Innovation Psychology – 6 Big Innovation Opportunities from Life Changes

by Pete Foley

Innovation Psychology – 6 Big Innovation Opportunities from Life ChangesLife changes are really important.  They are often what we as individuals remember most about our lives, while our past experience with them often shapes decisions we make about our future.  They also offer an outstanding opportunity for trial and adoption of new innovation. In this blog I’ll talk about why, together with six ideas for how to leverage the opportunities they offer.

Ch-Ch Changes: Many changes are good, like marriage, a new baby, or a promotion.  Others can be more challenging, but all are to some degree disconcerting.  They disrupt our routines, and force us to think more than usual about everyday things.  Whether it is not automatically knowing who to call about a technical issue at work, where to find fresh paper for the photocopier, or which car mechanic to trust in a new city, things that were fairly automatic can suddenly need conscious effort.  This doesn’t mean all change is bad, simply that even good change is often accompanied by some discomfort.

A Window of Opportunity:  However, every cloud has a silver lining, and this discomfort is a golden opportunity for us as innovators.  One of the biggest challenges for any innovation is trial.  Humans spend a lot of time on autopilot, the System 1 decision making described brilliantly by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman1. This means that innovations often have to break existing habits in order to get people to try, or even see them.  We can sometimes buy trial via advertising or marketing, but it is expensive, and not always efficient.  As the saying goes, only about half of advertising works, if only we know which half.  Life changes are huge opportunities, because they do a lot of this work for us.  They break people’s habits, providing a void that we can fill without having to do the hard work of changing established behaviors.

Of course, some Life Change targeting already exists.  For example, diaper companies strive to send new mothers home with their brand, the US Post Office provides coupons with every change of address notification, and vitamin companies market to seniors.  However, I believe a lot of opportunity remains on the table, especially for targeted sampling, and for innovation designed specifically for life changes.  Below are 6 ways we might consider tapping into these unique windows of opportunity.

1.  Fill the Void First: Don’t wait for potential customers to look for ways to fill a void.  Instead get your innovation in front of them the moment they need it, or before they even realize they need it.  One way to do this is to market and sample through change agents like Realtors, Wedding Planners, Maternity Hospitals, or Moving Companies.  These are non-traditional, underutilized resources for marketing, often small and agile, and may be surprisingly open to additional income streams.

2.  Targeted Sampling:  Potential new ‘life change’ customers are created by context.  Whether they are old, young, early adopters, or scent seekers, nearly everyone moving to a new city will need to find some new products and services.  New parents will need to find diapers and baby food.  If we can find the right entry point, like the change agents described above, our sampling or marketing can become very precise. Of course, we still need to appeal to enough customers, and deliver great performance if we want to generate sustained repeat business.  But at least targeting increases our chance of being seen and considered.

3.  Sample Generously: Sampling for trial is good, but it is even better if we can also start to create a habit.  How many repetitions it takes to do this will vary dramatically depending upon the space we are innovating in.  But obviously the more experiences we can provide, the better!  Cost is often a barrier to generous sampling.  This will vary dramatically by industry, but the precision described above can both decrease total cost, and increase efficiency.

4.  Create Network Dependencies. Another way to accelerate habit  formation is to create network dependencies.  Feedback loops where use of our innovation is reinforced by the surrounding context.  Life changes create a unique opportunity for us to create some of this context ourselves.  Perhaps by creating branded web based support services, by sponsoring some of the change agents mentioned above, or by sampling a tool or device, and selling consumable refills.  Or we can create platforms or bundles where different products reinforce one another, either directly or indirectly.   Of course, it is relatively easy for large companies to bundle or create platforms from within their portfolios.  But there are also opportunities for open collaboration with non competes that can create similar opportunities for both big and small innovators.  For example, why not co-market baby food and diapers, and have them reinforce each other?  Or in a majority of new baby photos on Facebook, the newborn is wrapped in the same blanket, supplied by Kuddle Up?2 Is this a missed collaboration or co-branding opportunity for Diaper or Baby Food manufacturers?  All of these approaches reinforce and escalate commitment to the innovation, and/or increase switching costs, thus helping to establish habits.

