The best 'Simple Innovations' by consumer products companies

Dan Gross. The consumer products industry has a lackluster track record for using technology in scrappy ways to help enhance the consumer experience. While there are some great examples of consumer companies using technology to enhance the product itself (e.g. Beyond Meat uses technology to replace animal protein with plant protein), or traditional CPG companies that have released products that incorporate cutting-edge technology (such as the Nike FuelBand which earned Nike Fast Company's designation as  "Most Innovative Company" of 2013), these technology-based products cost millions of dollars and years to develop.

While I admire Nike's FuelBand and Beyond Meat for their category-changing innovation, the vast majority of consumer companies do not have the financial resources or time that these two ventures had. Below are four consumer companies that have used simple and scrappy technology solutions to either drive trial or repeat purchases of their core products. These are not companies that have redefined their core products with technology, rather, they have developed technology solutions to make the consumer's experience with the same old products better.

Gorillacam (by Joby). In 2009, Joby, maker of the GorillaPod brand of flexible tripods, released Gorillacam, a free iPhone app that provided the user with key benefits over the iPhone's native camera app. Gorillacam gave users a self-timer, time lapse and rapid-fire photography, all features that were not available on the iPhone. Six months after its release, the app had over 1.5 million downloads, and more importantly for Joby, 1.5 million additional consumers who would be regularly exposed to the Gorilla brand.  Why I love it: Gorillacam is such a simple (and cheap) idea that solved a key pain point for Joby's core consumer: taking better pictures. Joby's consumers buy their tripods to take great pictures in unique environments and the company lowered the barrier for success not by innovating on their core product; but rather, by providing consumers a free, branded  "accessory". There are few kinds of marketing that are better than benefits-based solutions that individual consumers interact with, and that's exactly what Joby delivered.

Indochino. Custom-tailored suits and shirts for men have been around forever. While the clothes look great, many men hate the process of being picked and prodded and marked with chalk by a stranger. Indochino is reinventing the men's custom clothing industry by selling the same product - custom made men's clothes - with a little technological boost to enhance the consumer experience. The website uses a simple series of videos and inputs that show men how to take their measurements in the comfort of their home in less than 10 minutes. If the garment arrives at your door and doesn't fit, Indochino will give you $75 in credit for alterations. Why I love it: Indochino's pain-free measurement process is so simple, yet eliminates a huge barrier to trial for men's custom clothing: visiting a tailor. As many a failed CPG company has learned, if you can't get consumers to try on/taste/apply your product that very first time, your company will fail. Investors seem to agree as Inodchino just closed a $13 million round from VC investors - a very difficult task for an apparel company.

OPI. When you ask most women how they choose a nail polish color at the nail salon, they will tell you the process involves taking several colors and testing them on their nails or piece of paper until they find the perfect shade. Brands like OPI have hundreds of colors, so knowing that you want red is not enough - OPI has 50 shades of red. Thus selecting the right color at the salon takes up precious time and can leave some salon staff short tempered when the salon is busy. So OPI released a free phone app that lets women see before they enter the salon how any shade of nail polish will look on hands of various skin tones. Why I love it: OPI achieved two purposes with its app: it relievers the time consuming pain point of color selection and equally important, creates trial/repeat before the consumer walks in the salon door. Most nail salons will have a few brands of polish for consumers to choose from. However, if a woman tests shades on OPI's app before she walks in the door and finds ones she likes, that will likely be the shade she goes with, eliminating competition at the point of sale.

Plum Organics. If you asked 100 shoppers in 2008 which aisle in the grocery store contained the most innovative products, I would predict exactly zero would have responded "baby food". Baby food evokes images of a sea of glass jars as far as the eye can see. However, Plum Organics turned the category on its head after being acquired by the Nest Collective in 2009. Nest changed Plum's packaging from thermoformed cups that required freezing to shelf-stable stand up pouches. On top of the shelf stability which makes the product more convenient to parents, the pouch provides other meaningful benefits - a secure spout with rounded edges so kids don't cut their fingers and a cap that conforms to toy industry safety standards. Furthermore, when selling healthy baby food, the fun, bright colored pouch communicates health much better than the tired glass jar. While this innovation isn't simple at its core, Plum used the same packaging that it already used for its Revolution Foods line. Why I love it: Plum didn't really change what was in the package (healthy baby food), it changed the package to solve pain points for both the customer (parents) and the consumer (babies/kids). Parents now had a no mess baby food option that was both convenient and  "self-serve" for children, and kids had more control over their eating experience. These characteristics encourage both trial (standing out on the shelf) and repeat (better convenience/safety). And the numbers - Plum grew from less than $1 million in revenue in 2008 to $38 million in 2011 and over $80 million in 2012 - show trial and repeat are happening in droves.

Anyone in the high tech crowd who read this article probably thinks the four examples above are simple and low tech; I completely agree and that's what makes them great! Small packaged goods companies do not have R&D teams to deliver cutting edge tech solutions. The examples above demonstrate that in an industry not known for its technological sophistication, you do not need to create a technologically brilliant end-product to be successful - sometimes the cheap and simple solutions that solve for a consumer pain point are the ones that provide the best returns.

Prior to studying at Stanford, Dan Gross worked in consumer private equity at Encore Consumer Capital. He can be reached at

Article source:
Image source: