Under Pressure: The Rise of The Instant Pot
In kitchens across North America, people have stopped cooking.
They’ve stopped labouring over a hot stove for hours on end.
They’ve ceased micromanaging the contents of their pots and pans.
Instead, aspiring home cooks are preparing, measuring and combining ingredients so that their soon-to-be-meal may undergo the ultimate flavour transformation when placed inside, what looks like, a space probe developed by NASA.
Enter the Instant Pot.
What was once a coordinated dance by the cooktop, made better by instinct and experience, has been replaced by a methodical process in which attention is focused on timing, proportions and whether to let pressure release naturally or quickly.
What is the Instant Pot?
Often described as magical, the Instant Pot (I will now refer to it as “IP”) is a programmable countertop multi-cooker with versatility; it can function as a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer and more.
It was designed and brought to reality by Dr. Robert Wang, a former Nortel engineer, and a team of tech veterans based out of Kanata, Ontario, Canada.
Wang positioned the IP to act a a ‘tool to enable a new lifestyle and cater to the needs of health-minded consumers, those with special dietary restrictions, the DIY food enthusiasts and anyone looking to save time in the kitchen while providing nutritious, well-balanced meals.’
There’s a lot more to the device than my brief description allows, but you can check out this helpful article by Digital Trends to dive a bit deeper into the product itself.
The Meteoric Rise of the Instant Pot
The IP has quickly risen in popularity, and the numbers show. It’s the #1 Best Selling non-Amazon item on Amazon.com, the #1 Best Selling item at Kohl’s and the #1 Best Selling item at Walmart (in 33 states, at least).
Shopping holidays like Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have only helped the IP cement its lead as a disruptor-turned-market-leader in the previously tired ‘multi-cooker and electric pressure cooker’ category. The benefits extend well beyond the IP, though, as the entire category has experienced a growth phase:
“Instant Pot’s popularity has helped invigorate the larger market for multi-cookers in the U.S.: It has grown by roughly 99 percent so far this year, after increasing by about 79 percent to more than $300 million in 2017, making multicookers one of the fastest-growing product categories in the retail sector in the past two years” - NPD (Courtesy of CNBC)
In 2017, the IP had 72% market share in the US, which grew to 80% in 2018. Market share in Canada followed with an increase from 85% to 93% over the same period. Clearly, something is working.
What Powers the Flywheel?
A generation from now, legends might say that the designs for this amazingly usable device were cut from the cosmos itself - divined and interpreted by the perceptive Dr. Robert Wang.
In real terms, however, Wang actually exercised the principles, preparation and gruelling work required to calibrate the IP’s product-market fit. No flashy marketing campaigns on Kickstarter, nor any clever interruptions to the public’s daily life.
In hindsight, it came down to four key contributing factors:
(1) Selling Smart: Amazon.com
According to Wang, “Amazon turned out to be one of the best platforms [from which] you could launch new, innovative product[s]”. From a small business to a perceived empire, it’s hard to imagine the IP flourishing the way that it has without a marketplace like Amazon.com.
As it turns out, the IP is not alone. Entrepreneurs the world round have experienced their version of overnight success on the platform.
Yes, there are an ever-growing number of sellers and an endless aisle of competitive products. Yes, only ~19% of sellers have sales that surpass the $1 million mark.
But, at least in 2019, where else will you find an online marketplace that can match the degree of ubiquity and dominance on shopper mindshare as Amazon? While easier to say than it is to action against, the potential for sales hypergrowth is there.
Wang puts it best:
“Without Amazon, we wouldn’t be here.”
(2) A relentless focus on customer needs and feedback
Wang’s focus on customer needs started in his own kitchen:
“My wife and I found it really hard to make healthy dinners at home after work for the kids.”
Spurred by his own frustration, he set out on a quest to validate, and eventually create a proof of concept, to address his findings. He, along with a team of like-minded colleagues, spent 18 months conducting intensive research funded by $350,000 of Wang’s personal savings. He worked to identify “prominent pain points” for consumers who cooked at home with electrical appliances.
His goal? Design a product that offered solutions.
One such pain point was an overcrowded kitchen. So Wang created the IP to combine the functions of multiple devices.
Another big frustration? Burned food.
“It’s a very frustrating experience,” Wang says. “So as one of the key objectives, we needed to design a certain burn protection mechanism.”
It is this type of attention to gathering and addressing customer requirements that has helped form the backbone for the IP’s success. This feedback loop, as it turns out, was not just reserved for the initial launch of the IP either.
Upon each successive release of the IP, Wang says that he scours thousands of customer reviews on Amazon to understand what buyers like, dislike and want. To date, he claims he’s read well over 40,000 of them. I’m inclined to believe him.
