springs that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships. The equipment would often get damaged or lose calibration on rough seas.
As he developed one spring, he accidentally knocked it off a shelf. He watched it as it “stepped” in a series of arcs across the room. He realized that if he adjusted the steel and tension, he could make a spring that would walk and become a great toy.
His instincts were correct, and in 1945 he was able to demonstrate and sell the toy Slinky in the toy section of a Gimbels department store. The first 400 units sold out within 90 minutes, and the toy continues to be a children’s classic.
Not all product innovations have to be dramatic and transformative. Of course, you can’t avoid disruptive innovation, but having a balanced approach, focusing on all three types of innovation is key. Transformative innovations can change your organization’s trajectory, but incremental improvements are equally vital.
If you’re ready to set up an innovation plan for your organization, we’re here to help. Download the Annual Innovation Strategy whitepaper to get started.