“Developing a washing machine solution for China” was my first and biggest assignment as a freshman innovation manager. I had a team of 15 people from across the company and we were highly confident of our plan’s success which was simply focusing on customer insights, which was the buzz of the time. An insight, as we were all taught, is a unique yet “hidden” need that when resolved the customer would reward the company by acquiring the solution. However, we realized that an insight was a need statement that you can act upon which should have a social or cultural root and that could only be captured after a certain time of interaction and sharing with a positive mood without judgement.
The management was trying to find ways to improve sales in laundry category in China. We decided to get that challenge. We had recently set the framework of innovation and decided to keep a “customer-centric approach” which was fine as long as the vast literature saying so.
We started by conducting interviews on the phone with local colleagues at our China office. The interviews almost revealed a big “nothing”. Then we decided to guide them and prepared a questonnaire. There were nearly 20 questions ranging from demography to direct problems regarding laundry. All we could get were how often they were washing clothes, whether they were using automatic washers or not and their wishes for a better experience and likewise. It proved to be quite difficult to figure out statistically what most important had been to them as the majority had little or no interest on laundry washing. Besides, this was a small group of professional office workers living in Shanghai downtown and having a western like lifestyle. We decided to skip this and visit actual customer houses.
I then went to Shanghai and visited some 5 houses from different revenue and social classes. We had some 15 houses already visited by our marketing team when I arrived at China. We had tough times to go through what we got from the research with our Chinese colleagues. All I did remember were the house visits we made together where I only stood to look around and observe rather than ask and note. I saw many many details most of them seemingly unrelated to the major task.
In one of the visits that we made to a house with a young couple and a 4 year old son, however, I realized that they had 2 toploader washing machines, one small and the other one full size. My colleague asked the reason for it in their Mandarin language. They said they had washed the kid’s clothes in a separate washer. You are probably aware of the “one child” policy of the Chinese government that lasted for over 30 years now. Kids are precious beings and every family has and can have one and only of them in China. We thought that it was this importance leading the parents to reserve a washing machine for the kid. In that same house, parents had been using a special type of dishwashing agent only for kids. Another interesting observation was that regardless of social status every household had a sink and tap located at their balcony. We did not really ask what was it for as we did not really see anyone using them. My hotel was close to the city center and every morning while waiting for colleagues to pick me up in the morning, I reserved some time looking around at the street. Across the road was a big apartment with lots of flats. The front face of the block was almost covered with laundry hanged out and away from the building with long bamboo sticks for drying. Majority of the hanged clothes were underwear and socks. The sun’s rays are believed to somewhat clean the laundry in China and the closer they put them the better. Throughout my stay in Shanghai, I saw many people having hard times leaning out of the balconies to hang their underwear to the outermost string at the tip of the bamboo sticks, both men and women. None of these bits of information revealed anything. I was back with frustration. We decided to act together with our laundry detergent manufacturer partner who had a powerful distribution reach to almost all mid-tier cities in China. We provided input and they, as experts, conducted the research.
Few months later, the results were finally shared with us. Among many useful but generic stuff was one interesting output: “The reason for the Chinese not to prefer front loading automatic washing machines was because they had found them non-hygienic”!! The result was statistically consistent and meaningful. They did not find it hygienic, but why? Not a single clear reason. We sat down with the team to analyze this crucial output. How could we make our washers more hygienic? We tended to believe that our washers had been considerably hygienic. So, we launched a hell of a lot of different hygiene programs for various needs; low temperature hygiene, high temperature hygiene, baby hygiene and machine hygiene. Sales did not really increase much and we were not happy but, surprisingly, we were given an innovation award by local authorities solely because of considering voice-of-customer in our product design. But, for the team, this really did not make any sense. We conducted a second research with our detergent manufacturer partner. The results were quite similar to the former research with one little difference: a majority of the the participants stated that “they would never wash their underwear in a front loader automatic washer”, the type we had been producing and promoting worldwide for years. We sat to discuss the new output with the team. It did not reveal much, either. We had been washing our underwear in our washers for years. What could be the reason behind their view? Underwear washing seemed quite a trivial and similar job, at least it seemed this way all the way from Istanbul. We were about to give up when I met an old friend of mine one day on the way home from office. He had lived in China for some time and I decided to get his view on our problem. After listening, he asked me a straight question:
– “Have you ever been to a toilet in China.. but a public toilet not one you see at hotels?”
– “Not really”, I replied.
He said in an average toilet in China, there were usually these three things missing; door, paper and water. That was a serendipitious moment for me. It was not the underwear as we had thought of it, it was something different; way dirtier than what we assumed. He then added:
– “Our Chinese marketing manager washes his underwear and socks every night by hand without even showing them to his wife once”.
That input was worth a million. It was the reason of all those sinks at the balconies as well as the hanged out underwear and socks in Shanghai, even the reason of why the Chinese would never wash underwear in a laundry washer and why they kept on putting the blame on hygiene. Once the dirty stuff was out by hand washing, they then employed those toploaders to get the rest done. Our true competitor was that “sink” in the balcony rather than the long-blamed toploader.
This is what I then called a “real insight” which is very difficult to capture. A powerful insight has its roots within the culture and you need to live and share for a certain time in it, in order to come up with anything meaningful. Hidden insights are related to habits, things and beliefs; those that make people shy of usually. Therefore, it is rare that you discover them by asking questions. You should appreciate and accept a culture, in return deserving to be accepted and shared. This is how you get the chance to understand and see better. On the other side, while developing solutions, you should act responsibly and respectfully, as well. For instance, no elder would ever buy a washing machine if you advertise that you designed it for old people with huge knobs and “child-level” simplicity. You should not insult people with your solution.
Regarding the innovation for the laundry problem in China, our marketing team worked more than our product development team who were technically trying to separate the dirty stuff from the moderate in a visible but secure way. The marketing team struggled to get the right message, as you cannot shout out that you finally solved the underwear hygiene problem in China.
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