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Recently a Chicago based inventor filed suit again H.J. Heinz, claiming that it’s recently launched ‘Dip & Squeeze’ format for ketchup was infringing on a patent he has filed in 2005. Whether or not infringement has occurred we’ll leave to the courts. The more pressing question is: is the ‘Dip & Squeeze’ Innovative or Not?
Dispensing fluids from containers is a problem that has plagued the foods industry among others for decades if not longer. If you’re a regular at a fast food restaurant or local Chinese delivery service you’re well acquainted with the myriad pouches, sachets, cups, and tubes used to delivery condiments for your food. Heinz, in combining the squeeze action found in a pouch of mustard with the dipping action found in a container of BBQ sauce, certainly struck a chord with fast food regulars used to struggling as they eat on the go. However, the ‘Dip & Squeeze’ doesn’t represent an innovative leap forward as Heinz might wish us to assume – it’s simply another incremental stepwise improvement for the packaging industry. Incremental innovation is defined as the addition of features to an existing technology in order to slightly improve the format. Just as Gilette added an extra blade, mp3 players added video, and cars added GPS to the standard feature set sustaining improvements are part of any development strategy. If we were to take a portable tub of sauce as a starting point, one of the first ideas we would find to improve it would be to add precision application.
The ‘Dip & Squeeze’ ties in to a very good consumer insight – that people want to eat in their car – but doesn’t take a massive leap forward to change how customers use the product. That is why, regardless who invented it, it is not innovative.
You and your best friend are on the road and stop at a drive through for a bite to eat. You both get your favorite, french fries and ketchup and then you realize… how are we going to eat these? You like to dip your fries, while your best friend likes to squeeze the ketchup right on the fries, the solution a packet of ketchup that can be used either for dipping or for squeezing. This is exactly what a Chicago inventor has recently been granted a patent on. He has taken a format that has not changed in a long time, and has found a way to innovate on it (which often is the hardest). If you are a dipper no more having to worry about where to put your ketchup, simply open the top and you have a container of ketchup to dip in. If you are a squeezer, use the packaging as you would any packet of ketchup, rip open a corner and use as you would. Given that a ketchup packet is really just that, a ketchup packet and someone has found a way to bring new news to such a simple product is why I believe this idea innovative. Sometimes the simplest of ideas are the most innovative.
Essentially the arguments have boiled down to the question of how impressive a product advance needs to be in order to qualify for the tag of “innovative”. All products change over their lifetime; most incremental changes are turned around so rapidly and impact our consumer behavior so minimally that we hardly notice them at all. This “background noise” innovation is so pervasive that we tend not to label it innovation, reserving the phrase for the more impressive advances of our industries. Is Dip & Squeeze simply background noise or does it meet the fuzzy criteria of innovative? The answer may lie in two facts. Firstly, Dip & Squeeze has met the requirements of the US patent office. For such a basic idea this is not insignificant as the examiners would have plenty of reference material along with real world experience with which to judge the novelty of the patent application. The second is the length of time that passed after single serve ketchup first appeared before Dip & Squeeze arrived. Incremental innovation is normally rapid; often companies are working on improvements before they launch the first version of their product. For such an obvious improvement to have taken so long to be realized probably indicates that the improvement was a significant technical mountain even if conceptually it was a molehill. Verdict: Innovative.