What Makes an Idea Stick

Press enter to search
Close search
Open Menu

What Makes an Idea Stick

By Kathleen Furore - 01/01/2014

Squeezable yogurt is practically omnipresent in supermarket dairy cases today. Yet the squishy tubes that make spoonless yogurt consumption possible, and cost more per ounce than yogurt in a tub, didn't exist until 1999.

"When General Mills launched Go-GURT by re-positioning yogurt as a healthy, 'on-the-go' snack for kids and created a tube as the delivery system, it changed the category forever," says Jonathan Finer, chief innovation officer of Cloverleaf Innovation LLC, an innovation consultancy based in Evanston, Ill. "While it ultimately became ubiquitous in the category, with both competitors and manufacturers knocking off the concept, it truly changed moms' purchasing behaviors and kids' eating behaviors forever."

Go-GURT is just one example of a product born of a "sticky idea"–an idea that survived the rocky road from concept to completion, and ultimately became a category driver after its retail rollout.

Perfecting the Process

Just how does an idea engender enough recognition to make it "stick"?

The answer can be complicated, especially considering how unlikely the chance an idea will see the light of day.

"In reality we all suffer from a bias against creative ideas," says David Burkus, assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, and founder and host of LDRLB (pronounced "leader lab"), a podcast that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation and strategy. "For an idea to be creative, it has to be new and useful. However, our minds have a bias for the status quo."

"For an idea to be creative, it has to be new and useful. However, our minds have a bias for the status quo."

– Jonathan Finer,

Cloverleaf Innovation LLC

That often-buried bias can lead decision-makers to evaluate ideas using traditional measures like BASES (Buyer Attitudes and Sales Experience) scores and revenue projections versus capital expenditures ratios at the expense of exploring more imaginative, albeit riskier, alternatives, Finer notes.

"It's important for executives to challenge themselves and their team with the question, 'What's the potential cost of not moving forward?'" he stresses. "While successful innovation is about informed risk-taking, not moving forward has its own risk. Have you missed an opportunity to show your constituents–the employees, the c-suite, board of directors, shareholders, even retailers–your true commitment to innovation? Have you left a vacuum in the marketplace for your competitors?"

Filling potential vacuums means thinking beyond what your constituents want today, Finer adds.

"Consumers are fickle, and trends are fleeting. If you aim for today with your innovation efforts, you'll likely hit yesterday," he cautions.

While Finer admits the odds are stacked against new product innovations thriving in the marketplace, he cites ways to improve the chance that an idea will "stick."

First, maintain a future focus. "Using insights designed specifically for the innovation process, and involving futurists, category experts and 'ahead of the curve' consumers, is essential to anticipating market needs and generating the insights necessary to long-term product success," he says.

Second, create excitement throughout the supply chain. "New ideas that simply get 'handed down' from marketing or innovation teams may be met with skepticism or resistance," Finer explains. "Including [representatives from] manufacturing, distribution, sales, legal–even the retailer–helps build broader pride of ownership and buy-in, which in turn creates more interest throughout the supply chain and increased chance of effective sell-in and sell-through."

Finally, remember an idea alone is never enough. "A successful commercialization process–moving from idea to marketplace–is as important as the strength of the concept itself," Finer says. "Creating a comprehensive innovation strategy that considers everything from design, to messaging, to engaging the supply chain, to next generation concepts is paramount to ongoing success."

Tracking "Sticky" Traits

While there is no surefire formula to make an idea stick, industry experts have identified several characteristics that give an idea traction.

Generally speaking, ideas and products that have a significant advantage over the current offering are those with staying power–but only if that advantage is easy to see, Burkus says.

"Most of us aren't willing to risk trying a new idea until we can see others have tried it, and it really does have that advantage," he explains. "It is what [the late sociologist] Everett Rogers described as the diffusion of innovation: A small percentage of people try out new ideas, the rest wait to see other groups experiment first before deciding."

"Most of us aren't willing to risk trying a new idea until we can see others have tried it, and it really does have that advantage."

– Michael Forhez,


That theory was popularized in Rogers' "Diffusion of Innovations," first published in 1962, where he identified five characteristics that influence the decision to adopt or reject new ideas:

  • Relative advantage: The degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard;
  • Compatibility: The more compatible the idea is with the existing norm, the better the chances of adoption;
  • Simplicity: Is the idea easy to understand?
  • Trialability: How effortless is it for the target audience to try? and
  • Observability: How easy is it to observe results of trying or consuming the idea?

Today's popular Swiffer Wet Jet is a product that exemplifies these traits, Burkus says.

"It had a significant advantage over the traditional mop because it was disposable–instead of moving dirt around, it grabbed it with the cleaning pad, which could then be thrown away. It was fairly compatible with the existing method–it wasn't a drastically new way to clean floors, just a new way to mop. It was simpler than the existing technology. And most important, it was easy to try and even easier to see the results," he says. "You might not have been one of the first to buy a Swiffer, but odds are someone else tried it before you and let you know just how well it worked."

In their best-selling 2007 book, "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die," authors Chip and Dan Heath compiled a list of six traits similar to those Rogers had identified. The principles "sticky ideas" share, they posited, include:

  • Simplicity: the ideas are both simple and profound;
  • Unexpectedness: they violate people's expectations to get attention, then generate curiosity by opening and filling knowledge gaps;
  • Concreteness: they use images to paint a mental picture;
  • Credibility: they carry their own credentials and offer ways people can test the ideas–a "try before you buy" philosophy;
  • Emotions: they elicit feelings; and
  • Stories: they connect the dots with proverb-like anecdotes.

There is, of course, no guarantee that an idea–no matter how "sticky"–will succeed in today's uber-competitive retail landscape. As Finer notes, "Marketplace dynamics are so volatile, with a constant infusion of new products, changing consumer behavior and retailer demands, that trying to project long-term success for a single one-off concept is increasingly difficult."

But developing the ability to recognize characteristics that successful ideas historically have possessed will increase the odds of a profitable outcome.

"Take a look at your favorite successful new product in the marketplace. Most likely it's an innovative product that fits an unarticulated consumer need but most likely has a complete story built around the product as well. Perhaps it has an intriguing name, a creative package structure, a well-designed brand identity or merchandising display. These elements help distinguish the product and help it become successful–especially post-launch when word-of-mouth and 'stickiness' are most critical," Finer concludes.


Identifying new ideas with the most long-term profit potential is not an easy task. Jonathan Finer, chief innovation officer of Cloverleaf Innovation LLC, an innovation consultancy based in Evanston, Ill., shares some simple dos and don'ts that executives can follow when reviewing ideas presented to them.

Do listen to multiple perspectives, but don't make decisions by consensus.

Do allow yourself to be swept up in the enthusiasm surrounding a concept, but don't avoid challenging the team with tough questions.

Do consider the need to modify concepts, but don't compromise the essence of an idea in favor of expediency or cost-cutting.

Do acknowledge the efforts of the innovation team, but don't withhold your praise for successes only. Innovation demands risk-taking and a willingness to embrace failure.

Do look to develop innovation strategies with long-term potential, but don't rely on single opportunities.

Do create opportunities that are driven by consumer insights, but don't look for consumers to specifically identify new concepts.

Do use consumer research to validate new opportunities, but don't use these evaluative tools in isolation. Remember that consumers can more easily evaluate incremental innovation than breakthrough or disruptive thinking.

Freelance writer Kathleen Furore covers business topics for publicaitons including Progressive Grocer, Convenience Store News, Hispanic 360 Retail and el Rastaurante Mexicano magazines.