Death By Innovation?

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Informative little piece at Brand Central Station last week on innovation.

According to Mike Bawden (BCS), more than 80% of the companies surveyed by Brand Central Station said their businesses were more innovative than they were just one year ago.

I'll just be lazy and pull a little cut & paste again:

“It’s the key to being competitive,” explained Denise Dorman of Write Brain Media in Chicago. Dorman works with a variety of clients located around the country, helping them to spot the innovative and creative, then bringing it to people’s attention.

Her statement was echoed by several others survey participants. “Change can bring success on many fronts,” wrote one manager from a national retail chain. “Merchants, marketing and our stores have the responsibility (for innovation).”

But businesses must be careful to avoid innovation without reason. Product innovation without suitable backing of customer insights can lead to some unpleasant consequences.

Consultant, author and speaker, Reva Nelson puts it this way:

“… what happens with innovation gone wrong, innovation for its own sake?

It forgets its roots, it moves too far away from the main trunk, it tries to disconnect and communication gets shot to hell. There are some consultants, managers and CEO's who forget about connection and communication, and think innovation is an end to itself. It's not. All innovation, like all change, must be well-communicated. It needs to take its time, and stay connected to the source.”
This is something I touched on recently on Corante, but far be it from me to try and plug that piece here. Ahem.

So... in I kind of agree with Reva on most points:

1. Innovation for its own sake usually ends up backfiring because it serves no real purpose. Innovation must serve a purpose. It has to fill a need.

2. Innovation is not an end to itself. As a matter of fact, innovation without purpose isn't innovation. It's tinkering. Years ago, when I started running competitively, I switched from Nike to Brooks shoes. Brooks makes great shoes, but I got tired of their innovation policy: As soon as I found a pair of shoes that worked for me, that model was obsoleted the following year and replaced by a different shoe. The result: I had to waste 2-3 months each year in a trial-and-error dance just to find another shoe model that worked for me. All I wanted was a shoe that I knew I could race in that wouldn't contribute to overuse injuries. Brooks wasted my time by constantly changing their line for the sake of having something new to present each year. (They've gotten better about this since then... But I've switched to Mizuno and never looked back.)

3. Innovation must stay connected to its source. Though Innovation happens at the crossroads of industries and cultures and lifestyles and tends to come from the churning of completely different waters, there is a narrative to all great brands. A history. A sense of continuity, through the brand's evolution. BMW, Michelin and Apple are perfect examples of companies that constantly ride the evolutionary wave of innovation without ever losing track of who they are. There is a common thread tying all of their products through the years. That's what you're after.

What I don't completely agree with is that innovation must be "well communicated."

Often, innovation doesn't need to be communicated all that well. A tiny, almost unreadable fine print section on the back of the package is all you need. Why? Because most of your users don't really care to get into the details. It's already understood that a new product (which is usually the result of an upgrade) is going to be much better than previous incarnations. Think about the Playstation 3, for example. How many kids can really recite the specs or tell you precisely why it is better than the PS2? All they really care about is that it is the new version, that gameplay is going to be insanely better than it was on the PS2, and... oh wait, that's it.

Details are nice, but unless you're a tech geek (and I say this with complete respect for detail-oriented folks everywhere), you aren't going to buy you next iPod, Cervelo P3C, iBook, Canon DSLR or Jaguar because their new and improved features were "well communicated". You are going to buy them because something about their design speaks to you and your needs.

You are going to buy them because you like them.

Or because everyone who uses them can't stop talking about how much they love them.

Or because the ad was cool, or the packaging was beautiful, or because the pricepoint inspired you to relieve your wallet of a few layers of wrinkled paper.

You could argue that in the best products, the innovation is "well communicated" through the product's very design (and that is often the case)... but I don't think that's what Reva meant.

Innovation translated to marketable features is simply this:

- Bigger. Better. Faster. More fun. Sleeker. Sexier. Smaller. More customizable. More user-friendly. More affordable.

Everything else is just fine print.

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