The mark of a true innovator

This year’s Innovation League table identifies a ‘holy trinity’ of qualities manifested by those brands at the top of their game.

Adidas’ key to success is innovation that solves genuine consumer needs

Being considered a genuinely innovative brand is a high accolade. According to new research, a majority of consumers find brands that are seen as innovative and forward thinking to be more appealing. But being perceived this way is not easy.

Leadership skills, inspiring marketing and relevant and convenient products are the key characteristics of innovative brands, according to the study by research consultancy Incite. It also finds that 61 per cent say innovation is an important factor in deciding which brand to buy.

“Brands that want to be located at the top of the innovation league table need to be delivering on this holy trinity,” says Paul Thomas, director at Incite. “They have to be seen as leaders, they have to be delivering products that make consumers lives easier, but fundamentally they have to be backing that up with effective comms.”

“It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, or ‘because I can make it, I will’. It’s doing things in new and different ways that are tied into relevant consumer needs and pain points,” he says.

John Nichols, head of brand strategy at Nokia, which ranks 12th in this year’s Incite Innovation League Table, agrees with that stance: “We believe that innovation is the fusion of science and art to predict technological trend advancements alongside ever changing human needs. What it’s not is tech for tech’s sake.”

Communication must support great products and market leadership, but it is not a key driver of innovation in its own right. Brands that focus on communication or have good products but are not seen as leaders will not be seen as innovators, according to the research, which polled 3,000 people in the UK to ask them to name brands they thought were innovative and why.

The results form part of an innovation league table of more than 250 brands, which has been compiled since 2008. This year’s top 10 continues to be dominated by technology brands, with Apple at number one, Samsung at 2, Sony at number 3 and Microsoft ranking fourth.

Innovation League Table 2013 vs 2011
Rank Brand Rank change 2011
1 Apple
2 Samsung + 4
3 Sony – 1
4 Microsoft – 1
5 Dyson – 1
6 Google + 2
7 Virgin – 1
8 Amazon – 1
9 Panasonic + 2
10 LG + 6
11 Sky – 4
12 Nokia – 1
13 Dell + 4
14 Nike + 17
15 Hewlett Packard (HP) + 11
16 Tesco – 3
17 Cadbury + 28
18 Heinz New entry
19 Toshiba + 3
20 BMW + 7

Innovation League Table 2013: see the top 100 here 

“Pushing the boundaries of what is achievable is important as it drives learning and excites us all. Humans and technology are evolving together in an ever closer relationship, and how we bring new capabilities to people while ensuring technology doesn’t get in the way is paramount,” says Nichols at Nokia.

Technology brand Hewlett Packard (HP) has jumped from 26 in 2011 to 15 in this year’s table, making big strides in its strategy in order to innovate. “We’ve done a lot of work around segmentation and increased investment around research and development, spending $3bn (£1.9bn). We’ve also begun to focus on design, which we see as being a major differentiator,” explains head of marketing Rebecca Shears.

Brands from the FMCG and retail sectors have seen a surge this year with health, finance and automotive brands featuring in the top 50. Brands to note include Heinz, which enters the top 50 for the first time in 18th place with strong scores for product and leadership; Cadbury climbs 28 places to 17; and Korean giant LG ranks at 10.

HP is striving to lead in emerging categories. “A new category in the PC space is the hybrid PC or ‘detachable’; you can detach the screen and it becomes a tablet. Our product is called the Envy x2 and that’s what we’ve been pushing this year, with most of our above-the-line spend focused on that,” explains HP’s Shears.

Cadbury has launched a number of products and a successful Google+ campaign, which has allowed it to reconnect with a younger audience, says Thomas. “Its Google+ campaign reached over 1.2 million consumers. That has really helped to drive through on the branding and communications pillar,” he says.

Brands that exploit the internet and social media channels are also seen by consumers to be communicating in new and different ways
– something that helps their marketing to be viewed as inspiring. This is particularly important in the technology sector, says Incite’s Thomas.

Samsung, which has climbed three places in the innovation rankings since 2011 to second position in 2013, is not only strong through traditional channels but also through social channels such as video, social networks and micro-blogging. The same is also true for Google, which has climbed two places to sixth position in the league.

