Consumer Goods Innovation Gets Faster With 100% Online Collaboration – How Can It Get Better?

With 100% transition to online consumer research and brand team collaboration, CPG companies have an opportunity to make consumer goods innovation faster, more nimble and more effective. How can they ensure success?

COVID-19 is forcing companies to radically re-evaluate their approach to consumer goods innovation. Consumer research and design thinking methodologies have been forced to move 100% online. This shift offers the opportunity for greater efficiency – to accelerate the pace of innovation across instant networks that engage in seamless collaboration. But will this quicker, more nimble approach to innovation lead to better outcomes? Will efficiency lead to effectiveness?

Maintaining The Spark 

Innovation thrives on connection – but in our newly dispersed world with remote-person brand teams and remote consumers, 100% online innovation can easily lack human empathy. It can be tough to maintain the spark of ‘constructive edginess’ and risk taking that is required for a pioneering team to net big, bold breakthroughs.

As we assess the new innovation tools and techniques that are emerging, we capture how to keep the pulse and energy alive within geographically-dispersed innovation teams. Importantly, we look at how to make online consumer connection the focal point that ignites the creative spark critical to effective innovation teams – and essential to cutting-edge innovation.

To keep perspective, it’s important to look at what the best-in-class innovators were doing pre-COVID-19. Pioneers like Glossier and Trinny London (with Unilever Ventures) had already established a thriving digital innovation engine. Their seamless, ongoing online collaboration with their consumers — Glossier Girls and London’s Community — led to the rapid ideation, testing and launch of fresh ideas able to generate instant engagement and conversion. These finely tuned digital engines have been leveraging real-time human connection and collaboration via Instagram, Twitter and LiveStream.

Now, since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve seen strategic shifts from legacy offline players. Sephora recently announced its ‘digital storefront’ will feature direct purchase via Instagram feed and stories, which will enable a more seamless transition from engagement to conversion and loyalty.  Embracing social media platforms more fully enhances the opportunity for ‘earned’ human level collaboration with consumers. For companies like Glossier and now LVMH, this not only allows them to reap rewards in engagement-driven loyalty metrics, it helps to fuel the innovation engine. Front runner companies are now looking to rapidly integrate a broader set of networks or communities into their digital innovation engines – including, for example, TikTok users (or equivalent), new CTV subscribers, or Twitch / eSports Gamers users.

Legacy CPG companies have been way behind digital native companies like Glossier. They have not been able to fully embrace the philosophy or culture of digital ecosystem innovation because they lag in content driven conversation and conversion data. By COVID-19 default, though, these traditional firms have now been forced online to innovate. This digital shift has the potential to be a massive game changer for traditional consumer goods Innovation companies like Unilever, P&G and Kimberly Clark. Fueled by a seamless digital network of collaborative consumers and innovation partners, remote CPG brand teams have the potential to accelerate the pace of innovation and insure the timely relevance of fresh new ideas.

Best Practice Tools For Online Innovation 

As any experienced innovation marketer knows, creating and managing successful innovation teams is always a challenge – even in a pandemic-free, offline world. A recent BCG survey on Marketing / innovation ecosystem collaboration stated that more than 60% of marketers surveyed believe they are only slightly or moderately effective at extracting value from partners — and more than 85% believe there is moderate or significant room for improvement in how they partner. The challenges of productively partnering become even greater online.

Innovation teams in legacy CPG companies will need to hone their online skills and techniques if they want to accelerate innovation – and do it effectively. Here are three important best practices that can enable legacy CPG companies make a successful shift to online innovation:

1. Adapt design thinking models to work online. It can be a challenge to execute some of the steps of design thinking online (e.g. empathize, ideate and prototype), but that doesn’t mean it should be truncated or abandoned. Instead, design thinking needs to be carefully designed and executed, with a new pulse to innovation:

  • Focus on a clear issue/innovation platform objective and create a 6 – 12 week rapid online design thinking program with key innovation partners.
  • Carefully pace the innovation program to allow full collaboration online with both team members and consumers.
  • Rigorously plan for the development of rich strategic stimulus designed specifically for online collaboration.
  • Actively facilitate strategy / ideation sessions with co-moderators to navigate the logistics – replacing the traditional 1-2 day in-person ideation sessions.
  • Integrate seamlessly with your lead innovation partners, enabling them to co-lead and manage the programs.

