Everyone thinks that in order to become an entrepreneur, you need to have a totally unique idea, also known as a “blue ocean” idea. I think that’s totally false and in fact the worst advice you can follow. I originally wrote the the below for Forbes, but I thought it would be helpful to share it here. Hope it’s helpful, happy to answer any questions.
This may not be what you want to hear, but unless you’re Elon Musk, it’s incredibly hard to bring a totally innovative product to market.
The irony is I learned this lesson after winning a best new product of the year award for a completely innovative product a few years ago.
You may have heard of the idea of a blue ocean versus a red ocean when it comes to product development. They’re pretty simple concepts: A red ocean is the idea that there is a ton of competition in the area you’re trying to compete in, whereas a blue ocean is the concept that you’re in an area where you’ve got the whole ocean to yourself.
A lot of companies think they should try and shy away from red oceans and stick to blue waters. The problem is that if you are in a blue ocean with a totally unique idea it can be incredibly hard to make people aware of what your product does, and that people actually need it.
I’ll give you a very specific example, with our biggest product, Halo Oral Antiseptic. When we launched in 2012, we brought an incredible innovation in germ control to market. We got patents issued, were showered with praise by the industry, and were convinced (and so was every single retailer in America) that we would be an overnight hundred million dollar plus brand.
Well what we found out was that it is incredibly expensive to explain exactly what Halo is, and why people should use it. We literally spent millions on television, print ads and coupons, as well as an enormous public relations campaign. It was brutal. Now, we did eventually make people aware of the brand, but it was an expensive path to go down.
I learned that innovation is just not enough for the average company or entrepreneur to make a product a winner. You have to be able to get people to not only know about the product, but believe in it AND BUY IT. That’s tougher and more expensive to do than you think!
The Best New Products Award We Won as Voted On by 100 of America’s Top Retailers
That’s why I now solely implement what I call Pink Ocean Strategy. Put simply, I go into product categories that are proven, but I bring a unique angle to the market. So you’re probably asking, “Ok Afif, so what makes for a product in a Pink Ocean?”
A Pink Ocean Strategy involves going into a proven product category with a product that uses unique features, benefits or packaging to stand out.
So let’s look at a couple examples of companies having great success taking a Pink Ocean approach.
The first is one that I assume you’ve heard of many times. A little product by the name of the Dyson Vacuum. The story of how James Dyson came up with the cyclone mechanical action of his famous (and very expensive) vacuum is the stuff of entrepreneurial lore. He spent years making thousands of different prototypes before he got it just right.
But guess what? When he introduced his product, he didn’t have to prove to anyone that they needed a vacuum. They already knew about vacuums! He just created a more powerful vacuum with a unique cyclone action, and became a billionaire in the process. Now that is Pink Ocean thinking!
Now let’s go from one of the highest profile brands, to a general product category that’s about as boring as it gets. I’m talking about lip balms, arguably one of the most commoditized product categories in all of retail. I think we can all agree the world doesn’t need another lip balm! Or does it? Because there are probably a dozen enormous lip balm brands that all have some unique angle.
EOS comes in unique egg shaped containers that are vibrantly colored, Burt’s Bees goes with the folksy au naturale vibe (Ironically now owned by Clorox) and Lip Smackers come in a thousand flavors. You get the picture. Each of these lip balm brands has been able to take an utterly generic product and simply add a unique spin, creating enormously successful brands in the process.
Ironically, even the great Elon Musk did not invent the electric car, or obviously the car. He took the lame idea of a fuddy-duddy electric car, that had been floating around for years, and came out with a beautiful sports car, creating a company worth tens of billions, and turning the car industry upside down in the process.
So the grand take away? Forget about red and blue oceans and sail towards Pink Oceans by looking for products that are proven sellers, and find a unique angle for your product.