VP and CTO Sanjeev Agrawal explains that at Crompton innovation is a continuous process by virtue of a culture of curiosity and intense consumer immersion. An R&D veteran of the Indian consumer electricals industry, Agrawal believes that innovation thinking should become part of the culture of organisations that wish to be future ready. He spearheads innovation management and new product design and development at Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals Limited.
Market leaders in any category may have great R&D, but not all of them stand out in terms of superior products and acceptability. Who wins the acceptability race?
Every company deploys innovations, a go-to-market strategy, and brand equity in its quest for acceptability. It is the mix of the three that determines how well a company’s products will get accepted.
But ultimately the consumer is king. How well we know who our consumers are and what their needs are, is what brings acceptability. Consumers will prefer our products based on their experience during purchase and after use. Organisations that understand consumer need and translate these needs into innovative solutions with technology, are the successful ones.
But that’s not enough. Often there are unmet needs, simply because at times consumers are unaware of what they need. The companies that go the extra mile to figure out these unmet needs are the ones that eventually win. These companies immerse themselves among the consumers, visit their homes to see how they handle and use a product, and repeatedly validate their ideas about innovating a category.
At Crompton, we have been doing this for long. Since our motto is ‘make life meaningful’, we want to make sure that every product we develop adds value to our customer’s lives in a genuine way. Therefore, validation of ideas is important. Our new product development (NPD) always starts with consumer immersion. The NPD teams spend 2-3 days each month interacting with customers, be it at their homes, in groups or at marketplaces. We observe their actions and prepare solutions, validate the learnings with working prototypes, and do consumer testing before hitting the market. This enables us to develop solutions that are not only good but also transform the user’s life.
Are there other touchpoints for consumer immersion?
Yes, there are several touchpoints. For instance, within the marketing function, we have product marketing professionals and those who study consumer buying behaviour. Others focus on understanding how the consumer got to know about Crompton, how many times our brand was searched in the digital space, and the kind of interaction – feedback, comments, reviews, etc – that is happening on social media around the brand. All these data points become inputs for product development.
We also interact with technicians to know the problems they face while installing and servicing various product categories. By listening to them we develop products that are not only consumer-friendly but installer-friendly too.
At Crompton, the NPD process covers all touch points – consumer, service, marketing, technology, business, and manufacturing. From new requirements to specifications, from product to the launch document, consumer interaction happens at each stage for continuous validation.
At Crompton, is innovation limited to new product development or are there other aspects too?
No, innovation is not limited to new product development or category development. At Crompton, innovation encompasses product development, improvement, product launch, consumer experience, and even business models.
The Crompton Exclusive Studio is a telling example of innovation other than in products. Through a new approach towards selling kitchen appliances, we have innovated the way products are launched, experiences are delivered to customers, and channel partners are empowered. And the best part is that these studios have become places for consumer immersion as well, in a kind of non-ending loop of sales and feedback.
Many times innovation becomes important from the sustainability point of view. Take energy efficiency. A few years back the BLDC motor emerged as an innovation to make fans energy efficient. Later, the government made BEE star rating mandatory for fans, compelling everyone to use energy-saving motors. What was earlier an innovation has become an industry standard.
Over the last year, we have moved approximately 70 per cent of our fan range to the energy-efficient category. Approximately one-third of Indian houses use Crompton fans. As market leaders, we know ‘air’ and how to manage it, and so we managed the transition quickly.
This understanding also enabled us to solve unmet needs in the kitchen space. With respect to the chimney, the need was for higher circulation and lower sound levels. We led the shift to energy saving and extra powerful inverter motors in the chimney and redesigned its internal structure to significantly reduce the noise level.
In the water heaters category too, we have done our in-sighting for making them energy-efficient and faster in heating. A new feature, the baby care mode, which is IMA certified, has been developed with the understanding that sensitive skin requires optimum water temperatures.
Is the culture of innovation a recent development at Crompton, considering that we are getting to see a spate of innovations from the company?
Traditionally we have been a strong knowledge-based and robust brand, and that legacy continues. We are a 75-year-old brand, but as a company, we are a seven-year-old start-up. We de-merged from our parent in 2015 and started as a separate entity with a very professional and passionate management. But innovation has been a part of our culture and a continuous process.
In our new avatar, we have synthesised our knowledge with new management and competencies. As a first step, we have built a state-of-the-art R&D centre, in Mumbai, and have a set of bright minds working with us. Along with this, we have acquired new competencies that are needed to make us future-ready. We use simulation software and have world-class equipment.
At Crompton, we have developed a culture of innovation that promotes curiosity and a mindset for doing something new. We have ongoing programs and contests to foster common innovation thinking.
Our recently launched built-in appliances category is an outcome of this innovation approach. It features several consumer-centric innovations – gesture control for chimney motor speed, auto-on for the chimney, intelligent auto-clean for the chimney filter, timer control and flame failure device for the hob. We have filed three patents in this category.
Similarly, we have developed our own IoT platform, and already have 10 internet-connected products out in the market. Based on this platform, the Crompton Home mobile app enables users to remotely operate and schedule fans, lights, water heaters, coolers etc.
Apart from fostering internal innovation we also work with external networks. We recognise the fact that as an organisation we cannot work in isolation as far as new developments are concerned. Therefore, we collaborate with educational institutes, start-ups, and innovation-driven organisations. We partner with them to develop technologies in areas where we traditionally do not have core competencies.
What are the considerations that are going to play a bigger role in consumer electronics in the coming times?
The key area that we are focusing upon, and which is equally important from the consumers’ point of view, is sustainability. This includes energy efficiency and green packaging i.e., recyclable materials. We are also focusing on health and well-being, to develop products that can make the lives of consumers comfortable and meaningful. Our efforts in making fans and chimneys quieter are steps in this direction. We believe that these are going to be the most significant considerations in the field of consumer electronics from the consumers’ point of view. And this understanding, let me tell you, has come from our close interaction with architects and designers, who are often the first line of advice for the consumers.
How are you positioned in terms of R&D vis-à-vis the global leaders operating in India?
Being an Indian company, working in the Indian environment and understanding Indian consumers, we have a strong legacy. Over the last eight years, our understanding of the consumer has only increased, by virtue of an incessant focus on consumer immersion. To top it all, our technological prowess in certain categories – air management and light management – is much superior as compared to that of our peers.
Having said that, I do recognise the fact that global leaders will pose a challenge to us in many spheres. But we are confident and continuously upgrading ourselves in terms of technology, consumer insights and infrastructure to deliver superior solutions.
Will tech-driven appliances become economical for Indian consumers, or will they remain an option for the premium segment? What kind of smartness quotient do you see developing in appliances?
In my view, smart products will become available for each market segment as the cost of technology comes down. This has happened with the LED bulb and BLDC motor. As for the kitchen segment, we anticipate that there will be varied segments based on experiences – luxury, premium, mass premium, and superlative performance segment with smart connectivity. There will be a cost attached to ownership in each segment.
I believe we will start to see appliances becoming smart with increased application of Artificial Intelligence. It would not be uncommon to have appliances that can program themselves, harvest energy, and predict their status of health, maintenance, and performance.