Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she has not been pregnant with too many original ideas lately. Superficially, this is somewhat surprising. After all, economic conditions have been buoyant as never before, favouring a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture. And consumer society is close to obsessed with the quest for novelty – look at the massive Pokémon craze or the rash-like popularity of “clam-diggers”.
Real invention, however, is rare. Most new products amount to more – or less – inspired product extension. For every Renault MPV, there are a hundred tail-gated saloon car variants; for every P&G Pringles crisps, thousands of countline snacks with infinitesimal variations in format and flavour which bear the name of npd. That’s not to demean them: on the contrary some, like KitKat Chunky, have been highly successful in developing the master brand’s profitability. Their limitation is that they are a tactical device which lacks the momentum of originality to drive the brand owner forward in consumer perception.
So back to the original question: why isn’t there more emphasis upon originality if that’s where the corporate crock of gold lies? A comprehensive answer would be very difficult, but three factors surely contribute to the current state of affairs. The first is the nature of corporate culture, the second the unsatisfactory state of patent law and the third the unappetising balance of risk.
Inventions are often the product of individual minds – or are at least driven by individual inspiration. Nothing much has changed there, from Archimedes to Edison or, in our own time, Sinclair, Dyson and Bayliss. The problems of bringing products to market, finding the necessary capital and protecting successful npd from crafty competitors’ imitations are legendary. The Dyson vacuum cleaner saga is a good case in point.
But even where the germ of originality takes seed in a corporation, which might provide better escort to market, there are still formidable obstacles to overcome. Prime among them are corporate conformity and the tendency to research ideas to death before they reach the boardroom, let alone the market.
Another, subtler, complication is globalisation. It is increasingly difficult to “trial” a major new product in a local market before rolling it out internationally, for fear of giving the competition enough time to react to its specifications and positioning. A simultaneous global launch, on the other hand, is immensely costly – and immensely risky. Microsoft is attempting to do just that with the innovative Xbox computer games machine. Note the planned $500m marketing budget, most of which will have to be spent up front. Note also the belated decision to stagger the launch in Europe in order to forestall any possible components shortage of the kind which has plagued its main rival, Sony’s Playstation 2. The organisation of issues are immense.
Yet if the risks associated with innovation have increased, its necessity has not in any way diminished. It is often the best, sometimes the only, antidote to a tired and lacklustre market.