Ann Arbor 'product museum' showcases consumer items from around globe - and drives innovation
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
The idea of using a twist top opening rather than the finicky pull and pinch cardboard spout was born out of NewProductWorks, a museum-like collection of consumer products from around the world.
With 110,000 different items (and growing every day), it is the only collection of its kind in the world, said curator Carol Sherry.
NPW is part of Ann Arbor office of global consultants GfK North America, which recently moved from State Circle to new and larger offices in Valley Ranch Business Park, just north of West Ellsworth Road south of downtown Ann Arbor.
The move allows for anticipated growth of GfK and the NPW collection, said Elizabeth Lawrence, senior director. GfK is the fourth largest marketing/research company in the world with 110 branches around the globe.
Walking into NPW is like entering a mid-size supermarket. Rows of metal shelves hold food and beverages, health and beauty products, house care and pet care items.
However, instead of having 20 or 30 cans of a single product, there’s just one. And perishables, such as cookies, have been removed and dutifully eaten by staff, Sherry said.
“The typical grocery store has 50,000 SKUs,” Sherry said. “We have twice that.”
Clients from around the country visit the collection to draw inspiration on product formulation, packaging, positioning, technology and more, she said.
That’s what happened with Citrus Hill orange juice after a visit years ago. At the time, most orange juice was frozen concentrate but Citrus Hill was looking to introduce ready-to-serve juice in a cartoon. A package of Japanese laundry soap - with a twist off lid on top - inspired Citrus Hill to put it on juice carton and others, including the dairy industry, followed.
But there are also cautionary tales within the collection, reminders that not all innovation has a happy ending: There’s a display of products that stumbled, from clear Pepsi (consumers want their cola an amber color) to Ben-Gay aspirin (too closely associated with the brand's menthol odor).
Phil Roos started the small boutique Arbor Strategy Group in 1998. After years of rapid growth, the company merged in 2008 with GfK, which has an international presence. Roos had purchased NPW from Robert McMath, marketing veteran and author of “What Were They Thinking,”; a book about product development.
Today, the Ann Arbor GfK office works with major brands all over the country to develop new products and services, revitalize ailing brands, find new markets, design new packaging.
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
She gives the example of sun care products. The trend a number of years ago was to increase the SPF.
“There were SPF wars,” Lawrence said. “But you can only go so far. If you’re at 100, 110 doesn’t make much difference.”
That’s when sun protection went toward a new direction: Convenience. By looking at other products whose delivery systems were more advanced - hair spray and house paint, for example - it was logical that the next big thing for sunscreen was the continuous spray containers now on the market.
The NPW collection helps companies track trends and then offers inspiration when they are adding or changing products, Lawrence said.
“It is the heart of the process of finding innovation. It’s a living, growing collection of innovation.”
Each day, Sherry goes shopping to build the collection, adding about 400 new products a month. She looks for products that have a “bonus benefit,” such as the Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen package with a nickel-size mirror on the front.
She buys what catches her eye: The sleek and modern packaging from the Method brand of house and body care products. She watches for repositioning, when the same product is marketed a new way, such as the “space saver” packaging of Scott napkins. And the different: Dessert pizza from Bove’s.
Sherry also has buyers around the world, focusing on the Asian markets. That’s how she got Ice Cucumber Pepsi from Japan and a packet of gum, also from Japan, that has a small reserve on the top for chewed pieces.
“We look to Asian countries because they have short product lifecycles,” Sherry said. “Their consumers have a high need for novelty, even more than here.”