The dearth of innovation

Consumers face a sea of products, so look for brands that really deliver against their needs. This is where true innovation comes into play, says Paul Cowper

Innovation is being re-defined in marketing terms. It’s no longer about innovating inflexible two-dimensional products which can’t adjust to changing times. Innovation is becoming increasingly service-oriented so it’s harder to prove – and harder to spot.

The distinction between product brands and service brands is blurring as consumers demand much more accountability and dialogue from even basic product manufacturers. Excellent service (with a smile) is an expected part of the package and anything less is unforgivable, whereas a dodgy product could be reasoned away as a noble effort if the brand’s previous products were strong.

Understanding where the product sits in its surrounding “cultural capital” is vital. Consumers feel bombarded with “stuff”, yet even now few products really deliver exceptionally against consumer needs. There’s huge potential for great innovation that can really delight consumers, but the reality is the acheivement is often incremental, not radical. Companies need to be better at joining the dots between the insight and techie teams so technological advancements substantiate a meaningful connection with consumers.

It’s an often-quoted fact that nine out of ten product innovations fail, so in times of economic difficulty it’s no surprise that businesses behave in a more risk-averse way. Investing in the short term rarely creates “radical innovations” that can transform brands and businesses – it takes a brave business to keep the faith in our current economic climate. Plus the trend towards ever more “bijoux” marketing teams puts even more pressure on those left to deliver innovation.

Any short-termist approach is also surely the enemy of innovation, leading to more haste and less speed as deadlines are squeezed to deliver the big idea for the future of a company’s biggest brand, potentially losing the depth of expertise provided by inventors who spend years creating, incubating, refining and perfecting new ideas.

These days, the aggregation of businesses means fewer brands and fewer brand owners. It’s harder for consumer goods brands to capitalise on innovation investment when the competition tends to have pretty big budgets and can quickly mimic your work. Deploying an “incremental innovation” strategy with fast turnaround and fast rewards could be one answer.

A more organic approach, allowing brands to create news by simply putting a twist on an existing product line which can move volumes quickly, could prove far preferable to massive changes or investments that generate little or no news. This is happening in grocery, where retailers have conditioned consumers to expect constant novelty rather than big bangs. Maybe manufacturers are running to keep up with this demand, leaving little time for breakthrough innovation.

Finally, there isn’t enough challenge on why brands should get into innovation. All innovation is not equal – the best innovation strategy is one that takes a portfolio of risk approach. For some brands, meaningful, radical innovation is the Holy Grail, whereas continuous, incremental, evolutionary and organic works well for others. Simply offering choice or variety is not enough; consumers have choice and variety aplenty now. Neither is innovating for the benefit of shareholders, to show them that the brand is growing or future-facing. Innovation for innovation’s sake is pointless.

Instead it’s important to define what innovation will look and feel like and involve stakeholders in the journey, managing their expectations as they arise. Adopting a more inclusive approach where ideas are conceived and nurtured in an “innovation culture” will encourage teams to work seamlessly to deliver the next “Big Idea”. This avoids separate teams working in secret with a degree of impunity from the rest of the organisation.

Businesses embarking on an innovation strategy need to be careful – innovating incorrectly could cause more damage to the brand than good. But, get it right and not only will you boost brand equity, gain competitive leadership and increase market share, you could even be mak-ing history.

Paul Cowper is director of Added Value UK

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