The Innovation Of ‘Huh?’

innovationMountain Dew Kickstart is a product that combines the effervescent flavor of Mountain Dew with five percent juice, Vitamins B and C, and caffeine. Who knew that this combination would grow to a billion dollars in annual sales, soon after its 2013 launch?

The customers who inspired it probably did.

For PepsiCo, the journey of discovery started with convenience store sales data that revealed a surprising amount of Mountain Dew purchasing in the early morning hours. Brand manager Greg Lyons and his team decided to speak with consumers and dig into the granular details of their morning routines. What they discovered was a curious practice of younger guys stopping by a convenience store, buying an OJ and a Mountain Dew, and mixing their own concoction to kickstart the day.


They discovered a rich story of a young guy groggily dragging himself from bed and eager to be at his best for a demanding workday. He didn’t care for coffee but wanted the caffeine, and orange juice felt like morning but provided no boost. Energy drinks were great, but he was looking for sustained energy – not a quick jolt. He loved Mountain Dew, and it had the caffeine, but it didn’t quite feel morning appropriate and walking into work with a 20oz. soda made him feel a bit uncomfortable. So, this was the hack: stopping by a convenience store to mix his morning elixir.

This story provided the brief for the Mountain Dew brand team and a clear North Star for the desired experience, the relevant performance attributes, and the customers’ decision criteria in play. What resulted was the billion-dollar, category-creating Mountain Dew Kickstart.

It’s worth noting two responses Greg and his team didn’t take. First, they didn’t dismiss their discovery as the bizarre behavior of some small subset of consumers. Second, they didn’t leap to the easily executable obvious option: an orange flavored Mountain Dew. Instead, exercising an unusual degree of marketer curiosity, they felt that there was something important that they didn’t fully understand – and they dug deeper.

Digging deeper gets beneath the ‘what’ of customers’ behavior, to the ‘why’ of their motivations. But digging deeper into mainstream behavior reveals only mainstream motivations, which tend to reaffirm today’s understanding and may drive some incremental improvements. Digging deeper into unexpected behavior reveals unexpected motivations – the ones that can open up a whole new category. That’s when the deductive ‘Why?’ gives way to the inductive ‘Huh?’

We have seen the same story in many industries. Take accounting software. “For three years we were ignoring how people were actually using our software,” Intuit founder, Scott Cook recalls. “We had designed this product to help individuals manage their personal finances. Even as we learned about people using the software at work, we just assumed that they were doing personal business on company time.”

In reality, among Intuit’s customer base of private individuals using their personal financial software as the marketers had intended, were an army of small business owners using the personal software professionally. As they worked to keep track of their invoices and expenses and focus on growing their businesses without having to worry about running out of cash, they found that Intuit’s personal software was well-suited to their basic needs. Intuit discovered that many of them had tried software designed for small businesses, but found the myriad of unfamiliar features confusing and the accounting language alien and intimidating. The “professional grade” accounting solutions only made the entrepreneurs’ financial worries worse.

Once Scott and his team discovered the way their software was actually being used, they saw the true innovation opportunity.  Entrepreneurs were choosing, and successfully using, their basic personal accounting software in place of the packages tailored for them. Huh? This single curiosity led to the essential insight: these small business owners didn’t want better accounting software, they wanted software that was so intuitive that accounting would disappear.

The innovation ‘huh’ is more than descriptive; it is predictive. Revealed in the unexpected of the ‘huh’, is a person expending energy to resolve a struggle or achieve some desired experience. This is the energy for progress that is missing in the merely descriptive elements that managers often use in their search for insight and development of new offerings. The unexpected behavior behind the ‘huh’ reveals the dimensions of benefit and experience that need to be provided in order for an offering to be purchased and used predictably, by a target customer.

The ‘huh’ is the trigger of entrepreneurial success. By studying it, managers can illuminate deeper human truths on the progress people are trying to make in their lives, and the stressors and obstacles in their way. The ‘huh’ is that singular element that underlies the breakthrough successes of the latest start-ups and of the world’s largest companies.

It isn’t new technology or a hot trend or competitive differentiation that fuels success. Embrace the anomalies, the surprises, and the unexpected to unleash your next big thing.

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