For the last year or so, my interest in the Boomer marketplace and new products has gotten me thinking about the hearing aid market. It is hard to find a major consumer product category more in need of disruptive innovation.
Here are the basics of what I’ve learned about this market:
No One Buys Hearing Aids When They Need Them
As a health and quality-of-life issue, the medical establishment does a terrible job of meeting a genuine consumer need. Individuals typically buy hearing aids a full decade after they actually need them. And while cost is a factor, antiquated assumptions and business practices are also contributing to that delay.
For decades, the industry developed products with the idea that no one would buy a hearing aid if it were visible. And, in spite of many billions of dollars at stake, they never succeeded. Meanwhile, consumers have completely changed the way they think about listening devices hanging from their ears.
I’m not sure if anyone in the hearing aid industry has noticed, but the rest of us spend our days with friends and colleagues who wear big pieces of technology (Bluetooth devices, wireless headsets, earbuds and headphones) hanging from their ears. What if these devices also amplified the sounds of people around us? Does anyone think that people would shed them out of embarrassment? Has anyone in the hearing aid industry talked to Dr. Dre? In some ways, this seems like an industry that needs to innovate through product design and marketing rather than technology.
And what about innovating its distribution system? If you’re like me (a 48 year old whose wife tells me that hearing aids will be in my future), you have grown up seeing audiologist offices in third-tier strip malls, like faded (and somewhat scary) typewriter-repair shops. You couldn’t make me go into one even if I had lost my hearing entirely. This market may need to innovate through distribution more than technology, too.
Hearing Aid Technology: Getting Better by Getting Worse?
In an industry that seems generally deaf to the interests and needs of the Boomers who will drive its growth, there are a few interesting developments.
On the technology front, the FDA has identified a range of products called Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs), which are not technically hearing aids because they are intended solely to amplify sound rather than to compensate for impaired hearing. I don’t understand the difference between those terms, either; but I do understand that PSAPs cost, in some cases, less than 10% of a hearing aid. PSAPs would not represent the first time an industry delivered a disruption through lower-tech-innovation at a very affordable price. This is how the market for reading glasses exploded – and the Spinbrush. Maybe we’ll all end up owning several PSAPs (for the car, for the office, etc.) in different colors and designer labels.
The other innovation in the hearing aid marketplace comes in distribution. Because PSAPs are so cheap (ranging in price from $25 to 60) and because they do not require diagnostic assistance, they can be sold where we buy all other sound-related products (drugstores, electronic retailers, and television). The ever-innovative Costco has actually launched Hearing Aid Centers and is creating a big new retail market, confirming that Boomers are more likely to buy hearing aids in places where they already shop rather than in specialized and isolated distribution channels.
I hope that readers of this blog will offer their own suggestions for how this $6 billion marketplace can innovate and expand to fill the needs of the nearly 40 billion Boomers who are turning into its customers. Should there be several price points (as there are for eyeglasses) to allow consumers to meet different hearing needs in different ways? Should there be hearing-diagnostic clinics (like Lens Crafters) at Wal-Mart? Should retailers sell hearing aids (or PSAPs) one ear at a time, with money-back guarantees? What brands (or designers) should get into this space?
Let me and the marketplace know how you think the hearing aid industry can disrupt itself to meet the needs of the biggest growth trend it has ever seen: Boomers.