5 Innovation Lessons From A Breakthrough Brand Aimed At Aging Americans

To create Sabi, a McKinsey-trained former VC paired with all-star designer Yves Behar. Their process offers lessons about finding a good business opportunity--and a monumental change in American life.

Most entrepreneurs embark down that path with a mix of luck, circumstance, and insight: They’re futzing with some clunky gadget, and then boom! They realize how to fix it. Or they’ve worked so long at something that they simply know how to do it better.

Assaf Wand, the founder of Sabi, a line of branded, ergonomic wares for the aging which launches today, is a completely different sort of entrepreneur. Rather than intuiting some need out of the ether or working toward his big idea over a decade, he applied a mix of analytics, hustle, and hard work to finding an overlooked business opportunity. Thus, his example is a good argument that, while genius never arrives on demand, methodical discipline can conjure real innovation. In other words, there’s hope for the rest of us who aren’t about to invent the cure for cancer.

Granted, Wand had the benefit of training as a McKinsey consultant and venture capitalist at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. But his method should make sense to anyone who’s tried to solve a big, amorphous problem. He started by breaking the big problem down to little pieces, and moving forward based on precise lessons learned at each point along the way.

Finding the Whitespace

Wand had already served as the CEO of a company that was aiming to bring mobile broadband to Africa--and in that capacity, he’d raised over $400 million for his venture. But after that experience, he didn’t want to jump back into high tech. He turned down offers to become a partner at a venture capital firm. Instead, he decided to pursue another sort of business altogether: something low tech. But he didn’t quite know what just yet.

"Low-tech businesses have a massive talent gap," explains Wand. "You can go to a high-tech company and the most junior software engineer is smarter than me. But go to a consumer products company and there’s no talent below the senior management." So Wand knew that low-tech businesses were probably ripe for a disruption. And that’s when he stumbled upon some astonishing factoids: People over 50 account for 67% of America’s consumption. So they should be the most highly sought after demographic, right? Wrong: Only 5% of marketing spending is geared toward them. And if you look within that 5%, 92% of it is pharmaceuticals and financial products. "That’s when the lightning bolt hit me." He started looking around for brands geared toward boomers, and then realized that there was basically nothing. "Everything is very medicinal and disgusting," he says. "I wanted to build something a lot more positive."

Digging in, Finding the Needs

Though the gap in spending and marketing was an alluring signal that a business could be found somewhere in the cracks, Wand still wasn’t totally sure. The McKinsey geek in him wanted more data, more proof, more confirmation. And so he set out to conduct a slew of focus groups and surveys--in all, reaching out to some 6,000 people.

And the insight that he found was that boomers aren’t aging like the generation before them. Their values are more progressive. They’re into organic products. They’re more worldly. They adapt to change more readily. They’re into aesthetics. But they’re not in a position of being taken care of: They’re taking care of their kids, and taking care of their own parents, even as they’re aging into worse eyesight and arthritis. "That’s when I officially launched Sabi," says Wand.

To Build a Brand, You’ve Got to Build Lots of Products

At this point, Wand brought on Yves Behar and Fuseproject, choosing them over other, bigger design firms because of their track record working with entrepreneurs. Fuseproject had, incidentally, already done a lot of thinking about products for the aging. So it would have been easy for them to create a one-off product that served them. That’s not what Wand wanted.

He made a list of the brands he admired, from Oxo to Simple Human. He quickly realized that all of them had success in branding a space that had never been successfully branded before: For Oxo, it was kitchen utensils; for Simple Human, it was trash cans. By operating in an unbranded space, you have less competition. You can demand more margins. And you can push the envelope more, because consumer expectations haven’t been carved in stone.

But you can’t create a brand with just one product. You become too hit dependent, and you can’t really serve the needs of an entire audience. Behar agreed. "If you’re going to start a brand, depth is key," says Behar. "If you’re going to talk to a user about their everyday lives, you better consider every facet." So Wand and Fuseproject set about figuring out what categories would allow them to create the most products at the most reasonable cost. And from there, they settled on products that would solve the everyday pain of taking pills.

Designing a Brand That Helps Instead of Shouts

Behar and Wand knew they wanted to get away from the medicinal look of the category. For example, most easy-open aids for pill bottles look like emergency handles. They’re red, and they shout to the world, "I’m a person with arthritis!" "These products try to solve the problem by pointing at it. They tell the user and everyone who knows them that they have a problem," says Behar. But boomers, as Wand had found, aren’t yet ready to acknowledge their infirmities. They’re fighting against the realization. How do you design a product that most people would rather not admit that they need?

The solution that Fuseproject proposed was to have the ergonomic features become a subtle feature of the design. They’d be a seamless part of the form factor. Thus, the fluted tops of the bottles and pill cases you see above allow them to be opened with the palm rather than the fingers. They’re even colored blue, to tell you where to interact with them. But all of those details simply look like good product branding--a visual identity for the product--rather than an emergency lever.

Reaching Past a Target Demographic

After all that research and effort, you’d think that Wand would be happy to describe Sabi as a disruptive brand aimed at boomers. But he’s quick to say that this isn’t what Sabi is at all. It might serve the needs of boomers. That might be the user whose needs inspired the products. Instead, Wand recognizes that a new brand needs to be more inclusive, so they’ve been very careful in the marketing materials not to make the appeal too overt or specific. After all, most people of adult age take at least one pill a day. "We don’t want to deter a younger crowd," says Wand. "We spent a lot of time creating a brand that isn’t associated just with age, but rather the best product we can give to people. Even though we started with boomers and their needs, our designs move us beyond, to a bigger audience."

