Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.
We need to break out of the conventional category-thinking mould.
New product development is the life blood of most marketing-led businesses. Yet the way we go about looking for inspiration and ideas should more accurately be classified as old product development. We need to break out of the conventional category-thinking mould.
Question: How do you know when an idea is truly innovative?
Answer: When it scares the hell out of everybody.
Instinctively, this observation (courtesy of Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap) seems to have the ring of truth about it. And yet few marketers seem to be prepared to grasp the implications of this truth. Faced with having to choose between the commercial benefits of successful innovation and the emotional benefits of a tranquil working life, most will choose the latter. They’d rather not rock the boat, even if the boat in question is their business future, one that at present is drifting rudderless in a slow-moving sea. If the safe option minimises the risk of being made to look incompetent or foolish, then Safe is Good.
Herein lies the paradox that is at the heart of all new idea-generation initiatives. We know that dramatic improvements in business performance are more likely to come from ground-breaking innovations than from steady incremental changes, yet we resist embracing the very attitudes that will create a climate that is conducive to effective innovation. Ideas are the consequence of creativity, and creativity is the juxtaposition of two or more previously unconnected concepts to suggest an unexpected third possibility. And “unexpected” is not a word that sits comfortably in most business lexicons. Corporate cultures encourage predictable outcomes, and place concepts like certainty high on their list of preferred values. They place great store by tried and tested processes, convinced that the free-for-all alternative is the fast track to pandemonium. Simultaneously, the management consultants are swarming through the business, re-engineering (for which read cost-cutting) at every turn. And whenever costs are cut, the capacity for risk taking is reduced accordingly, leading to an inevitable downward shift in reward potential as well.
Brand managers are rarely in a position to do much about this cautious state of affairs. They are obliged to work within the system, and it doesn’t take them long to work out that even the most energetic and passionate individual would have a hard time reversing the ingrained momentum of an inherently conservative culture. But even if they can’t change the way the company thinks, brand managers can certainly do something about their own intellectual approach to innovation, either by fostering their own creativity or by encouraging similar traits in others. Here’s one simple suggestion to start with: look outside your own category. You won’t find much that will surprise you by looking in the mirror.
Categories seem to define everything about the way we plan the future of our brands. The category that we compete within sets the boundaries of what can be done, and describes the territory within which we look for a possible commercial advantage. We feel we have done our research diligently when we trawl the websites of all the leading brands in our category worldwide, or when we subscribe to industry journals from Europe and the United States. Our intelligence gathering in this way ensures that no new development in our industry will catch us by surprise, and no competitor will steal a march on us by launching a product or service that we had no prior knowledge of. But this comforting self confidence is based on one fatally flawed assumption, namely that the Big New Ideas in our category will always be stimulated by developments within this same category. The truth is that the Biggest Ideas Of All usually have their genesis somewhere else altogether, and it has taken a flash of creativity for someone to spot how an idea (often a modest one) can have far reaching consequences once it crosses from one category to another.
Consider some examples. I venture to suggest that Discovery Health’s Vitality programme, which offers incentives for members to stay healthy rather than simply footing the bill every time they get sick, would have taken a long time to see the light of day if its developers had had their eyes focused only on what was happening in the health care category. More likely they had the wisdom to take their blinkers off, and look around at, for example, the automotive world, there to be reminded of the long term economic worth of preventative maintenance as an asset protector; applying this same logic to the asset that is the human body would have led them directly to the concept behind Vitality. Ironically, all Discovery’s competitors are now having to follow suit, but because they are responding only to developments within their own category, the result is a singularly uncreative suite of me-too clones.
And how about iPod and iTunes? If you had been asked a couple of years back to predict which company you would have expected to pioneer portable digital music players, you would surely have put your money on Sony’s Walkman stable rather than a computer company with a somewhat chequered track record in everything other than graphic design? And yet the headlines are unambiguous: “Sony opens in iPod’s shadow….Apple leads the digital music market with a 70 percent share”. Apple’s success was a direct result of creative thinking outside of the Apple category box in order to find an unexpected application for the devices that its boffins had developed boasting a combination of large memory and small physical format.
The list goes on. Caterpillar footwear – is there a better example of cross-category creativity than this one? And again, the competitive response is predictably unimaginative as every vehicle with any kind of rugged earthmoving brand credentials suddenly discovers the wonders of boots and shoes. Y Magazine’s success was the result of the creative thinkers at YFM having the sense to realise that they could broaden their own category by positioning themselves as a youth communication medium and not just as a radio station. And Smart cars took the essentials of the Swatch watch category – high fashion, easy-to-change designs – and applied them to urban car design – ultra funky, easy to “wear”, with replaceable body panels at R5 000 a set.
Sometimes the creativity stimulus is forced upon a brand owner, rather than fostered from within. When tobacco legislation banned cigarette brands from using most forms of conventional advertising, some simply retreated into investing more heavily in the few channels that were still legal. But at BAT, the managers of the Lucky Strike brand chose instead to explore new avenues altogether, and looked for their inspiration not in the efforts of other tobacco marketers here and abroad, but instead in the broader world of recreational cultures and unconventional communication channels. The virally-driven Lucky Strike events programme that came out of this lateral thinking has become a widely hailed example of how creativity can successfully overcome even the most restrictive marketing obstacles. But only if you’re prepared to look beyond the end of your nose.
All of these are case studies where brand managers had the courage to cast the net wider. They understood the difference between trends, which are an accumulation of similar thoughts within a category, and ideas, which are freer spirits able to transcend category limitations. This is the same distinction that separates linear from lateral thinking, research from instinct. Henry Ford was making precisely the same point when he noted that “if we had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. A search of category trends would have yielded Mr Ford the same result.
Useful sources of creative stimulation:
• The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier/ www.newriders.com
Andy Rice is a partner at Yellowwood Brand Architects, a leading marketing strategy consultancy, with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Yellowwood has been implementing its philosophy of “making brands work for business” for an extensive portfolio of blue chip clients for the past eight years. More details from firstname.lastname@example.org.