In the Wall Street Journal, a puzzling question blazed as a headline: “Is Innovation Killing the Soap Business?” There is an interesting thing happening in the soap industry. In early 2012, Tide® Pods™ were introduced. In a press release, this bold statement was made by P&G:

“In a world where innovation and technology are constantly changing the way we live, one facet of daily life has remained relatively untouched for more than five decades. Since the introduction of liquid laundry detergent in the 1980’s, there has not been a fundamental shift in how people do laundry. Procter & Gamble is determined to change that with the introduction of new Tide® Pods™.”

Tide PodsAll true. Innovation is unfolding in an industry essentially unchanged. The innovation is pre-measured detergent. In other words, with the pods, customers put in an exact amount. We cannot overfill the dispenser with liquid since it is encapsulated.

So what is the issue? “Total U.S. sales of laundry detergents fell 2.1%,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Although P&G benefits, competitors do not. In fact, James Craigie, the chief executive of Church & Dwight Co., puts the blame squarely on P&G: “Pod is killing the laundry detergent category.”

From P&G’s perspective, they have delivered an innovative solution that helps their customers get the “perfect dose” to put in their washing machine. Waste is eliminated, and convenience is enhanced. An industry result is less laundry detergent flowing since less is used.

This story raises an interesting question – Does innovation go too far at times?

There seems to be a simple test centered on the old principle of “do no harm.” But there is a twist to it. The twist is: Do no harm to people, communities, society, animals, environment, etc. Would revenue be included in this list? Probably not.

P&G is gaining greater customer loyalty, I would guess, with this product. They are definitely solidifying their market position. Competitors are hurt, but that’s competition. One firm innovates well; others do not.

Earlier, there were concerns about the Tide Pods. Children were mistaking the pods for candy and eating them. The result was illness. P&G responded with warnings and promised safety lids for the containers. This issue seems to have passed, but there was some harm with the innovation. However, it was quickly addressed and awareness raised.

Innovation: Harm vs. Good

We believe innovation is good, and most of it is. We can argue about too much innovation in weaponry. We can disagree on whether or not all technological advancements delivered real human and societal value. We can discuss the usefulness of all the varieties of medication available and if having a pill for everything is good thing. However we view innovation, we continue to tap our creativity and offer new and improved things.

Competitors complaining is just whining. Innovation being adopted is winning. Right?

As consumers and citizens, we may need to pause and ask: Is innovation going too far? If the answer is “yes,” then do we just choose to opt out? How can innovation be stopped? It doesn’t seem possible. Innovation seems to be a part of our DNA.

The “do no harm” test is a valid one to consider as we continue to innovate. The test needs to be placed in the right areas of our society though. There is a difference between competitive harm and societal harm.

A Weekend Challenge

This weekend, as you drive around town, identify the innovative good things you see. When you are using your digital device, ask what value you have you gained. Think about the last ten years and wonder how better off you really are. What difference has innovation made in your life?

 Look. Think. Wonder. Does innovation go too far at times? Add your answer and insights below.