And the car turned red – An innovation story at Nissan

Every year, Nissan Europe runs a competition called the Chairman’s Innovation Awards. It is open to all employees who want to propose new ideas for Nissan. A few years back, John Ferguson, a British technical architect, proposed a technology that allows customers to change the colour of their car whenever they want. John won the Chairman Innovation Award. John’s idea was incubated in Nissan Innovation Lab where the Innovation Coach guided John to explore his idea using the Lean Startup approach.

Lean Startup sees an idea as a stack of hypotheses hiding the risks behind the project. The approach requires identifying those hypotheses and confronting them with reality to see if the idea can stand. In John’s project, the two initial biggest risks were posed by the technical feasibility and the customer’s desirability for such a feature. Was there a market for his idea?

With no previous experience of innovation projects, the Lean Startup approach gave John a structured methodology to guide him forward. And it was a huge help he says: “I very quickly saw the benefit of Lean Startup. The coaches explained how this was going to work and gave me deadlines, things to deliver, which I really needed. It would have been quite difficult without it.”

On the technical side 

For technical feasibility, John found a company developing an e-ink technology. “I went out to different companies, made contact with them. We settled on one company to provide a prototype.”

On the market side, there were 3 big business risks:

  1. we didn’t really know who the customers are
  2. we didn’t know if they really have a strong need
  3. we didn’t know what the customer would commit to

John had to figure out who was interested in his new feature. Who wants to change the color of their car with a simple mobile app? And more importantly, who will pay for it and how much? John drafted about 10 canvases with possible customer profiles and the pain point that this technology can address. After a quick prioritization exercise, it was time to get out of the building and confront his understanding with the reality. He went down the street to meet car buyers: “The hardest part of the whole activity was when I ended up in the street and talked to people. That will live with me for a long time. I still have nightmares of standing on the street corner of London, trying to stop people to see if they want to buy. But it was the true gold.”

He asked about the challenges of buying a car, trying to grasp the influence the colour has when buying a car. It was not about asking leading questions but rather about giving the person a chance to open up and explain what they found frustrating when buying a car.

One of the biggest learnings the coach gave me was: you don’t go up to a customer and say “Would you buy this?” because the customer will say “yes” because he wants to please you. So, what you get is a kind of positive distortion of the truth. If you then say to them: “Ok then, give me the money now.”, they would say “Oh no!”.

People were talking to John and saying things like: “I spend 2 hours a day inside my car, I don’t care how it looks like outside”, or: “I just want a black car because I don’t want to have to wash it.”

Those interviews brought new perspectives and a refined understanding of the customer’s needs. John decided to focus on one specific customer segment: the fashionista who would like the color of their car to match their style of the day.

To probe that segment, John got a video produced to show the product in action: a TV advert based on the idea that the customer was able to accessorise the car to their outfit. The actress in the advert is wearing a red dress. She walks outside; her car is blue. She pulls out her cell phone, opens up an app and chooses the colour red. And the car turned to red.

The video was broadcasted on the Nissan Facebook page. John analysed the results: ”There wasn’t any kind of strong indicators that people were clambering for this. The idea itself just wasn’t as strong as we thought it was.”

It requires a lot of courage to be able to say: “Well I had this idea, but in light of certain facts, it’s not a good idea to go for.” There is never any certainty with a new product.

John reflected on his experience: “I found an appreciation for failure, positive failure. I didn’t want to have to spend millions to realise that this thing wasn’t going to sell. You do feel disappointed, but at the same time, it’s a learning experience. There have been times in the last year where I’ve reflected on it and wondered: what if we had tried with a different persona in the video rather than focus on fashionista? Would we had gotten a different answer? And you can play this game forever. There was enough evidence to suggest that there wasn’t a business case. One of the things the coaches told me is: “Even if it fails, you’ve succeeded because what you’ve done was proving (in this case disproving) an assumption. You’ve avoided the company wasting a great deal of money, time and effort.” Which is exactly what Lean Startup is all about.