2. Maintain an active Innovation Culture across your online network
When Microsoft recently measured collaboration patterns across their 350-person Modern Workplace Transformation team, they saw a dramatic shift on work meeting load for key managers, but they also saw dramatic increase in flexibility and style of meeting. It’s not clear whether this new meeting culture is conducive to innovation, but it is clear that companies will need to adjust online Design Thinking to allow for this new culture of virtual meetings and workshops.  Achieving rapid pace virtual innovation with less inspiration from the outside world requires a new approach to management of teams. Ivory tower corner offices, funky innovation centers and trend treks can no longer be relied on to inject a creative vibe into the process. Instead, brand teams need to:

  • Orchestrate efforts with online design thinking projects across virtual networks / and pop-up innovation hubs – enabling geographically-distributed brand teams to collaborate with both consumers and partner agencies on the new digital frontlines of innovation.
  • Shift the innovation culture by making the consumer digital connection the central focal point for purposeful collaboration.
  • Nurture a new culture in these new consumer digital connection forums by encouraging live debriefs and workshops post-consumer connection.
  • On a daily basis, invest in creating rapor between team members. The aim is to make sure people feel comfortable with constructive challenge, and that teams maintain a balance between pushing each other for next level performance while supporting each other in a learning / coaching environment.
  • Test this out – see how well your innovation teams are embracing the culture shift e.g. examine how the more experienced team members are prepping for the incoming new class of 2020 – they will need to experience innovation beyond the screens and comfort of four walls at home.

3. Nurture Human Level Consumer Connection
Successfully collaborating with consumers on innovation requires the right tools and approach to maintain human empathy and create a comfortable online meeting place. To do this, brands need to:

  • Choose the right platform for connecting. While platforms like Zoom and MS Teams are well-suited for 1-2-1 or small group discussion, apps like Instagram or Facebook are more scalable. Google Docs also helps make everyday consumer connection more flexible.
  • Tap the skills of deeply knowledgeable moderators who can make consumers feel comfortable online and manage the logistics.
  • Create rich, engaging, thought-provoking research stimulus and pace it to elicit open response discussion with the option to delve deeper, to adapt to ideation, and if needed, to switch into quali-quant type responses.
  • Look to innovate and establish new quali-quant techniques – live discrete choice, and perceptual mapping / heat mapping are some of the exciting new techniques that allow quick scale-up of qual learning to crowd source and evaluate ideas.
  • Develop live expert consumer panels with influencers and social media mavens. Rotate the panels and integrate the learning live into your online design thinking program.
  • Develop internal / external teams of category passionates that are comfortable connecting and interacting with consumers on a day-to-day basis across platforms.
  • Use pioneering outside innovation partners to help manage and coach innovation-centric consumer interaction / collaboration.

There are many challenges as brands look to shift their innovation efforts online. As we’ve seen on social media platforms it can be a challenge to create an online atmosphere that encourages imagination, constructive counter views and innovation. It’s also a challenge to maintain human empathy and connection across teams and with consumers.

COVID-19 is forcing CPG companies to innovate differently – but can COVID-19 inspire companies to innovate better? The future of innovation is bright for those who are prepared to positively focus on the frontline of consumer / partner collaboration – and to nurture deeper human connection in these online forums, even when it’s not possible be together. For these nimble companies, innovation will indeed get faster — and more effective.

Please visit FK LiveLabs to learn more about our online research capabilities and submit an inquiry under “Contact Us” or send a message directly to

FK LiveLabs is a division of Fletcher Knight, Inc.

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