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27 Comments

  • Stephen Lee

    Sweet article..great delivery of the end result..I visited the site a was impressed I'm not a boomer but, I can appreciate clean and easy design.

  • AlexA

    JSG: does RISD do anything to protect their students from design theft? Reputable schools like Pratt, SAIC, Art Center, heck, even Northwestern's Design program have dedicated staff to protect student intellectual property before they engage with potential employers, commercial partners, alumni or other outsiders. I'd be really surprised if RISD didn't have the same, or would let outsiders get away with such practices.  Do you have a link to the RISD thesis abstracts you're referring to?

  • Amy23

    You got to love it
    EVERY time someone has a cool idea or design apparently RISD "had" it before 

  • Jsg

    Unfortunately this idea was taken from RISD trained designers over a series of sessions, where the proposed company Sabi, planned to hire the designers on.  Instead the group took concepts and years of research well documented in the RISD theses, prior to any thoughts of Sabi, and which ironically then belong to RISD as an institution.
    While design theft is very common, and hard to prosecute, to do so in a field where the intent is to good for the boomer generation is especially ironic.  After taking concepts brought about through more than 2 years working in nursing homes identifying needs and designing thoughtful solutions, it shows quite clearly that Sabi cares only about one thing - profit.  Certainly not boomers nor designers.

  • pdahlin

    Probably not too many "hipster" seniors or boomers out there riding fixies with their messenger bags to put their pills into.  Makes me think this is ripe for a Portlandia skit.  But I do appreciate the attention being given to ergonomics and senior design.    

  • Faye Chan

    I am a devoted pill popper so I know what it is like to pack supplements for four times a day consumption. When it comes to taking trips, the packing is worse. The designs of Sabi looks really nice and maybe it sets out to do what they want but looking at the few designs featured here in the video, I'd say it doesn't fit my needs. They are way too small to fit in a combination of different sized pills, capsules, tablets, etc. I bet the founders aren't supplement takers themselves.

  • Mike N.

    hey, I can't get the video to play after 1:30, it loses sound and the video stops playing.  Is anyone else getting this?

  • Brent Bouchez

    Cliff

    Maybe you should do a post on the agency that's selling to the 35 to 65 target.
    www.agencyfive0.com
    Adults Creating Marketing and Advertising for Adults. We work with Coke, American Express, L'Oreal, General Mills and others. In out pasts we have helped to brand the likes of BMW, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Dell, Nike, Sega, the NBA, 
    Absolut, Yahoo and more.

  • BRANDING FOR THE PEOPLE

    Well done. Congratulations on launching an brand that is making a difference in people's lives. I also love the teaching for entrepreneurs that sometimes you just need to apply " a mix of analytics, hustle, and hard work to [find] an overlooked business opportunity.

  • H. Collignon

    Not what I call a breakthrough idea. By the way, as far as I know, Oxo kitchen tools started with the same "aging population consumer insight". On top of that I would challenge the color choice. Translucent bright color (green, yellow, orange...) would have given a younger and modern look to these pill boxes. Still, it will work because there is an addressed  need.

  • Customercare

    Thanks for your comments, we really appreciate the feedback. To clarify, Sabi products are not just nice-looking versions of products that already exist (though they are nice looking!) They are designed to be easier to use - ergonomic, easier on the hands and wrists, and made with special grips, textures, and demarcations so that they are not only more fun but easier to use. One other thing - We DO have a very cool pill reminder app for iPhone in the pipeline... Stay tuned!

  • wordsilk

    My 83-year-old dad already has a container that holds a week's worth of his meds that he pull apart as needed or stick in his pocket -- it's just dirt cheap and not nearly as pretty. I already have pill containers I can open without using my fingers (I have arthritis) -- they're called pill bottles and they have a cap that can be used either as easy open or locked down (when there are going to be little kids around). And I can see through them to know when they're running low. All my vitamin bottles have easy-open caps and they even have labels so I know what the hell is in them. So I just don't get what the innovation is here -- the way they look?

    No talent below senior management? What a stupid comment. He should take a look at one of the many catalogs available that contain products for seniors and other specialized needs populations -- these products were NOT all designed by senior management. Probably none of them were.

    Why is something medicinal disgusting?

    What problem is he solving here?

    I'm a boomer, and I'm secure enough to not give a rat's ass if someone else knows I have arthritis or the eyesight of a 55-year-old and I bet most other boomers feel the same way. I don't need a $30 pill weekly pillbox (oh, I mean "folio") when a $5 "folio" works just as well, or a $10 pill cutter or crusher when I get a perfectly functional one from the pharmacist for 50 cents.

    If you said, "Oh, what a wonderful company, they make pretty versions of stuff that already exists," your article wouldn't be such a disappointment. But to call Wand some kind of genius for reinventing the wheel while not making it better is just fan-boy crap. Now if he made a pillbox that made sure I didn't forget to take my meds or vitamins, that would actually be something innovative ... but making pretty bottles that are actually less functional that what he wants to replace is NOT innovative.

  • Guest

    "...best product we can give to people..."

    Slick surfaces and no grip work fine for healthy vitamin-takers, not for aging populations with loss of hand strength, grip, and fine motor skills. Back to the "Accessibility" drawing board folks.

  • Dan Stiel

    In our youth-obsessed society, it is important to remember not everyone is blessed with an opportunity to pass the fifty-plus age barrier (think about that for a second all you 20/30/40-somethings). 

    For those who do, there is a an amazing opportunity to be served by innovators like Sabi.  I wish them well.

  • Dougdvw

    It's ironic that they are selecting blue as the accent color. In the aging population, the lens of the eye turns yellow and filters out the blue range of light. They should have gone with green, or anything else other than blue or violet.