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2.3 The significance of 'need'

I started this section with a reference to needs and I want to return to this now. There was no explicitly stated 'need' for a kettle made of plastic or a kettle shaped like a jug. Even if a manufacturer had undertaken comprehensive research using questionnaires, interviews, or brainstorming sessions I doubt whether it would have come up with a brief for a plastic jug kettle. My point is that successful innovation is not necessarily directed by needs. The innovative plastic kettle was a result of:

  • the availability of new polymer materials;

  • the development of techniques for forming these new polymers;

  • the emergence of cheap manufacturing capacity in the UK and overseas;

  • the growth of the component industry;

  • changes in retailing which made cheap consumer products widely available;

  • growing consumer affluence which allowed increased spending on the home and domestic products;

  • changes in attitude to the material culture which enabled people to consider previously valuable household tools as disposable items.

Yes, the plastic kettle was partly concerned with needs: the need to boil water safely and cheaply; the need for status associated with modern consumer products; and the need for novelty; but it would be wrong to view innovation as merely a response to market needs. Given the above conditions, if it was possible to produce a working plastic kettle, someone was going to try it. The style of the jug kettle was key to the success of the plastic kettle, but we should not overlook the fact that the technical issues associated with its manufacture in plastic and its jug form were difficult and complex.

Another lesson is that functionally superior products will not necessarily win in any given market. It is also salutary to observe that being first in a new market is a perilous business. Often it is not the pioneers that posterity remembers, but the people who came afterwards and who are probably the first to enjoy commercial success.

Exercise 2

You are going to undertake some simple product analysis.

Make two lists on a piece of paper in two vertical columns. With reference to a plastic kettle that you are familiar with, write down as many of its good points or qualities as you can think of in one column. In the other column write down all the weaknesses or faults of which you have become aware. These are good and bad points as you have experienced them: you needn't try to think of the issues concerning manufacture or marketing. You may want to use some of the positive and negative points I have raised in the discussion in order to start you off.


You may have offered any of the points shown in Table 1. The items in my list are only suggestions: you may not agree with many of them. The important thing we're looking at is your perception of the product.

Table 1
Good pointsBad points
Cheap to purchaseDifficult to clean
Easy to fillHot to hold or steam escapes onto hand
Easy to pourDifficult to grip
Easy to judge the amount of water in the kettleHeavy
Easy to cleanDifficult to fill
Available in colours which suit my environment (home or work)Difficult to pour
Can be repaired if necessaryDifficult to judge the amount of water in the kettle
Nice to have on displayDifficult or impossible to repair
Seems safePoor image – I don't like it on display Unstable
Seems unsafe