Not all customer reviews are positive though, especially with the release of the first generation IP. While it might sting for many entrepreneurs to receive anything less than stellar feedback, Wang continually asserts that:
“The secret ingredient is negative customer feedback.”
It’s gratifying to see what happens when a brand listens to its customers, isn’t it?
(3) A disciplined product development cycle
What good is all that digested customer feedback if nothing is done with it? Naturally, Wang and his team introduce the next generation of their IP every 12-18 months. The regularity of their ‘refine and release’ cycle is reminiscent of the “tick-tock” model, made popular by Intel, which should come as no surprise given the founding team’s technical background.
Discipline aside, Wang’s product development practices balance the aforementioned needs of their customers with the calibration required to blend multiple technologies into a single product.
“We have a winning formula in hand - look at the latest developments in heating technology, sensor technology, user interface, material technology, and rethink what’s already available in your kitchen. Those are devices that, internally, we call legacy devices. We want to create something that is better and that caters to the needs of our generation.”
This approach makes you wonder, however, with the IP team’s constant need for better performing components, the soaring popularity of their finished product as well the pace and volume of products needed to be assembled and shipped, how crucial it must be to protect and enforce its patents and intellectual property.
Perhaps that’s an unintended benefit of judiciously releasing new generations of products - it keeps the competition, and any copycats, one step behind.
(4) Letting the product speak for itself to turn strangers into raving fans
How does an unknown company, with an experimental product, produce advocates?
Pragmatically, of course.
From very early on, Wang and his team believed strongly that their product should stand on technical merit and the ability to solve customer pain points. Combine this with Wang’s aspiration to place “an Instant Pot in every kitchen” (sound familiar?), and you have the makings of a “it should work” word-of-mouth strategy.
So how did Wang do it exactly?
At a high-level, he put his product into the hands of his customers and let them do the rest. Feeling that his product had viral potential, Wang actually seeded a few hundred units to food bloggers with large followings and celebrity chefs to help generate exposure.
The next best thing that he did?
He started a Facebook group titled “Instant Pot Community” and simply put a link on InstantPot.com. That same community now has a staggering 1.8 million members with a surprising amount of engagement where everything from photos of dishes and recipes to tips and tricks, on how best to use the IP, are exchanged.
Taking such interactions into the real world, Instant Pot parties are an actual thing. It’s a gathering whereby a group of people get together to cook in a kitchen full of IPs and share in each others dishes. How delightful. I have yet to attend one, but I’m perhaps five friends away from hosting one of my own. From what CBC uncovered in their own report, it seems like a good time!
Let this be a lesson for all the marketers out there...start with a good product that solves a common need.
As I’ve reflected on my own marketing career, and have had the chance to share at speaking engagements, I believe that consumers today crave an authentic connection and/or experience with a brand. Why? It’s the basis for an authentic relationship. While not all consumers want a deep connection with their products or the company that makes them, those that do really do.
Overall, as complex as the IP’s systems may be, Wang kept it simple. He stuck to the fundamentals, pursued his team’s truth, and executed both with commitment.
As we can see from the results, the IP’s brand equity, share of mind and sales have grown to incredible heights.
The Instant Pot: Cooking Device or Religious Symbol?
As an IP fan myself, I somehow felt that the depth of my evangelical passion for this product was reserved for a select few. Upon researching, however, I realized that the ‘community’ mentioned earlier in this article is in fact far more than a label can do justice to. Alex Beggs, of Bon Appetit Magazine, aptly sums up this sentiment:
“And on the seventh day, God threw some chicken and spices in the Instant Pot, smiled at the upbeat electronic trill of the lid locking into place, and that was it. The universe was complete.
That’s how any conversation about the Instant Pot goes—Biblical devotion, big promises, and confessions of undying love. For a $100 kitchen appliance. And it’s not just the writing about the pot, it’s a live human, me, expounding at your dinner table, or whispering in the church pews at a recent family wedding–because when you’re on an Instant Pot kick, you do not shut up about it.
Why? Because this bulky, robot-head-looking appliance with two black plastic handle ears, can do a ridiculous number of things. Pressure cooking is the most popular. But it can slow cook with the best of them, sauté (albeit at one temperature), steam, cook rice, and make yogurt. Imagine if everything that typically takes three hours to cook, like dried black beans, took 10 minutes. The Instant Pot is here to save your life.” - Alex Beggs, Bon Appetit Magazine
Quite the high praise from a venerated food publication. If the IP can convert at that altitude of journalism, then what chance do the rest of us have?
As it turns out, a very slim one.
