Marketers must reclaim the word ‘innovation’ before it dies

Innovation has become an overused buzzword, according to marketers, but what can brands do to reclaim the term and showcase true innovative ideas and ways of doing business before the word becomes redundant?

Innovation is everywhere. Speak to any brand and they will be looking to innovate, have innovation as part of an overall strategy or be looking at ways to weave innovative thinking into their business.

But many companies seem to use the word, and all it implies, without being in the business of true innovation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines innovation as “a new method, idea, product”, and to innovate as the process of making “changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”.

Here are four aspects of innovation to watch out for if you are a marketer looking get to the core of what could become a redundant word if it’s not reclaimed and clearly defined.

1. Innovation does not equal technology

“It doesn’t necessarily relate to technology alone,” says Jo Moore, global executive brand director at Lenovo. “Innovation for us describes our mindset, which can be used to transform current ways of working and applied to all layers of business.”

The brand director believes that “technology has, by its very nature, always been at the forefront of innovation” but now consumer experiences are dominated by technological devices “brands are repositioning themselves as technology companies to remain relevant, so their focus on innovation becomes more extreme”.

James Bidwell, CEO at trend forecasting and digital innovation platform Springwise, says: “There has been a lot of confusion recently that innovation equals tech.”

READ MORE: Colin Lewis – Innovation is the key test of marketers’ competence

However, there are plenty of examples of “analogue innovations”. Many innovative ideas are enabled by technology but confusion arises when “people lump the two together”, he says.

One example Bidwell offers is of a South Korean car park that aimed to solve the issue of not being able to immediately see which spaces are free. The car park installed balloons to show free spots and as the car pulls in the balloon goes down as it’s pulled under the car taking the space.

Innovation is just a modern day word for evolution

Stuart Eames, Waitrose

Bidwell also sees a lot of social enterprise and sustainability innovation on the Springwise platform, from disaster shelters for refugees to a craft beer brand in the US that replaced the plastic around 6-packs with ones that turn into fish food.

For Claire Cockerton, chief executive of Plexal, a new innovation ecosystem opening in London this summer, it’s about both “emergent technology and new business models”.

Plexal is a new innovation site established at the Olympic Park that involved redesigning a 68,000 square foot area into a mini city, with both public and private spaces. It will provide a range of services to support innovation processes, including brand PR, communications, legal, accounting and financial management services.

The site will also provide entrepreneurship and leadership training for new businesses and run accelerator programmes for young companies who are looking to get to market quickly.

Cockerton says there is innovation in the way companies are delivering services and “using shared resources, open data sets or creating platforms with which you engage with other companies to build using their software or platform”.

She adds: “A business model shift that we are seeing is in the shared economy or peer-to-peer economy, whereby tech platforms are enabling peers to connect directly, with no broker, to other people who could provide what they need – whether that is crowd funding, lending or even transport.”

Cockerton believes “it’s just as important, because technology often needs a new business model to do really well”.

2. Innovation should push boundaries

The wide use of the term innovation means that it can refer to everything from a simple change to a complete overhaul. At times innovation may refer to small brand iterations, but at others is could describe completely new products and services.

Moore at Lenovo says the “overuse and generalisation” of the term innovation has led to a diminished importance as “we see many incremental changes now being classed as innovative”.

Lenovo used audience insight before innovating its Yoga Book product

However, the brand director believes “innovation means to truly push boundaries and create solutions for problems that have not yet been recognised.” The brand innovates its product lines by introducing new features with each device designed to combat issues consumers faced with previous devices as well as creating solutions to problems they are not yet facing.

“If you don’t evolve, if you don’t do something better or different to the competition you end up not being around,” says Stuart Eames, operational improvement manager at Waitrose.

Eames gives the now classic examples of former high street favourites Blockbusters and Woolworths. He says these businesses “remained consistent in the way they served customers or in the products that they had” and says the retailer has to offer something different in today’s climate.

“For us innovation is about doing continuous improvement but also doing something different from the competition,” he adds. “There’s six or seven big competitors and Aldi and Lidl are steaming over from Germany and taking market share.”

Innovation is whatever brings value to the consumer

Andrew Garrihy, Huawei

Eames believes that the loyalty scheme My Waitrose is “future thinking innovation” but that there are shorter-term innovations that can “make the customer happy”.

He cites the decision to shorten till receipts, which was causing an issue for customers. He says looking at those pain points “paves the way to do something quick and easy to be able to solve a problem” but that the retailer also looks at the long-term innovation in receipts to move to e-receipts.

3. Innovation must add value for the customer

There is a part that the Oxford English Dictionary does not cover in its definition and that’s who is served by the new method, idea or product. If using the term benefits the brand reputation and doesn’t add value for the consumer then innovation has gone awry.

The definition is quite simple,” says Andrew Garrihy, chief marketing officer for Western Europe at Huawei. “Innovation is whatever brings value to the consumer – it takes many forms, sometimes it’s a breakthrough in technology and sometimes it’s just about thinking different in the way we approach problems.”

At Huawei, innovation is anything that adds value to its consumers in a “real and meaningful way”. For the launch of its latest handset, the P10, it took insights from consumers to add in “simple gestures” to operate the phone, such as fingerprint technology and a home button.

The brand also invested money to solve a problem in Android phones whereby users experience a slowdown in the operating system over time by hiring engineers to organise the soft and hardware so there’s no slowdown.

READ MORE: ‘As soon as you have an innovation department you’re buggered’

This customer-led innovation helps consumers “to do what they want to do in a quicker, easier, faster way,” says Garrihy.

Cockerton at Plexal agrees. She says: “True innovation delivers a better customer experience, delivers a utility to the customer and improves efficiency in our lives.”

“If you are able to innovate in terms of the customer experience, and the way in which you relate to customers, that can be the make or break for technology or a business idea,” she adds.

4. Innovation has to be company-wide

The history of successful brands is in the ability to adapt to change slightly ahead of customers – not too fast but enough to spot trends as they come and to innovate at the same speed as customers are exposed to them, according to Bidwell at Springwise.

This can only happen if entire companies are on board. Springwise sends innovation ideas to all employees across the organisations that are signed up to the service. It takes employees out of their “normal universe” and “opens their minds to change” when they see real examples of innovation.

As a former marketing director at Selfridges at the time of its turnaround, Bidwell says much of that success was down to “injecting innovation into the business at all levels”.

Waitrose, meanwhile, uses collaborative platform Wazoku to capture, evaluate and manage ideas from over 60,000 partners – the term they use for employees.

The partner that submits the idea will see their branch become the first to trial the solution before it’s rolled out to other locations. Eames tells partners if it’s “your innovation, you should be the first ones to receive it”.

“[It] makes it a lot more real for those individuals that have taken the time to think about something that is bothering them or standing in the way of them giving good customer service,” he says. There is also the reward and recognition element in “keeping people engaged in innovation”.

But Bidwell believes that the core responsibility lies with the CEO and the board of organisations and that they need to be “constantly looking to innovate”, which is then fed through company-wide.

There are many instances where the term innovation is used for brand marketing and communication that do not fit the true definition. The term has already become a buzzword, which means it will be replaced by the next big thing, but real innovation is much more long lasting to brands that are sticking to its true definition.

  • Creativity & Innovation is one of the categories at this year’s Marketing Week Masters of Marketing awards, taking place on 3 October. Entries are now open. To find out more visit