Knowledge Bank Blog, Finding New Ideas

From The Outside In

Are you thinking broadly enough?

Let’s start with a couple of puzzles to get you thinking.

Firstly, a man is lying dead in a field. Next to him there is an unopened package. There is no other creature in the field. How did he die?

Secondly, a woman has two sons who were born in the same hour of the same day of the same year. But they are not twins. How could this be? (The answers are at the end of the blog).

Like any good puzzle the answers are very simple when you hear them. However, you have to think pretty laterally to get there. Most breakthroughs in thinking involve taking a wider perspective. Indeed a lot of the simplest, and best, innovations have come from taking something seen in one area of life and then reapplying it to another area.

For instance, one day in 1941 a Swiss electrical engineer called George de Mestrel took his dog for a walk in the woods. By the time they got back home he and his dog were covered in burrs. Which led him to wonder whether that could be turned into something useful? Yes – Velcro.

So, why are we talking about this? Well, we work across a lot of categories and find that, what look at the outset very different categories, are actually facing very similar challenges. How do we get shoppers to migrate from ‘old’ parts of a category to ‘new’ parts? How do we make a category easier to shop? How do we reduce volume on deal? Or increase average price paid?

However, when you work on a category, you can often think of it in isolation. Zeroing in on your part of the store, often your part of the shelf. This means you can end up doing things that follow your category and brand objectives, but work against broader (total store) shopper needs and behaviours. Or it means you can miss potential opportunities – things that have worked in other parts of the store and could work, with a bit of tailoring, in yours.

To avoid this, you need to think from the outside in.

So, how can you do this?

See your category in the context of everything else around it. Start broad. Understand the role a category (or sub category) plays for the shopper. Is it a category shoppers want to spend time in or not? Is it a category where shoppers need help making a choice or not? Most importantly, be honest about the role of the category.

We’ve had conversations in the past on categories such as household cleaning. Where the team working on the category have an objective to slow shoppers down and get them to engage with the category. Then we will say ‘so if you were a shopper would you want to slow down and engage with the category?’ The answer is typically ‘Err, well, no…not really’. So, why would shoppers want to do that?

Not only do you need to understand the role a category plays for shoppers, you need to understand the role it plays for retailers. Is it one that will drive shoppers to a store? Or one that you sell to shoppers once they are there? The answer to the shopper & retailer role will determine how you sell the category. Our job isn’t to sell all categories in the funkiest way. It is to sell categories in the most effective way.

Widen the competitive set. There continues to be a blurring between channels and categories. Discounters are not only stealing from big stores, they are stealing from convenience stores. The competitive set for many categories is widening – just think about all the snacking options competing with each other in store.

If you just compete within your category, you may do well in terms of share – within that category. But you may lose share where the real battle is talking place – in the wider competitive environment. For example, it is no longer good enough to have the best chocolate bar, or crisp, or biscuit. You need to have the best snacking solution. In the future, market share of usage occasions will be the real determinant of how well many categories or brands are doing.

Look and learn. What can other categories tell us about new pack formats or sizes? What can we learn from Amazon on making products ultra convenient to buy? What can we learn from duty free on selling premium products? What can we learn from modern food service outlets on how to sell fresh food? What can we learn from discounters on how to sell mainstream products?

Looking outside to other categories has been done for a long time by innovation teams working on new product ideas. But is done much less often when thinking about how you sell. Yet, many of the biggest opportunities over the next few years will be about how you sell not just what you sell.

The starting point when thinking about a category or brand is, typically… the category or brand. However, the battle is often broader. And the ideas and opportunities broader. To see them we need to look, and think, from the outside in.

The solutions are often simple. Giving yourself the chance to see them is the harder part.


  1. 1. The man in the field had jumped from a plane but his parachute failed to open. It is the unopened package.
  2. 2. The two sons were two of a set of triplets (or quadruplets).

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