Slinkys, Viagra, and Coke: You Did What with That?

Slinkys, Viagra, and Coke. Mention these three items out loud at the office or in an airport lounge, and you might be rewarded with an awkward glance or two. Mention them on the internet, and you
 might find that they share an interesting back story. While that story is not as sexy as the title of this article might imply, it is interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless.

A Functional Purpose

When considering which experiences they could offer that would add value to a customer’s life, organizations often think about a product or service’s purpose outside of enterprise-wide, identity-setting activities. Some questions an organization might consider include:

/  What does my product do?

/  What problem does my product solve?

/  Why would someone choose my product over another?

Generic questions lead to generic answers. While this initial exercise – which helps the organization define the strategy and purpose behind a product or service – is useful, it is not
 always reflective of truth and reality. When freed from organizational assumptions, engineers’ factory floors, middle managers’ spreadsheets, and designers’ dreams, a product is no longer defined by this strategy and purpose, but is instead defined by the use and function a consumer chooses to give it. 
A good product is one with a purpose that aligns with its function, meaning that the organization understood its consumers and created a purposeful product that met their functional needs. As you may have guessed by now, our three titular protagonists – Slinkys, Viagra, and Coke – were initially misunderstood by their creators and suffered from purpose and function misalignment.

/  Slinkys were originally intended to act as stabilizing bases for naval instruments, until someone discovered a naval instrument is no match for stairs.

/  Viagra was intended to help with heart disease symptom management, until it became apparent that the drug created manageable symptoms for
men with erectile dysfunction.

/  Coca-Cola was originally created as a pharmaceutical product to help with headaches, indigestion, and other ailments, until a more lucrative opportunity presented itself.

Product strategy and purpose don’t matter if a consumer doesn’t derive value from the product’s function. Good products have purposes that align with their function – but great products have functional purpose. 
Now, for the 21st-century modernists out there, here is an additional example: IKEA.

IKEA Hackers

Though the blue and yellow Swedish manufacturing titan needs
 no introduction, the small group of crafty fringe fans – who get more from the company than standardized shelving units and cheap meatballs – might. A well-established IKEA subculture, the 
online IKEA Hackers community is composed of individuals who 
– you guessed it – hack IKEA furniture. While it might sound
 a little strange, this digital community is quite ingenious and practical. IKEA hackers re-engineer, modify, repurpose, embellish, and share IKEA furniture hacks, creating function and deriving value from a FRAKTA, a BILLY, or a MALM that might not have existed otherwise. 
Ironically, the company known for its savvy marketing techniques served the founder of the IKEA Hackers site with a cease and desist letter in 2014, citing trademark violation. Thankfully for hackers and IKEA fans worldwide, digital outcry swiftly followed, IKEA retracted their cease and desist, and IKEA hackers continued creating new functions for the company’s products. 
Generations of newly minted young adults, as well as budget-conscious shoppers of all ages, would likely agree that IKEA offers great-looking and accessible products for an attractive price. However, it also sells an experience – albeit a sometimes frustrating one. From its carefully designed showrooms to its digital style guides and DIY furniture assembly, IKEA instills in its consumers a sense of guided creation.

The ritualistic manner by which the store’s nearly one billion annual visitors walk through showrooms, pick out styles, and then build their own furniture can only lead to creativity, tinkering, and playful modifications. IKEA hackers derive and share a functional value that falls outside of the product’s stated purpose.

Here are a few more examples of products with multifunctional purposes, for the skeptics out there:

/ Dishwashers and their double lives: used to steam fish.

/ Whipped cream junkies: used as a means to get high off nitrous oxide.

/ Vinegar vs. germs: used as a cleaning solution.

/ Boots and bar tricks: used as a means to remove a cork from a bottle of wine.

/ McDonald’s and the tourist: used for public restrooms and free wifi.

Purpose, Function, and You

In a world where purpose is playing a larger role than ever before – thank you, millennials – organizations should seek to create products with purposes that are malleable, hackable, and adaptable to users’ needs and desires: products with multifunctional purposes. Though IKEA has succeeded in creating such products, this almost seems more like a happy accident than a conscious organizational strategic imperative. Rooted in this creative process is a deeper understanding 
of consumers, their unique needs, and the problems they face; gone are the days where organizations could simply put out products that addressed assumed needs. Understanding consumers and finding their hidden functions for a product is the first step to building experiences with functional purpose. Customers are out there, and they have a function for your product.

So, first ask yourself this: What are people using your products for? Then, once you have your answer, follow up with a more difficult question: Are you sure?

the author

Nic Connolly

Nic Connolly is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.