Colgate-Palmolive on 2021 design-led innovation: ‘This is a huge change in our approach’, says tech chief

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Colgate-Palmolive innovation teams are now being given 'elevated' autonomy and access to a range of tools, including trend insights, AI and market validation methods (Getty Images)
Colgate-Palmolive innovation teams are now being given 'elevated' autonomy and access to a range of tools, including trend insights, AI and market validation methods (Getty Images)

Related tags Colgate-palmolive Oral care skin microbiome R&D Innovation Sustainability New product development

Personal care giant Colgate-Palmolive is shifting away from traditional line extensions, taking a design-led innovation approach that considers user experience and trends from start-to-finish, with teams focused on opportunities in active oral care, the skin microbiome and sustainability, says its chief technology officer.

This insight comes after Colgate-Palmolive reported a net sales rise for the fourth quarter (Q4) and full year of 2020​ earlier this month, driven by significant Q4 growth in Europe.

Colgate-Palmolive targeting ‘breakthrough and disruptive’ design-led innovation

Addressing attendees at the online Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) 2021 conference held a few weeks back, Noel Wallace, chairman, president and CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, said whilst growth had been strong in 2020, the company was now focused on navigating out of the COVID-19 crisis.

“How are we expecting to maintain our momentum in 2021 when the COVID tailwinds potentially become headwinds? First, we need to accelerate our efforts to deliver breakthrough and disruptive innovation. The key to driving category growth, which we think is the best way to drive market share, is accelerating the transformation of our innovation process,”​ Wallace said.

And Pat Verduin PhD, chief technology officer of Colgate-Palmolive, said this process had already begun as the company transitioned towards more “design-led innovation” ​and lightened more traditional line extension efforts.

“Design-led innovation seems like a simple statement, but it is a huge change in our approach to innovation,” ​Verduin said.

‘Elevated’ teams with access to data, trends and market validation tools

“In the past, our product development efforts were led by R&D and, as a result, we had this kind of one-dimensional formula solution for every problem. Even our packaging was developed post-formulation,” ​she said. “Today, we’ve changed our approach completely. Our design and user experience team is involved from the beginning, helping us develop a well-rounded product that fits our brand purpose and delivers a great user experience.”

These teams were being given “elevated”​ autonomy, she said, and access to analytics, trend insights, artificial intelligence (AI) tools and market validation methods for each innovation project, she said.

And whilst there were “more unknowns” ​with this innovation approach, she said the pay-off was more significant – driving immediate and long-term incremental growth. “As we move from line extensions to transformative innovations, things become a lot fuzzier; less predictable. Attributes on products and packages and messages that we sometimes think are so important can fall flat with consumers, so we learn to pick these things up quicker and adjust on the fly.”

Oraceuticals, skin microbiome and sustainability key innovation areas

Verduin said design-led innovation results could already be seen in most of Colgate-Palmolive’s recent launches, notably in the field of ‘oraceuticals’ or active oral care.

“We know consumers are open to new experiences and benefits for their skin health, our goal is to extend this behaviour to their oral health. To do this, we needed to elevate the entire product bundle beyond a functional toothpaste,”​ she said.

This manifested itself in the China launch of Colgate’s Miracle Repair gum serum, she said, made with concentrated amino acid; also its latest line launch CO. By Colgate that offered a “wide range of beauty-like offerings for your teeth and your gums”.

The launch of Colgate’s advanced ayurvedic toothpaste developed for diabetic consumers in India and its Optic White Overnight stick in the US were two other examples of design-led innovation, she said.

In the skin care space, Verduin said Colgate-Palmolive had incorporated skin microbiome learnings into product development, such as for the creation of the Elta MD skin recover system made using a patented amino acid complex to help repair and protect damage skin faster and the Sanex Biomeprotect launch, incorporating a proprietary prebiotic complex to help skin stay in healthy balance.

Sustainability also remained a leading topic for innovation, she said, with efforts being made on the ingredients and packaging side. The company’s recyclable toothpaste tube, launched initially under Tom’s of Maine in the US, was a strong example of this, she said.

“…The innovations we create need to delight our consumers, but they also need to enhance the tremendous amount of trust and loyalty given to Colgate. Eye-catching designs, terrific product performance and wonderful user experiences have to be embedded into each innovation. We are far more discriminating about what innovations we choose to prioritise.”

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