Retooling Concept Development
Instead of single sketches, use integrated, descriptive deliverables to tell a story.
Everything we do in package structure innovation is anchored in the notion of “concept” as the way to represent fresh ideas that solve recognized problems. But have we given it too much weight? In a design world driven by the concept, a worthy idea can live or die on the merits of one loose sketch, tied precariously to consumer insights and the project brief.
So much can go wrong. The concept can easily be misunderstood by the team and consumers. It can fall short of well-meaning criteria merely because of how it is presented and interpreted. Its underlying brilliance can be trashed in the instant pull of a pin from a board. The opportunity cost is huge, and the risk is magnified. No wonder innovation sometimes feels like a crapshoot, because in this scenario, it is.
But, you may say, the concept-driven approach is linear, logical and the way it’s always been. Even so, it’s wrong. Well, it’s not wrong: It’s just misplaced in a new innovation order. It’s playing the lead when it should be in the supporting cast — and in a different costume. What’s changed? How should we redefine the role of concept — if the term deserves to live on at all?
DO WE DARE SCRAP THE CONCEPT?
Here’s why the tried-and-troubled approach to concept development as we know it is losing steam:
- Packaging has evolved to the point where marketers are often looking for leverage in small, incremental changes. When these proposed changes are represented to consumers in concept boards, they are often nearly imperceptible or incomprehensible.
- Marketers have less time, money and patience to see the traditional concept-development process through. They don’t want to prototype a bunch of derivative stuff and run consumers through multiple iterations.
- The risks are higher. Big brands are easily undermined by small mistakes. Consumers don’t have the time or the tolerance for products that let them down or don’t readily communicate their unique benefits. In the tight squeeze for shelf space, more things fail.
- The standardized use of the “cross-functional team” means that many languages are spoken in every meeting. Multiple stakeholders have turned the concept sketch into a quaint, outmoded device that is easily misinterpreted and can no longer build consensus.
Plus, there are inherent problems with the present-day concept board that have limited its effectiveness from the moment ink first hit paper. For one, it’s always been difficult and time-consuming to explain to consumers. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but are those imagined words the same in the mind of each consumer or team member in the room? Every concept in an array has overlapping attributes with others, so each seems less distinctive. As a result, consumers get caught up in trying to understand and play back differences rather than evaluating individual ideas. We’ve all seen this happen.
Secondly, the concept expects consumers to size up the relevance of an idea from a single rough sketch, without lifestyle or occasion context. How can they properly evaluate it in isolation from their day-to-day routine? Can we really expect them to sit in a room with us and conjure in their pressured heads what life is like in their car or their kitchen and how the gadget in this sketch would make it better?
And thirdly, consumers invariably get wrapped up in the “how” of the concept rather than the “what” and “why,” often derailing the conversation. It’s not their fault — each concept has to illustrate its intent in some default execution. The more refined the sketch, the more finished the product appears, and the more likely the consumer is to go down this path, which is the concept’s critical flaw.
A concept is only as good as the execution chosen to represent it. There are too many moving parts here: how the feature is delivered in mechanics and aesthetics, the sketching style and how it is explained. So, in many ideation and evaluation sessions great ideas are trashed because the particular execution was unpopular as presented. Or, just as often, because it had actionability issues, even though there may be a dozen actionable ways to deliver the game-changing benefit that may be underlying this concept. Sadly, that breakthrough will never see the conference-room light of another day.
I’m saying that the notion of a concept as we know it just seems obsolete. It’s a fixed, live-or-die construct that only makes matters worse when strung together with others. Today, it’s a hammer looking for a nail when it could be an entire tool kit, responsive to any opportunity. How?
REDEFINE CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT: EMERGING STORIES VS. STATIC IDEAS
First, let’s stop using the term concept, just for now. I prefer “platform” because it can accommodate many forms of idea capture working together, and it isn’t loaded with fixed-output baggage as “concept.” Instead, it evolves and emerges in a progressive, intuitive effort to get to a single, optimized solution. How do we build a platform? We do it over time and with a series of integrated, descriptive, multimedia deliverables that tell a story. You might say, “We don’t have time, and we need a solution, not a story.” Give me a moment, and I’ll explain.