So, a positive failure. Was the coaching helpful? John told the coaches: “The danger is when the consultant wants to please you because he knows you’re paying him. But you weren’t afraid to say to me: “No John. What are you going to deliver this week? What are your assumptions?” You were really pushing me out of my comfort zone because I did not come from a business background. And I appreciated that. It really helped me. You took me through processing, and I think you judged me right, pretty early on, you knew how far you can push me and when to step back. And I think it worked very well. It was a really positive experience.”

When John was in the Nissan Innovation Lab, he was coached by the team: Iain Wallace and Franck Debane

PowerPoint Template for Customer Profile in Value Proposition Design

“The more you know your customers, the more you can help them.”

an old friend used to remind me

The Customer Profile is useful to summarise and clarify our knowledge about the customer. It’s part of the Value Proposition Design from Strategyzer.

It maps out the jobs to be done, pains and gains of your customer. Doing so will help you to dig deeper into a specific customer segment and gain their perspectives.

Sometimes teams need to formalise this knowledge into a PowerPoint.

Download the PowerPoint version of the Customer Profile here.

I have also created a Google Slide version that you copy and can edit.

Customer Profile PowerPoint Template

4 Ways to Test your Value Proposition

Okay, you think you have nailed a good value proposition for your new product? You like it, your friends like it. Good. But what matters is that your future customers want it or at least understand it.

Here are 4 ways to test this value proposition with your potential customers:

  • Online Ads
  • Landing Page
  • Pitch
  • Solution Interview

Online Ads

The idea is to broadcast your value proposition to target customers in the form of an ad.

Google Ads or Facebook/Instagram Ads are great for that. They allow you to run ads shown to their customers (/users). You only pay for the click you receive on your ad. You can also run ads on other platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn), depending on where you think your customers are online.

Facebook and Google work differently and give different results. You should decide and test which platform to use:

On Facebook Ads

  • Customer: A customer looking at Facebook is leaning backward, looking to be distracted or surprised. His/her next action is to scroll down.
  • Targeting: On Facebook, you can target customers based on their profile and all the information Facebook is collecting about them
  • Channels: Your add will appear on Facebook and you can choose to reach customers on Instagram as well.
  • Message: Image, video, and some text. You will need a Facebook page as well to run the ads.

On Google Ads

  • Customer: A customer on Google is leaning forward, searching for something and his/her next action is to click on a link.
  • Targeting: On Google, you can target customers based on the keywords they are searching for.
  • Channels: Your ad will appear for some customers on the Google search engine. You can also choose to broadcast your ad out to a network of search partners and the display network.
  • Message: in its simple form, your ad will have a title a web link and a few lines of text.

Those ads constitute the top of your funnel. Clicking on them should lead the user to either a form (like Typeform or other) or to a Landing Page, which will allow you to capture people’s contact provided they are interested.

Of course, you get extensive analytics from Google and Facebook on your ad campaign. But here you are looking to understand if your value proposition is marching your customer segment. Define an acceptable threshold at iterate on your ads.

Online ads will only give you quantitative feedback. But if it doesn’t work, you have no idea why. That’s why you need to complete, or even better start with qualitative feedback.

Landing Page

The landing page is now a classic. I think I first head about the concept in the 4 hours week book by Tim Ferris. To build a landing page, you can use sites like Strikingly, Squarespace, Wix or Weebly. They all provide similar services.

To build your landing page, I recommend this very comprehensive article: How to set up a landing page for testing a business or product idea.

As a result of what should something like this.

With your Landing Page done, you already achieved two things:

  1. you made your value proposition tangible — and made hard choices around wording, customer and benefits.
  2. discussed it with your team and eventually aligned, helping uncover some potential misunderstandings

But what matters is customer reactions. You can test this Landing Page in 2 ways:

  1. expose it to customers, either with Online Ads, Email or posting it on social media where your customers are. Measure clicks on the ‘call to action’ button. Great if it works. If it doesn’t, you need to find out why?
  2. the 5-seconds test

The 5-seconds test allows you to get qualitative (the why?) feedback on your landing page. Here you engage directly with your target customer in the real world, not online and you show them your Landing Page. For 5 seconds. It’s short. It’s the 5 seconds it takes for a distracted web surfer to consider an offer and make up their mind about it.