5.  Create habits, not Loyalty. There is increasing evidence, supported by psychology, that suggest in many cases processes that operate mostly below our awareness such as familiarity, habit, availability and perceived popularity drive purchase more than conscious, active brand loyalty3.  Familiarity is built from a mixture of physical and mental availability, which is in turn driven by prior product use, marketing, and enhances by perceived popularity, presence and availability in retail environments.  So this can be achieved by a big retail/web presence, combined with advertising and marketing.  But also by targeted sampling that drives extensive user experience and habit creation.

6.  Innovate for Life changes.  If possible, create versions of our innovations that that are targeted at specific life changes.   Commercial innovation, and repurposing existing offerings towards life changes is good, but if you can nudge your innovation so that it is customized for a specific life stage, it can be great.  We like things that we feel are personalized for us.  There may also be other advantages to targeted design.  For example, designing for physical limitations in seniors can often create products that are easier for everyone to use.

Above I have described some ideas for how to leverage life changes to get innovations in front of potential customers.  It’s not a check-list, and as with most things human, there are also some counter effects to consider.  While change opens a door for new innovation, it can also cement some habits that are easy to hang onto.  When all is changing, it can activate a flight to the familiar.  So a favorite restaurant chain in a new town can be something stable we anchor to in a sea of change.  Or a new parent may grab a diaper brand that friends or their own parents have sworn by.  So Life Changes don’t guarantee trial, but are an unusual opportunity where openness to change can be unusually high for a lot of products and services.  Some will be better for some innovations than others, but as an idea starter, a few thoughts on some important ones.

– Off to College: While disposable income can be low, this tops the list because it is the chance to create habits that last a lifetime, and at a time when that lifetime is potentially very long.  It is also a time when so many habits form.  Songs, experiences, friends that we pick up in our late teens and early 20’s often stay with us for life.  But a lot of less obvious habits, defaults and mental models do so as well.

–  Marriage/Co-Habiting/Divorce: Obviously a time when behaviors change, albeit sometimes reluctantly.  We buy different things, change our schedules, even hang out with different people. It is also a time when emotions can be elevated, creating opportunities to associate new innovations with positive emotional memories.

–  Job/Location Change:  A huge opportunity, as especially with a location change, so many defaults are destroyed.   Stressful for individuals, but whether we are innovating exercise, food, decorating, retail, products or services, people are often crying out for new solutions to old problems at this time, and hence are exceptionally open to try new things.

–  New Baby/New Parents: A huge opportunity, and one that is already targeted via maternity units, and via targeted advertising, (you may recall a couple of years ago Target used data mining to target marketing for mothers to be).  However, as mentioned above, opportunities still exist for sampling versus marketing, and for collaborations, and co-branding that to the whole life style change that often accompanies parenthood.

Other Windows: Of course, there are other opportunities. Retirement has some similarities with a career change, but is also a fuzzier transition, especially in a world where phased retirement is becoming more common.  Of course, AARP are already a conduit for targeted marketing to seniors, but but there are other entry points, such as financial advisors, or volunteer organizations.   A new pet, vacation, or even business travel all also offer windows of opportunity.  The last two offer less chance for habit formation because they are short, and their unique contexts don’t always translate back to the ‘real world’.  But they at least offer a trial opportunity if we have an innovation that offers dramatic improvements over the status quo.   Something not lost on  Westin, who now sell their heavenly beds via Nordstrom!

1. Daniel Kahneman (2013) Thinking Fast and Slow.  Farrar

2.  https://qz.com/280475/why-every-newborn-you-see-on-facebook-is-wrapped-in-the-same-baby-blanket/

3. Byron Sharp (2010). How Brands Grow. Oxford University Press.


Build a common language of innovation on your team

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Find him at pete.mindmatters@gmail.com