Backing into Innovation: Capturing New Consumers for Hearing Aids

While I was at International CES earlier this month I had a chance to meet with leaders of the hearing aid business at Siemens, the #1 brand in hearing aids.

I’ve written on our blog before about my fascination with this industry, and not just because my wife tells me that I will need my own hearing aids soon.  Hearing aids represent an exciting category because the target market they serve represents the fastest-growing demographic in the country, and the industry has been operating under a distribution and product model that is ripe for innovation.  This combination is the kind of thing that makes IMC start twitching with excitement: we are looking to make some great new products happen in this space.

Siemens, Hearing Aid Innovation, and Marketplace Innovation

Siemens is the leading brand in this space – our own consumer research indicates that it’s almost the only globalbrand in this space – and for that reason it was interesting to talk to Dr. Eric Branda, an audiologist at Siemens, who is also leading innovation fortheir sophisticated product offerings.

Dr. Branda explained to me that older technology in hearing aids simply made things louder, but he and his colleagues at Siemens are now focused on comfort, intelligibility, and environmental adaptation (providing different settings for restaurants, or ballparks, for example).  To support those goals, Siemens has even introduced a remote operating device, what it calls the “miniTek.”

The miniTek, which is about as big as a pager, allows its user to hear (and modulate) the sound that comes from other devices, devices like phones and televisions.  It even has a microphone that you can talk into (for a telephone conversation).  And you can control it through an app.   Aside from the in-ear device, the whole thing could be installed on a smartphone.

You might call it a wireless headset with its own app.

And that’s what interests me most.

Backing into Customers?

While Siemens’ hearing aid technology is unique, the miniTek is not.  If you use a Jawbone that connects to your phone via Bluetooth, the miniTek would feel very familiar – with the added benefit of controlling sound from something other than your phone.

And maybe this relatively routine device represents an unexpected entry point into the hearing aid category.

Rather than waiting until consumers are finally ready to get themselves to an audiologist’s office (was anyone ever excited about that visit?), maybe companies like Siemens should be selling (or even giving away?) its miniTek to consumers everywhere, so that when they are finally ready for a hearing aid it will just be an add-on to the useful Siemens device that is already connecting their ears with the content they want to hear most.

Or what if Siemens licensed its miniTek technology (and brand) to other headset manufacturers, so that consumers start associating the Siemens brands with quality hearing across the board?

Or what if a company like Jawbone began developing hearing aids as a high-priced “upsell” that a healthy share of its existing customers will value before long?

Sometimes the consumer electronics industry thinks that creating ever-more sophisticated product is the way to capture new consumers.  But sometimes the most important innovation may be using a technology that already exists to get consumers into your category.

This strategy is not limited to consumer electronics.  Callaway Golf got golfers to buy a great new driver called the Big Bertha before most of them were ready to buy an entire new set of golf clubs.  And Tom Ford launched his eponymous brand with affordable sunglasses years before offering consumers $10,000 suits.

Is it possible that consumer would welcome a Siemens wireless headset long before they are ready to purchase a $3,000 pair of hearing aids?

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