After 5 seconds, hide your Landing Page and asks questions:

What was it? What did you see? What did you understand? Take notes. Don’t explain. This will give you, surprises for sure, but also the customer perspective and the different points to improve.

A pitch

Pitching your value proposition directly to potential customers is a great way to test comprehension and clarity. You can see their reaction and listen to their questions.

Ask them to rephrase back what you pitched and see what they understood. Listen to the word they are using — those are words you could use in your next pitch.

If a customer is excited about your offer, you can follow up with a solution interview.

Solution Interviews

A solutions interview is to test the appetite of the customer for what you have to offer. It starts with a little preparation and finished with meeting the customer. This is how to structure those interviews.

Part 1 — Problem validation

Before you make any proposition to the customer, make sure they are in your target segment. Qualify their needs.

We have been talking to lots of people like yourself and we have heard this [problem/need/situation].

Could you share how does it relate to your experience? What story comes to your mind? What would you like to share?

After this conversation, you know with more certainty if the customer needs your solutions or not. Now test your value propositions.

Part 2 — Co-create around the value proposition

Here explain what you have in mind, our solution, and assess the customer interest.

We are looking to “value proposition”. Is this something we can explore with you today? What does this mean for you?

How would you use it tomorrow? Why is it important?

You can also drill down to the feature level.

We are thinking about feature 1,2,3. Which one do you think is most relevant to you, which one would address best your problem. Why?

Part 3 — Validation and Commitment

Would it make sense for us to explore this?


Now you have an interested customer. To assess how interested he/she is, ask for a commitment. It’s is something a customer would do, should they be interested in your offer. For you, it’s proof of their interest.

This proof of commitment has some cost to the customer. Either in time, effort, energy, financial, etc… If it has no cost, to implication for the customer, this is not a commitment. Because it has a cost, we also call this a currency.

Here are examples of what you could ask for:

  • Money — pre-order (think kick starter or prepayment)
  • A signed agreement (NDA, contract for a POC, exclusivity, …)
  • Invitation to another meeting (with the boss, at a different location)
  • An email, phone number (in b2c context)
  • Access to sensitive data -(contact list, usage data for AI products,…)

Depending on the situation, some of those examples don’t commit customers. Are you asking this customer to be committed or involved?

Of course, your value proposition is something that changes over time and will need to be refined as you keep on learning from your customers.

For more on running experiments, read David Bland’s post: An Introduction to Experiment Pairing.

How to build your Value Proposition

Getting the value proposition right is one of the most ambiguous task entrepreneurs face in the early definition of their idea. It a convergence point where your team and your customer meet. Not easy to pinpoint.

So here are some elements to consider to help you build this value proposition. To simplify, the value proposition is the promise you make to your customers.

When prompted with your value proposition, your target customers should be able to:

  1. understand what you are proposing them
  2. decide if this is something they want or not (yes I’m interested, or no, this is not for me)

To be able to craft a decent value proposition you need to understand and align on:

The main problem you are solving for your customers

The problem you are solving should resonate with your target customer. If your target customer recognizes the problem, they will be interested in hearing about the solution you have to offer. That simple as that.


  • Vivino — picking bad wines
  • MAYU — drinking bad water


Explain now how you are going to solve the customer problem? At this stage, if the customer agrees with the problem, then he wants to know what the proposed solution is. You don’t need to go into details here, but you want to see if modalities of your solutions are acceptable to the customer. Your solution could be an app. A personalized service. A device.


  • Vivino — A mobile application
  • MAYU — A jug of water with a rotating stone


As a result of accepting your offer, what could happen to the customer? What can he expect to have or achieve that could not have before?


  • Vivino: feel great about their choice of wine, the confidence that the bottle they will share is a good one
  • MAYU: drink purified water, and live healthier

Customer Quote

Thinking from the customer perspective is always useful. Think of what a happy customer would say after using your solution? This makes your value proposition very tangible for you and for the target customer that will see it.

Customer Commitment

To see if your value proposition is one that is compelling to your target customer, you simply present it to them and hope for a firm agreement. More than a yes, an engagement from that customer, joined with some commitment from them. Otherwise, don’t really if they’re just being polite are really interested. Think of what could be a good commitment you could ask your customers, should they be interested in your proposition. It could be pre-paying for the solution, registering for your service, sending you further data.

