When Smaller Isn’t Better: Innovation That Solves – Not Creates – Problems

For ‘Green’ to be good, it must really deliver the goods.

December 17 2010 by Robert Brands


Bottled water consumers might have noticed lately the shrinking size of plastic caps. Conceived as environmentally friendly, they’ve been marketed as the bottled-water industry’s solution to plastic waste that otherwise would end up in a landfill.

In the meantime, the caps are too small for some consumers to use easily. They can be difficult to grip and remove or thread and replace, especially for an aging population. And if put on poorly, water leaks out.

So much for innovation.

In their pursuit of The Next Thing, some companies implement solution-in-search-of-a-problem innovation. To be sure, the bottled water industry is not alone. The iPod Shuffle debuted this fall as a one-inch-square micro device that won raves from its creators at Apple. It soon was panned by some reviewers and consumers as too small to easily navigate or control.

Even governments have faced similar issues. In Florida, for example, the move to reduce class size has left school districts struggling to meet mandates in the face of shrinking budgets. Lawsuits have been threatened.

As in the case of bottle caps, “smaller is better” has found root in the environmental cause. As a marketing exercise, it makes sense. Many consumers are alarmed about climate change. So they’re inclined to pay a little more for a “green” product. Or they might be sold on a product – like bottled water with smaller caps – in the hope of doing whatever they can to save the planet.

Yet with many such “solutions,” consumers should employ their Hype Meter and filter out utilitarian fact from superficial marketing fiction. Do smaller caps help? Should people use bottled water anyway, verses refilling sport bottles with filtered water? Do the batteries of electric vehicles create long-term issues once they’ve lived out their utility? Does the mercury found in compact fluorescent light bulbs render the products landfill and aquifer hazards?

I’m not questioning conservation measures. I, too, am concerned about Mother Earth. But consumers are beginning to question “green washing” – a marketing play on “whitewashing” over a product’s limitations or failings.

Sustainability is vital to our survival. Environmental awareness is important to a product’s or a company’s success. But for a product or company to move beyond the fad or trend, brand credibility has to be legitimate. Products must be user friendly. They must not stray from their intended purpose or utility.

In short, if the cap fails, or if the solution only causes bigger problems, does the blemish tarnish the entire brand? The key considerations for brand managers, then, are that…

  • For green to be good, promises of sustainability must be sincere and well founded.
  • Forget creating a solution in search of a problem – imagined or otherwise. As noted in Robert’s Rules of Innovation, ideation and new product development should strive to keep functionality in mind.
  • Giving people a reason to question your integrity opens the door for competition to benefit. Remember, innovation officers’ mandates are to, among other things, to create value. You’ll best accomplish this by keeping customers’ real needs in mind.

Keep these central to your new product development initiatives and Mother Earth and the company’s bottom line and reputation may share equal, long-term benefits.

Robert F. Brands is founder of and www.innovationcoach.com. Author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation” (Wiley), Brands’ hands-on experience in bringing innovation to market spans decades, and includes the creation and improvement of product development processes and company culture delivering “at least one new product per year” and as CEO having introduced instant foaming dispensers for products like hand soap to market.