How to Find New Product Success: Tap Your Employees

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brainstorm new product ideasWhat do the following products have in common?

  • Nutrasweet
  • Command Hooks
  • Post-It Notes
  • Scotch Blue
  • Gmail
  • Ivory Soap

Yes, they are all successful. Yes, they are all consumer products. However, and more importantly, they were all invented by employees.

That’s right, whether intentionally developed under new product research programs or happy accidents, all of these products were identified and brought to the attention of management by employees.

  • Nutrasweet’s invention falls squarely into the “happy accident” category. Apparently a G.D.Searle chemist, in trying to find an anti-ulcer drug, let the mixture boil over. When he licked some of the mixture off his hand, he discovered that it had a very sweet taste. He took it to his boss and, just like that; aspartame was born. The product was branded Nutrasweet and is now owned by the Nutrasweet Company.
  • Ivory Soap was once thought also to be a happy accident. Introduced in 1879, the story was that a worker had let the mixture mix too long, introducing air into the soap, but not changing its formula. The company sold the “over-mixed” product and received appreciative letters from consumers who were delighted to discover floating soap. However, in 2004, the P&G company archivist found documentation that one of the company’s chemists was intentionally trying to find a way to make soap float and had documented the formula change.
  • Command Hooks, Post-It Notes and Scotch blue are all 3M products derived from the same two “happy accidents”. 3M was trying to create super strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry in building planes. Instead of a super strong adhesive, though, they accidentally managed to create an incredibly weak, pressure sensitive adhesive. This adhesive had two interesting features: when stuck to a surface, it could be peeled away without damaging the surface, and it could be re-used. Unfortunately, no one could think of a use for this adhesive until chemical engineer Art Fry came along. In addition to working at 3M, he also sang in a church choir and frequently lost his song page markers in his hymn book while singing, because they fell out of the book. Fry started putting the adhesive in the hymn book to hold his markers, and 3M eventually had a stroke of genius and realized this was backward: put the adhesive on the markers. 3M finally introduced Post-It Notes in 1977, and are now one of the best-selling office products in the world. This same adhesive technology then grew into many other product lines, including Scotch blue painter’s tape and Command Hooks.
  • Introduced on April 1, 2004, many took Google’s introduction of Gmail as a hoax. Not so! A Google employee decided to build an email system that started with Google’s powerful search engine. Many within the company did not believe the product was a strategic fit with a search business. In any case, the product was developed, enhanced and improved to the point that it was better than any commercially available email program at that time. Now, of course, Gmail is one of the most pervasive email systems in the world.

While these all sound like fortuitous events and that these companies just “got lucky”, the reality is that without engaged employees, none of this would have happened. All of these employees were given the resources, time, encouragement and support necessary to pursue these product innovations. However, the companies also must be given credit for taking the risk to invest in product development until a compelling value proposition (as in Ivory’s “It floats!”) was found.

Engaged employees are “fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so take positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests.” And, of course, part of those positive actions to enhance the organization’s reputation and success is developing new products, or new and interesting (and profitable) ways to use existing products. After all, who better to help a company find new ways to solve consumer challenges than an employee who cares about the success of his/her company?

There are many ways to encourage employees in identifying and developing new products: bonuses, time off from their regular responsibilities, and other incentives. However, the key ingredient is engaged employees who want to help your company. Measuring and improving employee engagement are the most critical steps in turning clock-watchers into brand ambassadors and company cheerleaders.


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Christian Wright

Christian Wright is the VP of Client Services at Infosurv. With a master’s in marketing research, he’s equipped to design actionable research that yields impactful insights and drives change.