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How to Make Benign Neglect Work for You

Find a way to put a new spin on a familiar product.

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The other day, one of the morning shows did a segment on men's socks, an area of commerce which has seen little change over the years. Until recently, men's socks came in three styles -- boring dull, and bland. The last major to push the "sock envelope" was the argyle sock, and the invention of that pattern and its application to socks dates back to the 1600s.

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So yeah, it's been a while. The sock industry is ready to for something new.

One of the new companies ready to set the sock world on fire is Stance. The company's cofounder and CEO is Jeff Kearl. It was by studying a wide variety of products on sale at that Kearl got the inspiration to start Stance, which offers colorful designer and performance socks.

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When his attention focused on the men's socks at Target, Kearl found an important consumer item that had been suffering under benign neglect for, well, centuries. I need to note that Stance isn't alone in its effort to pump new life into men's socks. Search for men's socks on , and you'll be treated to a rainbow of attractive footwear.

I tell you this story because there are probably thousands of important consumer items that are suffering under the same benign neglect. And, when someone comes along and finds a way to stir the pot, that person can end up creating a new category.

Here's a question: How many of us have walked by the men's sock collection at Target and not seen it as an opportunity for innovation? I suggest that virtually all of us would be guilty for not seeing the possibilities or recognizing the fact that little has changed in men's socks for years and years.

I often tell the story of Ben and Jerry's , and the basic idea is the same. Ben and Jerry's created a new category -- "designer" ice cream, if you will -- when they broke away from the standard chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. And in many ways, did the same thing with the original . If you remember, instead of a boring beige box, the first generation of iMacs came in "flavors" like blueberry and strawberry.

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The good thing about creating a new category is you don't have to invent an item from scratch. You just need to find a way to put a new spin on an old product. Discover a way to make it appeal to a young, lucrative market.

Look for products that are used by both men and women. Determine which is ahead in terms of innovation or aesthetics, then take the one that's lagging, and bring it up to speed.

And if you can't think of anything right off the bat, why not do what Kearl did and head over to your nearest Target? Find some items that have fallen by the wayside in terms of modernization. List them all, and start doing some market research to judge the potential size of a category. Then, make a plan, and go for it.

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