Data Doesn't Hinder Product Creativity, It Enhances It
October 12, 2022
Hot and cold. Science and fantasy. Darkness and light. Polar opposites like these are usually best understood as the inverse or absence of one another. But have you ever asked yourself: What’s the opposite of creativity?
If you’re anything like most product creators, you’re likely picturing numbers, spreadsheets, and bar graphs. In other words, data. What could put a damper on bright colors, fun fabrics, and trendy silhouettes faster than data, right? Wrong!
Not only is data not the antithesis of creativity, but research indicates that using data to guide and constrain the creative process actually results in more innovative outcomes. And in retail specifically, attempting to create products and assortments without a clear understanding of target consumers and what they like is a recipe for wasted resources, unnecessary production costs, and excess inventory.
Unfortunately, nearly 70% of merchant and product professionals report that their brands’ assortments are not consistently informed by consumer input. That’s why we’re taking a look at the most common hurdles hindering your team’s creativity and ways consumer data helps clear the path to greater productivity, product innovation, and profitability.
So Many Opinions, So Little Time
According to former adidas General Manager of Outdoor & Golf Tim Janaway, “If you’re designing a product assortment, your biggest frustration is knowing probably 30% of it won’t get to the market.” This essentially means that three out of every ten hours spent creating new products are a total wash. That’s almost half of a typical eight-hour workday!
Why so much waste? “There are too many cooks throughout the whole process making decisions primarily without ever consulting a single target consumer,” says Janaway. Subjectivity reigns supreme. Nearly every stakeholder’s ideas must be explored within extremely tight milestone deadlines, spreading product creators too thin and leaving little time and space for innovation to flourish.
For instance, design and product creation teams at a century-old athletic and college apparel brand once spent hours debating every graphic, colorway, print, and pattern concept. Creative resources were often used to create artwork, swatches, and samples that either had to be reworked or never made the cut. Eventually, the team chose to consult its target consumers and use sentiment data to guide its seasonal direction and design focus.
More creative confidence (and far less back-and-forth) has allowed the brand to make 10% of its product decisions earlier in the assortment development process, saving the designers’ time and significant money downstream. The ability to zero in on top-performing colorway, print, and pattern concepts before committing to sketches and swatches has also reduced the time previously spent creating unnecessary artwork and samples by 20%.
However, to further complicate matters, subjective debates and creative diversions usually happen at both ends of the product development cycle. After months spent refining, dropping, and adopting styles, go-to-market teams join the discussion and demand additional last-minute commercial SKUs they believe will perform well in their specific regions and channels. “Part of the reason why brands become over-assorted is because every retailer wants something different, or marketing has its own ideas about what will sell in a particular channel,” shares Janaway.
This highlights the importance of clearly defining and deeply understanding current and aspirational consumer profiles prior to testing product concepts or details. Segmenting results by audience attributes like geography or preferred retailer and referring to them while crafting the line empowers design and product teams to objectively justify early creative decisions in later go-to-market stages. Teams are able to avoid uninspiring, inefficient last-minute scrambles and channel their creative energy where it can make a more valuable impact.
Balancing Risk vs. Reward
Crafting a successful line is sort of like walking a tightrope between proven carryover styles and fashion-forward newness. If product creators lean too far in either direction, the entire assortment is thrown off balance and puts a brand at risk of alienating its core customers or failing to stay relevant.
But nailing the perfect product mix is practically impossible without the right data. Brands usually choose to err on the side of caution by foregoing innovative newness in favor of more tried and true SKUs, resulting in similar styles that ultimately cannibalize one another and erode margins. Playing it safe and stifling creativity also prevents brands from capitalizing on new, niche, and evolving audience segments, damaging brand perception and shrinking market share over time.
As Tim Janaway explains, “Product creation teams are constantly told to pare down assortments and reduce the longtail, but these decisions are usually based on historical financial data from the last 2-3 seasons. So, the longtail usually contains all your bold new products and the pieces you intentionally included to diversify the line; for example, more women's styles, more inclusive sizing, bolder colors, etc. This means creators are being asked by Finance to essentially kill their brand-defining products.”
Consumer data enables product teams to take more calculated creative risks and strike the right balance of styles. This process involves rationalizing each style to ensure it appeals to a specific consumer segment and serves a distinct purpose within the larger assortment. For example, why have a dress in two neutral colorways when the same 80% of core consumers are satisfied with either and will only buy one? Replacing one of these with a brighter, bolder option that is preferred by 20% of aspirational consumers will reach a wider audience with the same number of SKUs.
Using consumer data to measure creative risk versus reward has led Dearfoams to confidently make a number of pivotal yet highly profitable product decisions. “Today, 54% of consumers expect slippers to be worn outside,” says the brand’s Chief Merchandising Officer Angela Kenney. “That’s a huge shift. So we completely pivoted really quickly. Upwards of 85% of our product assortment now has visual queues that show the consumer can wear it outside.”
There’s no doubt about it: Creativity is powerful. But just like a turbo-charged engine needs a steering wheel and brakes so it doesn’t crash, creativity benefits from having data to guide it. And while percentages and pie charts probably don’t inspire many product creators, they can help maximize the value of innovation and ensure not even a drop of creativity goes to waste.
Whether you’re trying to cut through the noise of conflicting stakeholder opinions or zero in on which creative risks have the highest payoff, a deep, detailed understanding of the products your target consumers love will help you create less of what they don’t. Because it turns out that data and creativity are less like darkness and light or hot and cold, and a lot more like cheese and wine or bread and butter: better together.
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