Spielwarenmesse: How much innovation does a product need and how much can it stand?

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Movers & shakers

How much innovation does a product need and how much can it stand?

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

Pushing forward with change processes and implementing innovations and new processes is a difficult undertaking. We are creatures of habit. And this behaviour shows itself in all aspects of our lives: Be it simple things like morning routines - or complex matters like learning new software or getting used to a new working environment. And what is more: The less often we dare to leave our comfort zone in order to readjust ourselves, the more difficult it becomes to throw away the things we have grown to love and open ourselves up to new things. That leaves the question: When is the right time to start innovating a product like toys?

One principle of product development is: "Most Advanced, Yet Accepted" - MAYA for short. According to this principle, based on the findings of the Russian developmental psychologist Vygotsky, innovation can only take place at a certain level if it is to be accepted. If there is a low level of new content in processes or products, they become interchangeable, comparable, boring. If it is too high on the other hand, people don't understand the innovation.

Vygotsky described children's learning behaviour. Everyone has an upper and a lower limit when it comes to their own individual learning level. The lower level is defined by the level at which the child can learn autodidactically without any external intervention. The upper limit is defined as the learning level that can be achieved with outside help. Vygotsky called the area in between the "zone of the next development" and this describes the individual degree of further education. This supportive approach is highly regarded in American early education in particular.

The findings also have a great impact on the development of brands, merchandise assortments and products, however.

There are a lot of prominent examples in the product world that demonstrate how important it is to introduce innovations gradually if the product is to be accepted on the market. When Apple launched its new tablet PC "Newton" in 1993, customers struggled. They couldn't understand it or saw no personal benefit. More recent technical developments such as Google Glasses have experienced similar problems.

Innovations in the toy industry

In the toy industry at the moment we can see a lot of highly innovative small companies that are trying to place their extremely sophisticated technical ideas and products on the market.

These companies often suffer from precisely this phenomenon: The market is not ready for this degree of innovation - or the product is technically highly sophisticated but is not properly geared to the target group so that they find it difficult to access or use the product.

The opposite can also be observed, however: Products, marketing channels and customers of many companies are stagnating when it comes to innovation. As a result their products are always the same with increasingly boring ranges that are interchangeable and are difficult to place on the constantly changing market.

Of course there are good arguments for a lack of innovation in companies: From the controller's point of view it can make sense not to invest in new developments that present a risk that cannot be calculated. And if the company has a strong market position with few competitors, it can also be tempting just to stick to the currently successful product range. Sometimes this means that the company grows old together with its target group.

The longer this phase lasts, the more difficult it is for the company and its brand to rejuvenate and introduce innovations into its products. As tragic as it may seem: The market can also get used to a lack of innovation. In the best case, a brand is blessed if it has a timeless classic in its portfolio as this can save the brand over time.

So what is the right way?

If we follow Vygotsky's findings, one should facilitate innovations but also include instructions. And they should not be so far-reaching that the customer target group cannot understand the product or its uses.

Thus product ranges should be constantly managed and reviewed. And not just in terms of sales and profitability, but also market position and future viability. Apart from the history of the product, external factors such as social changes are also of vital importance.

Where innovations are implemented, the target user group needs instructions that are easy to understand and appropriate - unless the product is self-explanatory. The product should speak the language of the user. The manufacturer should always keep an eye on the current knowledge of the users because this is the level they start from when they are trying to understand the innovation.

An outside view can often be useful here. Anyone that has been familiar with products, their finer details and their uses for many years - or even decades - often loses perspective. They are no longer in touch with the customers' level of know-how and the market position. At this point it is essential to leave the comfort zone and take the decisive step to achieve profits and we would like to encourage every company to take this step.


Be inspired by new ideas for the toy industry. At the Spielwarenmesse® you can see innovative products from aspiring German companies at hall 3A.

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