Even outspoken, next gen politicians are on the IP bandwagon, as shared by CNBC:
“...in a pitch-perfect example of how Instant Pot has penetrated the zeitgeist, rising young political star and newly elected New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who’s been dubbed the most relatable politician ever) has even started having Instagram Live conversations about politics with her 780,000 followers over an Instant Pot. Earlier this month she held court while making Instant Pot macaroni and cheese, and a few days later, she asked her 1.2 million Twitter followers to submit their favorite Instant Pot recipes for future chats.”
Might I remind us that public expressions of fealty, like the above, are not solicited by Wang and his team. The product is simply that share-worthy.
The tangible outputs of the IP’s fandom are more than just social media chatter and in-person stories, however. The intense interest has actually spurred an entire culinary industry.
More than 2000 cookbooks have been written, dozens of food bloggers have launched their careers and several imitators and accessories have cropped up (from spatulas to springform pans).
All that being said, there are detractors, however few. Some have come to recognize the IP’s limited utility for their own meal preparation. Despite the ennui, there still is a shred of dedication in their sentiments:
“I’m out of the honeymoon phase..Now we’re settling into a relationship. And I’ve accepted its limitations, like the fact that there’s no reason to ever make oatmeal or rice in it. But between the lamb stew and the butternut squash soup, I know we will be together forever.”
Harsh words, huh? (*sarcastic silence ensues*)
Could it be that Wang, despite his technical focus, has actually figured out a way to bring meaning to the joy of ‘cooking’ to more people than what any other television network or celebrity chef could ever dream of doing?
Despite its clunky exterior, the IP has a magnetic quality to it. Looking past the pain points that it solves and features that it sports, the IP strikes at a core human tenant when it comes to food:
“Cooking is not a solitary event. You cook for your family, you cook for your friends; if you create a wonderful dish, you’ll brag about it.” - Robert Wang
And brag people have.
Heck, if you’ve made it this far in the article, you can imagine which part of the spectrum I’m on.
The Next Frontier
Aside from a deliberate expansion into other kitchen appliance categories and tools, the IP hit yet another significant milestone in its growth in March 2019. They were acquired!
Instant Brands (the parent company of the IP) will merge with Corelle brands (of Pyrex, CorningWare, SnapWare and Corelle brand fame).
As details emerge throughout the year, one thing is clear - a merger of this nature would give the IP an even larger platform to reach new audiences. It will also help prevent the IP from following the path of other ‘one-hit wonders’. After a certain point, scaling will eventually lead to decline. Proper brand management can help to mitigate the pitfalls of that decline. Given the consistent brand equity that Corelle has managed to generate over time across its portfolio, the IP only stands to gain from access to a hard-earned sales and marketing playbook.
Wang is set to stay on as Chief Innovation Officer and will likely be given the space to do what he does best: invent.
There’s a lot to the IP story. As recent events have shown, there will be a lot more to tell.
Thinking critically about this piece, there are four key insights that, I believe, are worth highlighting.
The Instant Pot not only captured the imagination (and share) of an entire category, it ‘raised the tide for all boats’. A relentless focus on product-market fit, the discipline to incrementally improve with new releases and the foresight to sell on an open (and highly popular) marketplace reminds us of the importance of business fundamentals...and timing.
Where other brands focus on targeting the needs of a persona, the Instant Pot focuses on the needs surrounding a sensibility. That kind of audience is persona-agnostic and the size of it is infinitely larger. Consumers with active, busy, healthy and environmentally conscious lifestyles who want to save money and eat quality, tasty food? Well, you could almost build a product platform off of that. Oh wait...
Evangelism often comes as a direct result of emotional resonance. The Instant Pot is unassuming, functional and has democratized the act of cooking at a time when the caste system surrounding food culture is seen, felt by and fed to so many. The Instant Pot, by comparison, simplifies the law of ‘input and output’. The input? Ingredients. The output? Nourishment...on multiple levels.
The Instant Pot was conceived from a place of utility. Its purpose is to be used. Its effect on those that use it is that it’s useful. The message to those that don’t? It’s usable.
A Fundamental Tension
Utility is at the core of the Instant Pot’s ethos, for both the creator and the user.
The Instant Pot’s hyper-popularity will lead to maturity, ubiquity and commoditization, which can in turn, make it less useful over time*.
*Consider how the interpretation of ‘useful’ or degree of ‘usefulness’ morphs as time passes (especially with a product that is widely available). As an example, horses were useful once upon a time. Their usage model matured as their ubiquity increased to the point where their usefulness was commoditized as a form of transportation. Then came the car, which in turn, become more useful than the once useful horse.
A Key Question
Food preparation is a useful activity for existence.
People measure some degree of utility based on an ability to prepare food.
Does a usable device liberate people by enabling useful behaviour? Or does it, in fact, constrain them by promoting a limited range of uses?
Food for thought.
Originally published on May 4, 2019