Whether you’re inventing teabags or nail polish, innovations that solve actual problems make more common sense to consumers than “bright ideas” that “assume” a problem.

Whether you’re inventing teabags or nail polish, innovations that solve actual problems make more common sense and intuitive sense to consumers than “bright ideas” that “assume” a problem.

How come similar product ideas can have extremely different consumer acceptance?

A retrospective analysis of an ordinary product that many people’s lives daily (the teabag) with a more recent concept-based product (the coffee single bag) shows a big difference both in how these products were developed and how consumers reacted to them. If you look at this case in the broader context of how new products originate, then you begin to see that the acceptance of products that solve a real problem for customers tends to be much easier than for “bright idea” products that solve a problem that marketers and product development managers assume exists.

New product innovations: Solving problems versus purely new concepts

Lets look at how teabags and coffee bags came about in the first place as a way to get some insight.

Teabags were “innovated” to help customers solve a problem. In 1904, Thomas Sullivan, who was in the tea business, was look for ways to meet the requests of his customers to provide them with tea samples, which restaurants could choose from before they placed orders for tea. To facilitate this, tea leaves were packed and sewed into small silk bags (rather than the usual bulk leaf form) with instructions to slit open the bag, take out the tea leaves, put the leaves into one of those metal sieves and brew.

What happened next was that busy customers, instead of opening the bags, found that it was faster and less messy to just throw the bag into a cup or pot and then pour boiling water directly over it and let it sit and brew. This also enabled easy and fast disposal, and eliminated the need to wash a cumbersome and high-maintenance metal tea sieve container. Tea bags also exploited the simple mechanism of flavor development in tea, because the bag allowed boiling water to permeate the leaves and extract their color and flavor into the surrounding water, while containing the messy leaves.

This innovation, which solved three problems — no more messy leaves, the elimination of a complex brewing process and a form for easy disposal — made it relatively easy to mass market teabags to consumers as a hassle-free product.

In contrast, coffee bags were developed about one hundred years later, primarily as a creative, convenient new form of coffee for consumers on the go. But this “innovation” entered the marketplace after consumers already had a number of existing solutions to meet their need for “convenient coffee,” including instant coffee powder, coffee at any coffee stand or store, coffee machines at work and inexpensive coffee makers at home. As a result, coffee bags experienced a low level of adoption by consumers.

Innovation analysis

By understanding how the product originated, the so-called “innovation opportunity” and linking that to the way that the product actually delivers its benefit, one can quickly see that tea bags are quite different from coffee single bags in terms of innovation:

Product Natural Form and Flavor Mechanism Bag Form Inventions Innovation opportunity
Tea Leaves from tea bush. Color and flavor develop quickly in boiling water. 1908 – woven silk bag

1952 – paper/nonwoven

Customer used bag to solve a problem – toss right into boiling water – less messy, faster.
Coffee Beans from fruit of tree. Color and flavor only after roasting and brewing long time at higher temperature. 1990s – special formulation in a bag so that coffee can brew in boiling water. Single cup serving based on creative concept, targeted focus group interviews.


People often ask why it’s so hard for new product ideas to be accepted? An answer based on innovation analysis is “Who asked for your new bright idea?” and “Does it solve a problem or deliver a real benefit compared to existing products or solutions?” Often, when it comes to new products, just being new isn’t good enough.

© 2004 Dr. Ali Alwattari