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Empathy, Ingenuity, Innovation

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 2, 2014

Kevin Plank, founder of the performance apparel maker Under Armour has a new product-a running shoe that fits like a brassiere and he plans to launch it in Shanghai, an emerging market where few have heard of his products. He predicts the new footwear will change the way people all over the world think about shoes.

Initially, Under Armour was a guy product. Plank hated the cotton T shirt he wore under his University of Maryland football uniform. It felt awful when soaked with sweat. He began experimenting in his grandmother's basement to make an undershirt with the same fabrics used for women's lingerie-fabrics that wicked moisture away from the body and kept the wearer cool and dry. The Hub magazine tells the story of Under Armour's dramatic growth from that basement more than 16 years ago to a $2 million a year company with 6,000 employees. And as brand chief Steve Battista explains, at Under Armour, innovation isn't a department, it's a life style. Among other things, the company has produced a sweatshirt that sheds water like a duck, and a shirt that monitors heart rate. Even the company name reflects diligent contrivance: the 800 phone numbers Plank first used had too many digits to spell out Under Armor so he added a "u." Always the entrepreneur, seed money for Under Armour came from Plank’s earlier venture selling Valentine's Day roses.

The Hub story says early advertising avoided mentioning feminine fabrics and began with what it calls "the testosterone-drenched question 'Will You Protect This House' and the emphatic, now-iconic response 'I Will!'"

Protecting the house resonated well with sports teams defending their home turf, but wasn't necessarily a universal rallying cry. In Shanghai, Plank and his team focused on the "I Will!" While people in Shanghai tend to work out regularly they don't consider themselves athletes, they reasoned, so the "I Will" slogan provides inspiration for men and women who aren't necessarily playing on sports teams any more, and it suggests a commitment to achieve no matter the challenge.

The company's pitch to athletes involved nuance. Rather than showing trophies after a win, ads featured the click of the football cleats on the concrete walkway onto the field, the last thing players heard just before the game. The pitch to a broader audience was equally engaging. The Hub reports that in 2013 when the company launched its Armour 39, a digital performance monitor, advertising focused on the idea that future performance wear will feature touch screens in the fabric that will let the wearer set temperature, choose music and change color with a finger-swipe. A woman called "Future Girl" demonstrates. The idea, according to Plank and Battista, is to tell the story of Under Armor's inventiveness and fuel the expectation "that we're doing some amazing stuff" in conjunction with an emotional message that will make people want to get up and work out.

In "Empathetic Innovation," another article in the same issue of The Hub, Tom Kelley and David Kelley, both of Ideo, describe how products and projects change when providers and manufacturers see and experience what users and customers are doing. For instance, they say, in 2007 banks were making more than $30 million a year in overdraft fees. But after interviewing people in the 20 to 35 age range they wanted as new customers, PNC Financial Services realized people in this group needed help managing their money. So they created Virtual Wallet, a product that lets customers plan savings as well as viewing their balance, pay deposits, bills due and highlights "danger days" when there's high risk of writing a rubber check. New customer deposits made up what they lost in overdraft fees. Sometimes observing can be more fruitful than asking the right questions, the Ideo executives say. Working with a house wares company, an Ideo team observed customers using an ice cream scoop. Many absent mindedly licked the scoop after using it. So the team designed a "mouth friendly" scoop, with no sharp edges or moveable parts that would hurt the tongue. Had people been asked about using the scoop, they probably wouldn’t have mentioned licking it, the authors of this piece say, and they might even have denied it. Read The Hub stories here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation 

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