Sorry, startups: Consumers don’t get your innovation

Like most Italians in the early 20th century, Alfonso Bialetti knew that the only way to get a good espresso was to get it from a café.

Coffee makers were large and cumbersome machines, difficult to operate and far too big for the home. But Bialetti would change that. With his business partner, Luigi Di Ponti, he invented an ingenious method for making café quality coffee in the home for the first time. Now he needed to get people to believe in it.

The invention was a stroke of genius. The engineer had observed the way that early 1920s tub washing machines worked and an idea struck him. By heating water, the washing machine created pressure, forcing the hot soapy water up a central pipe and dispersing it over the clothes. Using this principle, Di Ponti and Bialetti got their new stove-top coffee maker to work. But how could he get people to adopt it?

He found inspiration in a popular coffee service, one middle-class families up and down Italy would have been familiar with. This Art Deco silver coffee service was recognizable by its distinctive octagonal design and black angular handle. So Bialetti adopted those features for his new espresso maker, fashioned from aluminium and Bakelite. Its familiar eight-sided appearance ensured that anyone seeing his invention would immediately associate it with coffee.

Bialetti’s Moka Express came onto the market in 1933 and it was a huge success. As many as nine out of ten Italian households have one and it can be bought, to this day, all around the world. What was the crucial factor that turned an invention into an icon? Not just the inspired mechanism. Bialetti understood that the Moka needed fluency – a design that made it feel instantly familiar, helping prospective buyers over the bridge of uncertainty to acceptance. By borrowing design elements from the coffee service, he found one.

What does this mean for modern innovators and start-ups? Marketing convention has it that the way to innovation success is to highlight and dramatize what’s new.

Putting the emphasis on what’s new is a natural choice for the proud inventor, but fails to get into the heads of the people who will actually be buying it. People make decisions rapidly, instinctively and emotionally, and most have a “gut liking for the familiar” - they prefer what they know. Fear of the unknown presents an enormous barrier to the adoption of new behavior and new choices.

Novelty is essential, but for an innovation to succeed in a world where consumers make instinctive decisions, marketers must channel Alfonso Bialetti and think about what it is about the idea that’s already familiar to the consumer. By doing this, they will break down this fear of the unknown and reduce the amount of time it takes for the consumer to understand and like their product. Psychologists have shown that human beings are pattern-recognition machines - if something new also seems familiar it will seem like an easier and better choice. You need the kernel of the genuinely new, but wrapped in the recognizable. Fluent innovation aims not just for excitement, but for acceptance.

Uber is example of a modern innovator whose service is fluent with customers. They’ve made getting into strangers’ cars normal by making it fluent, in two ways. First, it called itself a “ride hailing” app, adopting the language of taxi services (while avoiding - at first - the regulatory issues that came from actually being one). Second, it gave people a sense of control and reassurance with its user-experience and reputation systems. It took elements people were already familiar with from GPS systems (the map with moving traffic) and e-commerce sites (user ratings) and incorporated them to make Uber seem far less risky and more fluent. The result? Massive global success.

Aiming for fluent innovation doesn’t just drive acceptance, it helps your ideas get better. Imitating what’s been proven to work in another category has a good chance of working in yours - think Bialetti taking the washing machine and turning it into a coffee maker. The quest for fluency can help push you into this mindset of effective imitation by encouraging you to look at what other people are doing. So take a leaf from Bialetti’s book: sit back, observe, and open your mind to fluency. You might even find a nice espresso helps.

Orlando Wood is chief innovation officer at System1 Group

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