Instant Innovation: Just Add Fluency

This Summer I was lucky enough to travel to Singapore for the first time. I asked my 10-year-old son if there was anything he wanted me to bring back for him from Asia. He answered immediately: “ramen”. One cheap packet of supermarket noodles was as alluring to him as any videogame collectable.

Especially for young people, instant ramen is the snack that fuels the world. The inventor of the instant noodle, Nissin founder Momofuku Ando, is a heroic business figure. In Japan he has his own museum and was the star of a top-selling “business manga”, a comic adapting the Cup Noodle story.

The story of Ando’s invention of instant noodles – and their rise to prominence as a global snack – combines scientific curiosity and savvy marketing. To make the noodles work required scientific inspiration. To make them a worldwide hit, they needed to feel familiar to audiences unused to noodle bowls. This combination – of the startlingly new and the highly familiar – is the essence of what we call Fluent Innovation.

Let’s quickly recap what Fluent Innovation is – in the time it takes to prepare a hot cup of noodles…

Fluent Innovation is the principle that underlies successful commercial innovation. Because human beings make decisions using their fast, intuitive System 1 mode of thinking, marketers have to pitch innovation to appeal to System 1. And System 1 is a pattern recognition machine – in the words of behavioural scientist Gerd Gigerenzer, we have a “gut liking for the familiar”.

So one of our most fundamental decision-making short cuts is called the Processing Fluency Heuristic. It works like this: if we recognise something quickly, it feels like a good choice.

That means you can’t assume people will take the time to understand amazing new ideas. First you have to make them feel familiar to System 1. In other words, they have to be Fluent.

So Fluent Innovation is innovation which makes a great new idea easy and quick to recognise and process. At System1 Research, we think the sweet spot is around 80% familiar, 20% new. And it turns out that when you recalibrate concept testing to include Fluency metrics – as we just did with our Predictive Markets system – it becomes even more predictive of profitable launches.

That’s Fluent Innovation. And now your Cup Noodle is ready, let’s see how Fluent Innovation relates to instant ramen…

The technical innovation behind instant ramen took Ando a year of trial and error. In the end he hit on the flash-frying method after seeing his wife making tempura, and watching how the hot oil pushed the moisture out of the flour she used. Ando borrowed the method for his instant ramen idea, and discovered that flash-frying left the noodles perfectly preserved with a long shelf life.

That moment of inspiration is something a lot of Fluent Innovation has in common – you borrow an idea from a different process (tempura instead of noodles, in this case) and hit on something new.

Ando’s new product was a Japanese hit. Ramen is a much-loved Japanese staple food, so the concept was already Fluent, and the instant noodles became a sensation as Japan’s economic boom started to crank up and with it the need for quick, tasty food.

But what about marketing the noodles in America, where ramen was unknown? Fluent Innovation was urgently required!

In 1966 Ando travelled to the US to scout out the market for ramen. At the demonstration, he saw the American executives transfer the hot noodles from bowls to the paper coffee cups they’d been using. They consumed it from the cups, like hot soup (although they used forks!).

This was the Fluency breakthrough Ando was looking for. Ramen bowls were hardly known at the time in the US. Hot soup in mugs and cups was common. By packaging his noodles in a cup not a bowl, Ando would instantly signal to buyers that this was a kind of hot snack food.

Cup Noodles were a great success – in the USA, Europe and all round the world. The power of Fluent Innovation – that mix of the familiar and the new – meant that a great Asian innovation became a global snack food. And Momofuku Ando became a hero

Written by Tom Ewing, Director of Communications at System1

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