Just about everything we use in our daily lives has been designed and redesigned to meet our needs. In fact, the device you’re reading this post on is a result of product innovation.
At Grow Ensemble, we’ve had the privilege of speaking with entrepreneurs who have completely redesigned systems and products to make the world a better place. But how have they done this? And why?
Matt didn’t set out to create a reusable bottle to compete with other reusable bottle companies. Instead, he set out to make a product that would help reduce plastic use, create a community of like-minded everyday philanthropists, and increase clean water access. It all started with a bottle, a phone, and a sticker.
What Is Product Innovation?
Product innovation is the process of creating a new product or redesigning an existing one to meet customer needs, create less waste, or simply improve the functionality of the product. “Product” doesn’t always refer to a consumer good—it can also mean a system or service. A service innovation could be something like Uber’s addition of carpooling or Spotify’s customized, annual listening report. These are typically technology-focused, but they’re still products for purchase.
What Are the Types of Product Innovation?
There are two types of product innovation. A radical product innovation develops a completely new product, while an incremental product innovation redesigns an existing product. In some cases, a product may lie between both types. Steve Jobs developed the new technology and product development process for the very first iPhone, but incremental improvements occur each year when a new iPhone model is released.
Product Innovation Process
For product innovation to be successful and have a competitive advantage in the marketplace, it’s crucial that it’s customer-centric. Without anticipating the needs of the customer and considering their patterns of behavior, the product won’t sell. Whether you’re shooting purely for profitability or you’re aiming for social or environmental impact too, sales are a top priority.
Developing new products or incrementally improving existing ones doesn’t mean you always follow the same map. The innovation management process looks different for everyone. There are a few key areas that must be explored, at the bare minimum, to ensure an adequate entry to market:
- Market Research: Understanding the current customer experience using focus groups, surveys, and observation.
- Experimentation: Using a product strategy, start prototyping and ideating new product lines to solve the identified customer issue. Then test, gather metrics, test again, identify flaws, and reassess.
- Commercialization: The launch of your entire organization’s hard work—your new product.
Product Innovation Examples
While innovation occurs in every sector from software to cars, social entrepreneurship is firmly rooted in product innovation. Evaluating and redesigning systems is at the core of what social entrepreneurs do. Many
environmentally friendly companies have developed more sustainable alternatives to things like single-use plastic, while social entrepreneurs have completely redesigned systems with unsustainable supply chains. These innovative products are making the world more equitable and more eco-friendly.
Many people in the environmental movement understand why plastic straws are bad, but they would have struggled to argue against the convenience of a plastic straw during an unexpected midday coffee run.
That is, until Emma Rose Cohen designed a straw with new, practical features. Final Straws are portable, foldable, and reusable stainless-steel straws for the everyday person on the go. This startup exploded overnight and raised 160x its crowdfunding goal. It’s an incremental innovation that has successfully diverted millions of plastic straws from landfills and our shared waterways.
In 1997, entrepreneur Eric Hudson launched Preserve with the goal of reducing plastic pollution. This now-famous company got its start with pure product innovation by showing customers how recycled products could be used to make everyday items, keeping that plastic out of the ocean. Preserve uses recycled plastic and recovered ocean plastic to create reusable razors, toothbrushes, and tableware. Not only did Eric innovate individual products, he revolutionized the supply chain by using existing pollution as well as used materials to make it happen. That’s the power of reuse!
Most of our bathrooms are littered with half-full shampoo and conditioner bottles. Since 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled once it’s left on the curb, the founders of HiBAR searched for a solution that would halt plastic pollution in its tracks.
HiBAR didn’t invent the shampoo bar, but they did innovate it. Instead of sacrificing quality (which can be an unwanted side effect of making the switch to solid haircare), they created the first salon-quality plastic-free shampoo and conditioner bars in a unique, handy shape that allows users to lather up and scrub deep. This innovative shape has made the product easier for consumers to use and played an important role in the company’s recognizable branding. Instead of being seen as a sacrifice that only environmentalists make, HiBAR introduced shampoo bars to entirely new markets, scaling its collective environmental impact.
Fill it Forward: Always Giving
Founded in 2012, Fill it Forward has a unique business model that links philanthropy, technology, and product innovation through their Cupanion bottle.
Instead of just creating another reusable water bottle, Fill it Forward built an app that facilitates donations to charitable organizations fighting for clean drinking water and sanitation around the globe. Most recently, they added a tote bag to their online shop to encourage less plastic bag use.
Instead of pushing sales of their own bottle, Fill it Forward offers users the opportunity to simply purchase a Fill it Forward sticker with its own unique code to enter in the app. That way, users with a Klean Kanteen or KeepCup can join the Fill it Forward mission to make charitable giving as easy as drinking your favorite beverage. Simply fill your bottle, snap a picture in the app, and watch as your impact grows! This Certified B Corporation is making waves of change, all by harnessing the existing need for people to drink water.
Matt Wittek, CEO & Founder of Fill it Forward
Originally, Matt’s goal with the creation of Cupanion in 2012 (now Fill it Forward) was to inspire reuse with an unbreakable bottle. Almost 10 years later, he’s done that and much more by facilitating giving to a number of carefully selected charitable partners. Each time a Fill it Forward user goes to fill up, they’re actively turning the tap on for someone else too.
Matt has scaled Fill it Forward substantially and partnered with universities, brands, retailers, and foodservice operators to build a community around giving and reuse that’s truly unique. The Cupanion and its stickers are highly customizable, making them a perfect choice for company retreats, student orientations, and employee giveaways.
“A big decision we made early on was that we didn’t want to solely integrate the technology with our own products. We thought that would be a real miss because our mission is to inspire the world to reuse.”
How to Spark Innovation
The innovation mindset is key for successful product innovations and effective disruption of current systems. Here are some tips to practice if you want to strengthen your innovation mindset.
- Always Observe: Being curious and noticing patterns allows innovators to make connections and find inadequacies in any system.
- Break Habitual Thinking: Carol Sanford, an expert in regenerative business, sees this as an opportunity to grow and break free of old paradigms. By doing so, you open your mind to alternative possibilities and spark creativity.
- Cultivate Empathy: Empathy is a powerful tool to solve global issues, spur product development, and inform decision-making. Cultivate empathy by stepping outside of your comfort zone and asking questions.
- Celebrate Small Wins: Perfection isn’t interesting, and it doesn’t promote growth. Innovation begins where failure ends, so celebrate the small wins and learn from them to continue your journey of change-making.
Closing: Fill Your Cup
Fill it Forward is successful because it encourages empathy while addressing multiple issues. Anyone can fill up a water bottle, but can just anyone say that this simple action is securing funding for clean water access? You can with a Cupanion bottle!
Product innovation can spark entire movements, like the one at Fill it Forward. If a water bottle can make such an enormous impact, imagine what else could come from taking a step back to reassess our current systems and make a few changes.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Matt on LinkedIn
- Fill it Forward on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, LinkedIn
- Wine to Water
- Charity Water
- Warby Parker
- Klean Kanteen
- Thirst by Scott Harrison
- Little One Step by Simon James
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.