Do you have innovation-itis?
If so, you’re probably not alone.
Let’s talk about how you can instill a pragmatic, achievement-based innovation mindset within your team and across your company. First of all, innovation doesn’t mean you have to invent the next light bulb!
David Aaker, in his book Brand Relevance, organizes innovation into a three- type continuum, which he describes as follows:
• Incremental Innovation: noticeable impact on brand preference (modest improvement that will affect brand preference)
• Substantial Innovation: New category or sub-category (an offering enhancement that is so noteworthy that a group of customers will not consider a brand that is not comparable. (Heavenly Bed at Westin)
• Transformational Innovation: Game changer (the basic offering has changed qualitatively to the extent that existing offerings and ways of doing business are obsolete for a target segment or application, and existing competitors are simply not relevant. (Tide (Ariel outside the United States) introduced a synthetic detergent technology that made soap powders obsolete.)
I would argue that business teams and senior executives struggle and even become disillusioned with innovation because of the wrong expectations. They strive for the transformational innovation at the expense of achieving and implementing the incremental or substantial innovation.
One remedy: if you pay attention to how people and customers actually use products and/or solve problems, you may find opportunities. The fancy word for this is ethnographic research. But, you can get important learning even if you don’t have a big research budget. There are cost-effective ways to cultivate and maintain a fact-based, outside:in perspective. Find them and use them.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at two recent marketplace examples: water fountains and baseball bats.
I bet you’d think that water fountain manufacturers would be stymied when it comes to innovation. Not the folks at Elkay. By studying usage, they discovered something important: it’s pretty hard to fill a water bottle at a standard fountain!
So they made a bottle filling water fountain, which caters to “green” consumers and waste-management conscious facilities:
“We were really changing what a water cooler was,” Rod Magnuson, director of product marketing for commercial plumbing at Elkay told The Wall Street Journal.
In a company press release, he explained that “building off our initial objective encouraging thirsty people to refill their own bottle with free, filtered tap water instead of purchasing a single serving plastic bottle, we know our units are ultimately reducing the number of bottles that end up in landfills.”
Whether you’ve swung-em in action or just watched on TV, the Louisville Slugger baseball bat is an iconic brand. Hillerich & Bradsby has been making these bats for 129 years, and while there have been changes and new products, a wood bat is just a wood bat, right?
Maybe. but in addition to updating their logo, the company has just introduced “the hardest Louisville Slugger bat ever:”
“We hit the drawing board and looked at processes both old and new to build the next generation of wood bats. Cut from the best-quality wood on the market and forged to have no soft spots, the MLB Prime is the exact same bat the pros use.” (company website)
Take your pick. The new bats are available in maple and ash, with different performance characteristics:
“Baseball’s biggest hitters choose maple for its harder hitting surface and greater durability.”
“A lighter, more flexible timber than maple bats, ash bats give a wider range of large barrel models and a larger, more forgiving sweet spot that results in less breakage.” (company website)
Both Elkay and Louisville Slugger didn’t go for the “game changer” home run or grand slam innovation. Elkay’s new bottle filling water fountains probably fall under Aaker’s “substantial innovation.” As for Louisville Slugger, without studying the wood bat market, I’d say on first look the new bats feel closer to “incremental innovation.”
Keep the customer benefit perspective top-of-mind throughout your innovation process and evaluation. Focus on what can you do to make the end-user experience better (easier, faster, more fun, etc.), and at the same time, earn a profitable return for your business.
Getting your team and company organized for innovation may give you a migraine headache, but it doesn’t have to. Avoid getting locked-in to the quest for the game-changing, disruptive innovation (but, hey, if you’ve got one, go for it). Instead, fill your pipeline with plenty of incremental and substantial ideas, and watch your revenue and profit batting averages increase.
Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.