Are Kitchen Appliance Makers Toast?

Kitchen Appliance Product Innovation

Not if they embrace the true potential of human-centric product innovation and smart, connected technology.

Like many product companies, those who make kitchen appliances—refrigerators, ranges, ovens—are rushing to make them smart and connected. It makes sense: digital technology is both a disruptor and an opportunity for “old economy” companies such as these; they are worried about losing share to upstarts like June and salivating over new software-like business models.  But I worry they are going about this transformation the wrong way. And their very survival may hang in the balance.

From what I’ve observed, most appliance companies are integrating smart, connected technology in order to make storing and cooking of food (what their products do today) faster and more convenient: Whirlpool’s Scan-to-Cook automatically sets up your oven for your TV dinner and GE let’s you preheat the oven with your voice, and Amazon Dash Button integration makes replenishment a snap. Any why not? Many of us don’t have time to cook and wish it were simpler.

But if the “job to be done” is putting a freshly prepared, healthy meal on the table, one has to ask if appliance companies can win this race. They are in it against a broad host of competitors—from Amazon to Uber to Martha Stewart to restaurant chains. And these companies will be using a vast array of sophisticated technologies—automated food production, self-driving cars, robots, big data, massive supply chains, and even drones—to make it possible for the lazy among us to get a fresh cooked meal on our tables at the touch of a button. In such a world, will anyone need a smart oven?

Ånd yet there are many other product innovation opportunities open to appliance makers. To see them, companies will need to shift their perspective from technology-centric to human-centric. Asking, “How do I integrate smart, connected technology?” leads them down a path of convenience and automation for today’s “jobs to be done”. Instead, they need to ask, “What else are people trying to accomplish that we have permission to help them with?” Quite a lot. Our values around food, eating, home and family are shifting and appliance makers have a place at the emotional epicenter of our home lives: the kitchen. By looking for unmet and evolving human needs that intersect with the kitchen, appliance makers can find inspiring new ground for smart, connected product innovation. Here are a few “kitchen intersections” in which appliance makers should be placing innovation bets:

Kitchen and Creativity

Appliances are for cooking, so cater to those who want to do it the most, not those who want to do it the least. Millennials are cooking at home more, and are known to have an “I want to do” attitude. So smart appliances don’t need to just be about making cooking easy, but making it easier to express creativity through cooking. Instead of ovens that watch food to cook it perfectly, how about ovens that watch food to give you feedback on what you did right or wrong? Or make a subtle suggestion of new techniques to try? How about a “Peloton Stove Top” that connects you to the greatest cooking classes in the world for you to follow along from home? For millennials who are showing a greater interest in making and learning “real skills”, this reframe could hook into a powerful and growing trend.

Kitchen and Family

Those of us with kids understand that increasingly, there’s only one room in the house: the kitchen. It’s where we eat together, cook together, play together and learn together. Why shouldn’t appliance companies—whom we have already invited into this inner circle—define their purpose around making the kitchen the center of family life? Samsung has decided to make its connected fridge a “Family Hub”, but there’s plenty of room for more. How about refrigerators that help us teach our kids about healthy eating or stove tops and ovens that help us teach them to cook? What about a counter top designed for family games or homework tutoring? It’s hard to imagine appliances aspiring to a more meaningful role in customers’ lives.

Kitchen and Entertaining

Not only are kitchen’s where we grow our families, but they are where we welcome and feed guests. How often does a gathering never leave the kitchen? The old, formal lines of server and guests are blurring as we chat, cook and consume together. Why shouldn’t the kitchen and its appliances be designed to support this ritual? Could an oven offer more compartments and individualized control (from smartphones?) so that guests could cook their own hors d’oeuvres together? How about a smart bar that allowed guests to make drinks for one another? Or a refrigerator that recognized when a guest brought something for the party and sent a funny thank you text in response? May Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” By embracing the philosophy of hospitality, appliance makers have the opportunity to draw themselves even closer to the center of their customers’ lives.

Kitchen and Earth

New technologies, cultural trends and scientific discoveries are reframing peoples’ relationship with food. Many of us believe how we buy, consume and dispose of food are moral, not just practical, choices. So why should appliance makers restrict themselves to the storage and cooking of food? Why not growing and disposal too? Whirlpool’s Zera is already an ambitious move into the composting space and a number of startups are toying with how to make gardening more accessible. But it’s not hard to imagine a future in which garage space—now empty because the self-driving car is out ferrying passengers around—becomes integrated with the kitchen and becomes a home farm, all monitored and controlled with smart, connected technologies. Appliance companies have a right to play in this new future and should be placing bets now.

Smart, connected technologies offer huge opportunity for product innovation. But the obvious path they afford—monitor, control, and automate the jobs products already do today—may not be the best path. As the same technologies shift competitive landscapes, new entrants may be better positioned than incumbents to do those jobs. But if incumbents can reframe their purpose around the meaning and value they bring to people—and not around the products they make—huge new opportunities for product innovation emerge. Kitchen appliance companies may have to make this pivot if they don’t want their goose to get cooked.

For more on the future of smart connected, check out our recent hangout webinar how “Smart Connected Product Design: What Works & Why?”.

Dan Ostrower

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Dan Ostrower

CEO