How Prototypes Can Help to Evoke Customer Needs

Corporate marketers are often skeptical of consumers' abilities to articulate new product opportunities. However, rather than lament consumers' limitations, it is better to appreciate that they often can be quite good at "connecting the dots" in response to creative stimulus. Shrewdly chosen props which apply select technologies adopted from other categories can dramatically communicate otherwise complicated concepts and even emotional components in an intuitive and elegant fashion.

I have devised a powerful creative method called “Practical Possibilities” with strong applicability to new product development. It applies prototypes as means of evoking consumer needs, that would otherwise be challenging to communicate. These “props” don’t necessarily have to be “finished.” However, they must be sufficiently functional to enable consumers to make the leap necessary to envision their application in context.

Consider the Listerine Breath Strip. It caught on with consumers in a category populated by chewing gum and mints because it offered a cool, discrete breath freshening product. Compare this with Camel Strips and Camel Orbs, a dissolving film and lozenge respectively, housed in a compact container. They deliver flavored tobacco actives to consumers who wish for a discrete alternative to cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Importantly, Strips and Orbs address several social inconveniences and dissatisfiers such as smoke, spit and litter.

One could have easily envisioned marketers using a version of the Listerine Breath Strip or Tic Tacs to communicate the Strips and Orbs concepts to consumers (and perhaps they did!). Again, it isn’t critical that the physical executions be identical. However, they must be sufficiently similar to allow the concept’s concise communication, including the important emotional components to the target customers.

Quite intriguingly, when Strips and Orbs were introduced, their maker was widely criticized by politicians, parent and anti-smoking groups because they perceived that they appeal to the same young audiences that were drawn to the breath freshener products. While I am not a proponent of tobacco use, and certainly not among young people, one could look at these vocal and heated criticisms as potent validation of my point: they perceived Orbs as being targeted to appeal to youths.

While space limitations restrict me from doing so here, I can also provide relevant examples where this approach could be profitably applied in home and garden, personal care and food products. Importantly, “Practical Possibilities” isn’t simply about translating technologies from one category to another. It is about carefully selecting the means to effectively communicate a product idea and often an emotional benefit through a well understood physical execution.

By Chuck Frey

About the author

Chuck Frey Senior Editor, founded and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.