Getting the measure of innovation

What puts a brand at the cutting edge of innovation? According to the latest research, it must be a trustworthy business that simplifies the lives of consumers.

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Making consumers’ lives easier is the innovation that counts above all else, according to research from agency Incite. While technology advances and pioneering new services are still important, it appears that the most innovative brands in 2009 are those which find ways to make their buyers’ lives that little bit more appealing.

The research claims that there are six drivers behind whether consumers consider a brand to be innovative. People take into account whether a brand is a “pioneer” in its products or services; whether it “makes life easier” by offering genuine benefits; if it creates “buzz” around its activities; if it receives the seal of peer “approval”; whether it is “trusted” and respected by its users; and if it demonstrates “understanding” by appreciating what is occurring in consumers’ lives and what role it can play.

Incite’s research conducted last year showed that being a “pioneer” was the most important element in consumers considering a brand to be innovative. But the need for a brand to be a pioneer has sunk by 16% in responses this year, while the perception that innovative brands “make life easier” rose 41%.

Elaine Kent-Smith, owner of Incite, explains: “In a recession, people are very careful about what they spend. It makes sense that they consider those brands that make their life easier to be the most innovative.”

Order of importance
Trust has also risen by 14% in terms of how innovative it makes brands appear. Kent-Smith says that with “other brands proving less trustworthy”, or going bust, the idea of trusting a company has gained in importance.

Meanwhile, creating a buzz has dropped by 9%, gaining peer approval has sunk by 5% and demonstrating understanding of consumers’ lives has dropped by 17% in importance to people. It appears that in a recession, the most innovative approach is simply to be a trustworthy business that simplifies people’s daily existence.

Trust is one reason that Apple, considered the most innovative brand overall in the research, has risen to the top spot. Surprisingly for a company with such a strong heritage of new product development, it scores higher than most on trust and making life easier for consumers (63%) rather than solely its new technology.

Since the company posted a 47% leap in profits last month, earning £1bn in the three months to September, the consumer enthusiasm for Apple appears to have translated into hard cash as well as sentiment.

Trust and respect
Sony, too, appears to do well with consumers on trust (65%) and being respected (70%). It scores consistently high across most of the metrics, which is why it becomes the second-most innovative brand this year.

Google also scores well with consumers as an innovative firm, being talked about by consumers, making people’s lives easier and being a technological pioneer. Samsung also shows similar traits, being trusted by consumers as well as being talked about and making people’s lives easier.

Despite Nintendo’s continued popularity with its Wii and DS consoles, it experiences a fall in its perceptions of being an innovative brand this year. It does not have an advantage over rivals in the areas of making life easier for consumers or being highly trusted.

Kent-Smith explains: “Looking at the pattern of data versus other brands, Nintendo does well on ‘buzz’ and ‘peer approval’, but has no advantage on pushing technology or being on the way up. Perhaps there is a sense of it being caught up by others.”

Meanwhile, fellow technology firm Panasonic also sees a fall in its innovation perception this year. It is not seen as a leading example of a brand that makes life easier and is perceived to be expensive.

The cost of products, however, can be overcome with other traits. Sky, which has moved up the rankings of the most innovative brands, is also perceived as being more expensive this year than last but this has not damaged its reputation as being innovative. It is seen as being more talked about, respected, understanding consumers, making lives easier and being easy to use.

“A product like Sky Plus makes lives easier by allowing people to watch TV how they wish and there is a lot of Sky marketing at the moment about how you can choose your own package. That has no doubt had an effect,” suggests Kent-Smith. “And being expensive is OK if people feel that something is worth paying for.”

Mobile phone company Nokia is not so lucky. While the brand is trusted by consumers and perceived both as making their lives easier and pushing the boundaries of technology, it is not seen as being as advanced as its competitors. Apple has pulled further ahead of its mobile manufacturing rival.

Nokia scores just 26% in being seen as “years ahead of its competitors”, while it rates 57% on pushing the boundaries of technology and science. It also falls down on making consumers’ lives easier, achieving just 51% in this respect, well behind brand leader Apple.

“This is less about Nokia itself but in comparison to how innovative Apple is seen to be,” says Kent-Smith. “Nokia is still just as strong in terms of being innovative as it was last year but Apple is leaping ahead in some areas.”

It seems that the top ten brands have a pretty strong grip on consumer perceptions of being innovative, as Kent-Smith says that there aren’t really any brands “bubbling under” and making a name for themselves in this area.

She says that the closest brand to this description is Honda, which has sat just outside the top ten in both 2008 and 2009. Honda does well in the areas of pushing the boundaries of technology (54%, compared to BMW with 41% and Toyota with 44%). It also rates highly for innovative advertising and 32% agree it is years ahead of competitors, while 29% say the same for BMW and just 19% for Toyota.

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Kent-Smith says: “Despite strong competition from BMW and Toyota, Honda holds its own in terms of pushing the boundaries of science, being years ahead of competitors – and that key metric of making lives easier. All this is brought to life with clearly innovative advertising.”

Overall, Kent-Smith says that she expects the most innovative brands next year to follow a similarly customer-focused path. It appears that while being at the forefront of new technologies and services clearly wins fans, the brands that really delight consumers are those that do what they claim.

The frontline

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Ivan Croxford, general manager of digital marketing services, BT

People choosing “makes life easier” as a measure of innovation is part of a general trend for simplicity and usability. It’s a positive sentiment to hear consumers say that what matters to them is the impact of technology on their lives, rather than just the technology itself.

At its worst, technology can confuse customers, rather than help them. Brands need to expose the benefits of innovation and work hard to almost hide that technology behind the benefit. That puts the onus on us and other companies to do this well.

There are no surprises for me about Apple taking the top spot in terms of innovation. I’m only surprised that Google wasn’t in the top ten last year too. Is Google a brand with such good, innovative technology that people don’t even notice it?

Another interesting trend picked up in this research is the rise of mobility, which is demonstrated by both Apple and Samsung appearing in the top ten. The iPhone has taken off and handheld devices are developing rapidly. It’s clear to see that lots of people’s perceptions of technology innovation are in the mobile space.

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Alex Marks, head of business marketing international, eBay

Perhaps the reason why brands like Sky and Apple are seen as so innovative is that while they’ve always been developing new products, they are more mainstream than ever before.

Apple always appealed to “early adopters”, but millions of people now have an iPod. It’s similar for Sky. When Sky Plus was released, it was only used by a savvy few but now millions have it. So perhaps it’s about these brands getting greater distribution than ever before, which is why more people are aware of them being innovative.

I can also understand why consumers see a brand like Nintendo as less innovative than last year. It is inconsistent. When I was young, Nintendo’s earliest consoles were very cool, but Sony later overtook it. Nintendo then came back and had great success with the Wii but this year it’s been working on expanding its Wii ranges, rather than innovating with totally new products. That’s a perfectly good business plan but it may account for why consumers aren’t rating Nintendo as so innovative this year.

Some of the driving trends behind which brands are seen as innovative certainly ring true with me. As an ecommerce brand, areas like trust, value, depth and choice are all linked together and any innovation has to take those into account. “Making life easier” is certainly a theme that makes sense to me.

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The 2009 League Table

1 (2)     Apple

2 (1)     Sony

3 (3)     Microsoft

4 (4)     Virgin

5 (6)     Dyson

6 (-)     Samsung

7 (9)     Sky

8 (-)     Google

9 (8)     Tesco

10 (5)   Nokia

Figures in brackets show 2008 position

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