Ready to build your value proposition now?

Here is a template to help you out.

Your value proposition is ready?

Find out how you can test your value proposition!

How to Interview Customer — field guide

To build a business, you need to clearly understand who you can create value for -your customers- and what job are these customers trying to get done.

One way to answer these seminal questions is to actually interview potential customers and enquire about the problems they have. It seems easy to do, but it is difficult to do well.

A map to structure what you are learning

When interviewing customers, my main objective is to explore their own specific behaviors and resolution mechanisms. How do they solve problems on their own? On this exploration, I have a map: the customer interview sheet. It helps structure the feedback and ensures that I am covering the key areas to research so I don’t walk out of an interview with unanswered questions.

This customer interview sheet is structured in 3 parts: questions you ask yourself before the interview, questions you ask during the interview to guide the conversation towards specific learning points and the conclusions you need to draw after the interview.

Before the interview

Before running the interview you need to have clarity on what you want to learn. This makes the interview process easier, allowing you to refocus the interview when it goes off-topic.

  • Target Customer

Who is my target customer?

Define the type of customer you want to talk to. It is a reminder of the criteria you are looking for in your target customers. If the person you’re meeting does not match your specifications, you should move on. Where to find them? Think about their habits and their daily journey, and identify where are you more likely to find them.

  • Problem/Need

Which of their problems/needs am I setting out to solve?

You are assuming that your customers are encountering problems that are irritating enough for them to seek solutions (ideally your solution). List those problems here.

During the interview

In each interview, I keep an eye on the sheet thread to make sure I steer the conversation towards my learning goals. Below, for each frame of the sheet, I added the questions I usually use to get valuable customer insights.

  • Customer info

Who is this person I am talking to? What are some of the facts that define her/him?

Try to gather as much relevant data as you can. Sometimes, you won’t have all the details but you will be able to estimate an approximate age for example. Bit by bit, you will collect valuable information and write them down in this frame.

  • Customer stories

What problems do you encounter regarding this situation? When was the last time you had this problem? Can you tell me how it happened?

The best way to understand customer behavior is to ask for stories. Stories force the customer to recall their precise actions around the event. By drilling down with questions, you can understand their motivation and why they make the choices they make.

From their stories, you can decipher their perspective on the problem and assess the energy and efforts that the customer is putting into solving that problem.

Stories will reveal bigger and unsuspected problems encountered by your customers.

  • Existing solutions

How are you solving this problem? Is it effective?

This question allows you to understand who you are competing against. You will be surprised. If your customer is not using a solution to solve that problem, then maybe the problem you are after is not that important to them. Once you know what solution is being implemented, you can start improving on it.

You can also learn how your customers are looking for solutions, this will provide insights on their journey and inform you about potential marketing channels.

  • Pains with existing solutions

How is this solution working out for you?

Ask for the story to learn about the things that seem complicated, frustrating, or unpleasant. Again, assess how much of a problem this is for your customer. Is this something they are actively trying to solve? Or are they happy to live with those frictions?

After the interview

  • Key Takeaways

What were the most important things you learned?

Share your learnings with your team, and reflect on the 3 most important learnings. Is there a bigger problem the customer is trying to solve? What don’t they like about the solutions they are using?

  • Problem Importance

How important is this problem for this customer?

You need to understand if this is worth solving. Again you assess this based on the story they told you and their perspective on the problem. Is this person aware of having the problem? Is he/she paying for a solution?

  • Problem Frequency

How often does the customer have this problem or need?

This quantifies how often your solution could bring value. If the problem is not happening very often, then your solution might not be used a lot.

  • Early Adopter

Now here comes the hard question. Is this customer an early adopter?

Is this person actively looking for a solution? If not, this customer is unlikely to be the first person to jump on your solution.

So what?

Listen actively, read between the lines and try to dig deeper. Get into the mind of your customers, understand them as much as possible. If you feel stuck at some point, it’s ok. Regroup your thoughts, broaden your perspective, look at your sheet and see what information you are missing.

Get the Customer Interview Sheet

If you want to learn more about how to think and move like a startup, contact me on Tango.