Nichols at Nokia says: “Purchase decisions are increasingly driven by recommendation and we know that word of mouth and social networks play a huge role. After you gain awareness, consideration is the online arena that is key to our strategy. Our approach to this is to join the conversation, as opposed to asking people to join our conversation.”

Meanwhile, HP has used its technology savvy to enhance social channels. Last year it broadcast a live video stream of a Florence and the Machine music concert at the Royal Albert Hall, via YouTube. Using nine different cameras, the viewer could choose how they wanted to watch the experience, using technology to turn them into the director of their own show.

The leaders and climbers of the league table are united in effectively tackling at least two of the three key criteria of innovation: leadership, products and communication. Cadbury, one of the biggest climbers in 2013, is doing well on both communication and leadership, as is Walkers. Heinz, another strong performer this year, does well on both product and leadership.

Finance brands appear to struggle with being seen as innovative by consumers, with only one brand in the top 100 of the league table (Santander at number 97), although the inevitable bias towards technology brands in the ranking makes it difficult to compare product categories fairly. However, comparison sites jumped up the list, thanks to a strong performance on product and communication. They are seen to make people’s lives easier with inspiring ideas, communicated in new and different ways on TV and over the internet.

Yet brands cannot rely purely on marketing and communications to make themselves look innovative, says Incite’s Thomas. “Consumers are a savvy bunch. They’ve got a lot of tools at their disposal to interrogate brands. In the past, communications could cut it: the whole direction was brand to consumer. These days the consumer wants to get into a real value exchange with brands.”

Nichols at Nokia agrees. “We strive for authenticity and we genuinely listen to people’s needs, not just in the here and now but we look also to their future needs and try to address these
in our work. People know what they want and as
a result they will never believe empty promises.”

However, it is unlikely a brand will reach the top 50 without strong and differentiated marketing warns Thomas. “It is very important. If you’ve got what you feel is a leading product and you think it really taps into a consumer need, then you’ve got to be investing in the right channels to drive that through.”



Bernd Wahler
Senior vice-president innovation
Adidas (ranks 26 on the innovation list, up from 51st in 2011)

Marketing Week (MW): How does Adidas define innovation?

Bernd Wahler (BW): For Adidas, innovation means pushing the boundaries of what is perceived to be possible. Our overriding mantra is ‘only the best for the athlete’. It’s about a continuous evolution and dedication to research, in the quest to deliver the best in sports performance apparel and footwear. Innovation has always been and will continue to be a priority for Adidas. Last year,
78 per cent of all Adidas products brought to the market were newly developed products.

MW: How does Adidas innovate in the area of leadership?

BW: Our recent Adidas Lab in London was not just a showcase of innovative products but was an innovative approach in itself; to give consumers a glimpse of how football might look in the next six months, year and beyond. We wanted to take the lead in showing a glimpse of technologies that most people would ordinarily keep under wraps until the release date.

MW: How does the brand innovate in products?

BW: The key thing is to make sure that all of our innovations and new products truly benefit the consumer. It’s not about innovation for innovation’s sake but making sure that everything has a clear purpose and solves a genuine consumer need.

MW: And what about in marketing and branding?

BW: We are always looking to communicate in surprising and engaging new ways. This year we launched the new Chelsea kit for the 2013/14 season without showing the kit, but instead showing the players covered from head to toe in blue paint and showing their passion for the club.

MW: How do you communicate innovation to customers?

BW: By making the innovation relevant to the consumer and communicating how it will benefit them. It’s not about the technical specifications themselves, but how they help the athlete.

The ultimate vehicle for communicating an innovation is when top athletes wear our products. Even athletes with contracts will only wear a product that they feel gives them the best chance of winning. So when you see our products on [footballer] Lionel Messi, [golfer] Justin Rose or [heptathlete] Jessica Ennis-Hill, you know they are the best products available.

MW: What sets Adidas apart from its competitors in innovation?

BW: Our products, heritage and continued commitment to innovation set us apart. Innovation is what our company was founded on. Products like the Adidas Predator football boot have changed the face of the sports performance industry.


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