Let’s start with a building block called the consumer promise. It grows out of fresh consumer insights, and forwards a problem, a solution and some benefits (or “reasons to believe”) — in words. It’s not a positioning statement, nor does it define the brand character. A consumer promise is stated in friendly universal language that a consumer can understand and respond to with a measure of validity: They experience the stated problem, or they don’t. The solution sounds like it would cure the ill, or it doesn’t. The benefits sound like they would deliver the solution, or they don’t. It provides lifestyle context that places consumers in the occasion. Let’s not worry about what the solution looks like yet or how it works. Let’s focus on whether it deserves to live.
Something like a consumer promise sometimes shows up in a creative brief as “inspiration” for concept development. Although it may be written for consumers, they never see it. Instead, presenting them with a few consumer promise options and asking them to load their favorite one with the strongest benefits is a fabulously effective way to put your new platform on firm footing and set the stage for creating the executions that will best bring it to life.
Those executions can take many forms. They can be found objects from stores, or early-stage sketches, which we used to call preliminary concepts. The key is that they are discrete. They each hold perceptual and functional variables constant and show one unique way to deliver on the promise. I call these unique utilities “attributes.” They challenge each other to offer the consumer a handful of different ways their favorite promise can be realized, perceptually and/or functionally. We learn a lot more when we present ideas as illustrative examples rather than definitive, stand-alone solutions.
I happen to like the found object approach because, with careful consideration and some manipulation, existing products can represent attributes in distinct and functional ways. Consumers can play with them. They are real manufactured items, so they work — no worry about undermining the idea behind a prototype because it doesn’t. They’re cheap. The trick is to focus consumers on the attribute at work rather than on the whole. There are easy, effective ways to do this.
What about surfacing new-to-the-world functionality, you say? I say that found objects can help you identify what consumers expect in how things work for them. How should it feel? What kind of sensory feedback should it offer? Which execution best fits how they would like to use it? Which delivers on the benefits they value? With that feedback in hand, the new-fangled design knows what it needs to do. Then, new-to-the-world-ness is up to you and your team. But first, get a grip on what you are solving for.
Now, in working with consumers and platforms, simple questions follow: Which of the attributes seem to make your favorite promise work best? Which make it stronger? Weaker? What can we do to make them and the promise more convincing? Is there a neglected promise that seems a lot stronger now or a favored one that seems less compelling?
Do you now see what I mean when I say that a good platform builds a story? It’s a story that begins with exploring and confirming a recognized need and ends with the right solution. It’s a story that emerges quickly and builds consensus along the way. It takes in feedback from consumers from many angles, which ensures it is valid, reliable and defensible.
LONG LIVE THE PLATFORM!
After focused exploration and refinement, a platform becomes a compelling promise with the execution that best delivers on it. It is here that we evolve from the “what” to the “how” and drive toward the actionable design that captures as much of the spirit of the platform as possible. Tradeoffs abound, for sure. But we’re better off with the 80/20 rule (80 percent of the best solution for 20 percent of the cost and effort to develop it) than we were with the old concept paradigm that would have trashed a winner on day one.
You may be thinking: “Do I have to overhaul my team structure and responsibilities to implement this platform approach?” Not a bit. But you may want to think about pushing your brand strategists and researchers closer to your creative/design team — like in the same room — because creative exploration now starts with promise language. Then, design executions (found objects or attribute sketches) nest under the promise options as support. This means the players remain the same, but your “creative” team expands beyond traditional design boundaries.
Consider scrapping the notion of concept in favor of the platform. Land on the most compelling promise, and use it as a bridge to exploration and the potential executions that serve it best. Mix your media and allow consumers to come at the problem from many directions. Let a story build and the best solution emerge. I can tell you that it won’t take any longer or cost any more. In fact, solid thinking and planning substitutes for concept ideation and model building to conserve resources.
The next time you have the urge to “throw together some concepts” for upcoming research, think about how literally we’ve taken that directive in the past, and let the concept boards fall where they may.
Ken Miller is a consultant in design strategy and research for major CPG companies. His methods challenge traditional approaches to deliver deeper insight, sharper strategy and better design decisions. Challenge him back at firstname.lastname@example.org.