What Green Innovators Can Learn From Luxury Toilets

Kohler's Numi toilet in action

This article first appeared in Huffington Post By: Marc Stoiber

I’m a creative director with a passion for innovation, brands and sustainability. When I write, it tends to be on topics that touch on all three. It’s a fascinating space, with no shortage of inspiration.

So I was a bit surprised to get a note a few weeks back asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece on Kohler’s Numi toilet.

At first blush, the Numi is not the sort of innovation that sparks my interest. It’s a piece of ‘bells and whistles’ technology (motion activated seat and music, anyone?) at a price that would make the everyman blanch. When it comes to pushing innovation forward, I can’t help but think there are better things Kohler could focus on. (In fact, Kohler products like the DTV Prompt feel like a real step forward for consumers, the environment, and innovation-seekers).

Nonetheless, I rang Matt Rolandson of Ammunition, the design firm responsible for the positioning strategy and communications campaign on the Numi project.  I’m happy to say the conversation was an eye-opener.

Wake Up, So-Called Innovation Thinker

To my surprise, Matt agreed the Numi was completely out of sync with the prevailing zeitgeist of conscious consumption. He even pointed out the hilarious Conan O’Brien take on the toilet’s unapologetic excess.

But when we dug deeper into the worldview of the prospective buyer, I realized I’d neglected to consider the psyche of someone completely outside my sphere of reference. My thinking was, in innovation parlance, stuck inside the jar.

The Numi buyer was an Asian magnate, Russian business oligarch, Saudi prince or wealthy wannabe. He was rich, and wanted an ostentatious reflection of his success. The Numi provided that in spades, at a fraction of the cost of a new Bugatti.

Did this person feel a pang of conscience installing a Numi in every bathroom? Of course not.

Did we, the folks looking over the fence, begrudge him the purchase? Maybe. But as Matt pointed out, the favorite films of the Great Depression were big, glitzy and glamorous. And today, the Robb Report sells briskly to folks who definitely don’t fit the millionaire model.

A Parallel For Conscious Consumers

Learning about the Numi was a refreshing wakeup call. It also gave me new perspective on marketing to consumers in my sphere of expertise.

It appears there are more than a few of us thinking inside the green jar. OgilvyEarth recently released an enlightening study on the chasm between green products and prospective consumers. It identified several walls marketers continue to run up against in their bid to sell green.

These walls illustrate that consumers are complex, contradictory, and not moved to action simply because their future is threatened.

Perhaps we could all use a perspective shift to get a fresh take on what makes these consumers tick.

Lessons To Be Learned

So what are the takeaways from my Numi experience – apart from gaining a newfound appreciation for disappearing bidets and illuminated toilet remote controls?

  1. Thinking inside the jar is severely limiting, and can blind you to opportunities. If you can’t see the merit in a potential innovation, it pays to engage someone whose thinking doesn’t immediately line up with your own.
  2. Not every innovation needs to redefine a category. The Numi is a toilet with an incredible array of superfluous gadgets. It’s an incremental innovation at best. But for its market, it fills a need perfectly.
  3. Lessons learned in one context can bring a breath of fresh air to another. Learning about the Numi and its target consumer enabled me to step back and question whether the conscious consumer can be as neatly packaged as many green marketers believe.
  4. Start with an insight. Creating the best green innovation that doesn’t solve a real, universal problem is pointless. Make sure you’re solving for a pain point that is real, and for a pain point that many people have.
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