Our very own Giles Lury’s newest book “Inspiring Innovation” has been published this month.  To share the inspiration, we’ve been revisiting some of favourite innovations old & new from our Best Thing Since Sliced Bread blog series.

Don’t get me wrong I’m a big fan of food, but an even bigger fan of the future. Every innovation, whether it is a small leap or a radical change brings me closer to the dream of living in the future. So when the idea of Huel; a powdered, nutritionally complete food that just requires the addition of water came along, I was intrigued.

Then when the Christmas Holiday finished and I was a little bored of gorging on incredible food, I decided it was the perfect time to give it a go. I bought two bags, and threw myself in at the deep end – two of my three daily meals for the next month would be made of three scoops in 500ml of water.

I ate healthily prior to my month long trial, so I didn’t have any changes in weight or energy levels. Where my life did change was in time. It gave me an additional 20 minutes every morning, and an hour every evening. The taste got boring around a week and a half in.

But the most interesting discovery was in understanding the way my relationship with choice changed. Two of my daily meals became entirely functional and were free from choice. No longer did I have to plan my weekly shop and guess what I felt like eating on a Tuesday night. No longer did I have to make a range of micro decisions that contributed to the quality of my meals. It was blissfully liberating. Boring, but blissful nonetheless.

This, as it turns out, is a psychological phenomenon called ‘voluntary simplicity’ and has profound impact on brands at Shelf Level. At the turn of the millennium two psychologists set up a display table for jam. On the first day, 24 jams were displayed, on the second only six were presented. While the larger display attracted more interest, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.

If my month of Huel could offer any learnings to the FMCG brands of the world, it would be to play to simplify choice in the consumers mind for a competitive advantage. How? By effectively targeting a niche lifestyle, and build products that appeal directly to that niche. That way, you give consumers ‘voluntary simplicity’, as very few brands can meet how well you cater to their idiosyncratic needs.

Instead of trying to stand out in a wider field, your brand begins to compete as part of a ‘meaningful handful’; a small selection of brands that best fit with the lifestyle desires of a niche group. Then winning within this handful of brands becomes even easier by playing to a highly specific occasion that is directly relevant to that target group.

Take Ugly Drinks as an example. They have carved out a focus on consumers looking for a truly nutritional products, and within that, took ownership of being the healthy alternative to the 3PM diet coke or coffee. As the brand gears up for a US launch in the spring, it seems clear that something is going right.

Even bigger brands with bigger targets can do this. Not only does it focus on taste aficionados (a niche lifestyle), it focuses on the importance of base ingredients to foodies when preparing a ‘big dish’ (a niche occasion within this niche lifestyle).

Key learning: my month with Huel actually taught me something; in the world of infinite choice, brands that champion a niche group of consumers and a specific occasion they face with can win not just on-shelf, but on brand affinity.

BY ENGINEER Oliver Ronaldson

oliver.ronaldson@thevalueengineers.com