When sales of a product are flat or declining, marketers often label the segment “mature.” In many firms, that term becomes a code word for “dead.” While some consumer markets surely mature and stagnate, others suffer a premature demise because managers pronounce them dead. As a result, no one in a company takes the initiative to be innovative or to resuscitate them, at a time when a creative mindset can help turn mature markets into growing markets.

Certain segments of the food industry have been revived with a dose of innovative thinking that leverages the continuing trend for foods convenient to eat and amenable to eating on the go. In fact, some food companies have an initial idea screen of “can it be eaten with one hand?”

General Mills is a company focused on building convenience and portability into many of its new products. Its Gogurt yogurt stick encourages on-the-go snacking because it is in a handheld tube. Columbo yogurt, with Spoon-In-A-Snap, is easier to eat at home or on the go because of a two-piece plastic spoon on the bottom of the lid. Honey Nut Milk 'n Cereal Snack Bars let consumers enjoy milk and cereal without the bowl. These snack bars are made with real milk and provide the nutrition of a bowl of cereal and milk within a handheld, portable snack bar. Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls make eating a satisfying rice dish fast and easy with varieties in microwaveable and disposable bowls. Just heat, eat and toss.

An inventive mindset is the key to recharging mature markets and introducing winning new products. Unless a company pursues product innovations, it will inevitably decline and get trampled. A University of Illinois study shows that leaders in an industry garner 50% of sales from products introduced within the past five years, versus just 11% for companies in the bottom third. For example, 3M wants to be first in the market with attention-getting new products in order to capture the leadership position in any segment it pursues. The company calls this concept FIDO—First In, Destroy Others.

Determining consumers' wants is a particular challenge when producing new products. One thing is certain. Developing innovative products requires creative techniques that can anticipate major marketplace shifts.

Cultural Anthropology

Consumer focus groups, surveys and questionnaires represent traditional methods of determining what a consumer thinks about a product or about potential future products. The problem with these techniques is that consumers lack the experience and ability to discuss new-to-the-category or global possibilities.

Traditional research methods allow the consumer to recount what he can remember, what he thinks the moderator wants to hear or what others in the group might agree upon. For example, laundry detergent users often insist they would definitely buy the more expensive cleaning product, one that may not clean as well but is environmentally friendly. However, in practice, consumers will actually buy their regular product. What consumers say they will do is frequently not what they actually do.

A new technique that can help determine what consumers really feel (versus what they say) is called ethnography. It observes consumers during different interaction points with a product, detects patterns of behavior, highlights problem areas and constructs potential new product opportunities.

For example, the Thermos Company was interested in developing new product concepts for keeping foods hotter or colder for longer time periods. The Galileo Idea Group conducted studies based on a combination of observational research and future scenario “imagineering” techniques. Observers went into the homes of single and married women, working and non-working women, as well as into the homes of women with and without children, in order to observe meal and snack preparation, eating occasions and the storage of leftover foods. They also monitored food consumption at the office, outdoors and on the go. Alternative future world scenarios were constructed, and ideas were developed within the context of the future. As a result, new product concepts were created for both short- and long-term opportunities.

Scenario Planning

The ability to envision conditions that will exist in the future offers a company an innovative advantage. However, the ability to accurately forecast these opportunities is not easy. It is hard enough to think about the future, but getting it right is even more difficult. As no one can guarantee an accurate projection, one must envision alternate possibilities.

How can future problems and solutions be identified? One approach provides a description of a future environment and allows teams to solve a problem within that context.

An innovative mindset is a valuable asset for the future growth of any company. It is the antidote for complacency regarding new product development, product revitalization and business planning. Managers will either embrace the idea that virtually all consumer product categories possess areas of opportunity for growth, or they will allow the mature market mindset to accelerate business decline.

This article was contributed by Marvin Matises, a principal of the Galileo Idea Group, a Naperville, Ill.-based new product development company that has worked with ConAgra, Quaker Oats, Amural Confections and other food companies.