So what it is?
It’s a rich, colourful and most importantly, an alternative POV to stimulate innovation.
It’s not 100% backed up by sixty tons of data, it’s a broad brushstroke picture created by a bunch of interesting and springy data sources that suggests change is afoot!
It’s not trend research, it’s not qualitative research, it’s extreme and alternative points of view that provoke change. This is not foundational research, it’s about connecting the dots. It’s inspiration for innovation.
Much of what companies do is incremental innovation. Small projects addressing an immediate need for a new telco bundle offer or a new snack bar. Provocation research takes us beyond incremental innovation. It looks to the future, forecasting trends (industry, social or macro where appropriate) to provide a richer context for the work of now.
It’s a more extreme view (disruptive) but it’s about taking the principles of the future of the category and of the consumer landscape, how they might change and be disrupted, and applying those principles to projects today.
Provocative Research is research on the front foot
This kind of research can operate off a number of platforms, for example:
1. Cross category idea trends ::
An idea that is currently or has the potential to transcend a bunch of different categories or industries. An example of this could be the discussion online around ‘unbusiness’ – a business which defines itself by what it is not. It’s not traditional, it’s not mainstream, it’s not like everything other business model or business offer.
We’re seeing ‘unbusiness cards’ that aren’t like every other business card [think of the delightful moo cards], we’re seeing ‘unconferences’ that go against the stiff in the beige suit clicking a powerpoint chart and instead invite industry colleagues and smarty pants to come along and just share whatever it is that they’re geeking out over [think the original brainjams and now even events like Interesting South's conference of Interestingness held here in Sydney].
The uncyclopedia has launched online as another form of ‘non-traditional’ knowledge sharing. Samsung have recently launched an “unstore” in NYC which aims to present a new retail technology experience, it’s called an “unstore” because you won’t be sold to in this store. It is not a traditional store.
My point here is not that any one of these businesses or terms or retail models are the new Facebook, but rather than idea trend is taking hold and what’s interesting is to think about why that might be, and more importantly, what and where next?
2. Transitioning Industries ::
Industries or categories which are changing or on the cusp of change.
Overarching global macro, social & economic trends (as well as product technology & manufacturing dynamics) will see new opportunities and spaces open up as category boundaries shift and morph. An example of this that I’ve been exploring is a new space I think is emerging between beauty and hygiene or cleanliness. Traditionally, beauty centric-brands like Dove and Loreal have held one end of the spectrum which is focused around skin, aesthetics, feel and look of beauty whereas germ-centric brands like Dettol and Palmolive (which come from cleaning and disinfectant) hold the hygiene end of the spectrum.
I reckon with issues such as SARS and renewed concerns over the rising profile of flu, avian flu etc – we’re going to see a shift toward the space between beauty and hygiene as the germ phobia increases. We’re already seeing Dettol bringing out their dry hygiene handwash in grocery (previously only really appropriate or marketed to travellers), we’re seeing Sorbent introduce their wet ones toilet paper (great idea I think but bad execution).
It strikes me that there’s a real opportunity for a higher end hygiene brand to enter the market. One that has not come from toilet paper or hand soap, whose credentials don’t lie in disinfectant or baby products. A supermarket brand which encompasses hygiene across several categories. A designed brand, not a designer brand.
Still a rough idea at this stage but I think it represents a genuinely new opportunity. The jury’s out on whether it’s a showstopper or a stinker but we’ll see what happens.
3. Human Shifts or Evolution ::
How is the consumer landscape changing in a particular area or category or country. What about exploring the future of work – trends originating from the technology sector which is exciting and full of rich stimulus to talk about new ways of learning, keeping companies innovative and retaining high calibre employees.
Moving on from the nineties of “hotdesking” and “free agents”, what is the inspiration for thinking about the future of work now? What are we excited about? Bedouin Workers? Freelance networks? The new entrepreneur? How many mates are writing the great Australian novel or entering Tropfest or applying for a patent for some crazy idea they’ve had? What is it about being an entrepreneur that makes it so godamn sexy?
What does that mean for companies like Ernst and Young who are looking to recruit and retain top quality staff? What does it mean for advertising agencies and innovation companies?
“Out there in a garage somewhere is an entrepreneur forging a bullet with your company’s name on it” Gary Hamel
It’s about validity, robustness, accuracy, proving, sample sizes, big heavy shakes and movers telling you like it is. It’s linear, it’s a line of research and thinking that everyone has access to, and eventually, everyone who buys the report will get to the same point. There’s a role for this kind of research. It’s more concrete, it’s great to quantify opportunities, it’s done by bunches of smart people who know lots of stuff and have heaps of data to prove it.
But is there a role for a new kind of research to stimulate innovation?
One which provides inspiration for innovation? Provocative research is about making new connections, finding new links, being light on our feet and just gathering enough stimulus to paint a colourful picture, an alternative point of view. It’s a shift toward softer skills – hunting and gathering, intuition, looking for the big picture and the little sign posts that tell you you’re going the right way.
It’s like acupuncture, looking for the pressure points that affect change somewhere else.
Think back to NPD launches like MP3 & the mini disk. All the research in the world told those companies that those products should have worked. But they didn’t. In retrospect we say, well it was consumer adoption rates, they weren’t ready. It was the technology, it was the product, the market, the category, yada yada.
Then along comes Apple’s iPod and changed the way we think about music forever. There’s no recipe for the magic that created that kind of product, but there is a very smart, intuitive and innovative company behind it. That iPod idea was bigger than just a portable music player and in retrospect, like all great ideas, it’s logical isn’t it? But creating it from the other side of the balance sheet, you wonder how they ever got there.
Likewise selling water at one stage would have seemed ridiculous, yet look at the industry now. They’ll be selling air next people said, and they did. Oxygen bars opened up…and then closed down. But what’s the latest cleaning claim in grocery for handwash and dishwash? It’s oxygenated cleaning…oxy action….idea trend anyone?
If traditional research is about connecting the dots, provocative research (inspiration for innovation) is about finding new connections, hell it’s even about finding new dots.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. “Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” – Steve Jobs, Wired, February, 1995
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