Simplify Innovation: Make Remarkable Products
We all say that we love innovation. But when it comes to innovating within our own companies, it’s hard to love the pressures and anxieties that go along with it. If that weren’t bad enough, we are constantly reminded that innovation needs to be fast and continuous.
In reality, most brands’ progress down the innovation path is slow and stunted – more often a lunging leap to catch up than a swift step to stay ahead. But brands can’t afford innovate only in cycles or chunks if they want to come off as confident, dynamic or likeable.
Big, lunging innovations like range upgrades, line extensions or a fresh identity are important, but they’re a clumsy way of winning affections…a little like getting a nose-job to make new friends.
Iteration, Not Revolution
By contrast, the kinds of improvements that help brands become loved are often the smallest ones: expressions of personality, style and status that charm consumers and entice them to enter into a better world. Continuous innovation isn’t about creating revolutions, it’s about iteration: continually remixing and refining ideas to make them resonate with consumers’ emotions, habits and desires.
Besides the fear of failure, another big drag on product innovation is the perception of high stakes. Developing and launching new products is perceived as costly and complex. Consequently, even brands with strong innovation cultures tend to rely on communications as the default channel for demonstrating innovative spirit. In effect, the fast-spinning wheels of advertising, content and PR fuel the sensation of a dynamic brand.
Quite apart from the cost and risk of missing the mark (refer to practically any brand YouTube channel for examples), innovative communications are no substitute for a product range that is actually improving by making itself incrementally more relevant to individual consumers. Both need to occur continuously, ideally in sync with each other.
Making the case to tether communications to specific products sounds like promotional selling. But it becomes more nuanced by inverting the traditional vision of innovation.
By prioritising regular product iteration, brands can change the dynamic radically. If they actively target micro-innovations, brands not only increase their chances of achieving tangible improvement, they create platforms for larger and more coherent brand stories.
A great example of story-driven iteration comes from the audio brand, Sonos.
By anyone’s measure, Sonos is an innovative brand but a little over a year ago, one of its tiniest product innovations ever made its profile and sales spike: it gave a top-selling speaker model a fresh coat of paint.
Besides creating something noticeable and out-of-the-ordinary, Sonos’s remixed product was a beacon for a much larger narrative. The new, limited edition livery was a nod to the 75th birthday of the iconic jazz label, Blue Note.
In Blue Note, Sonos found a powerful, friction-less metaphor for audio performance, refined design and brand pedigree, as well as a bridge to an audiophile audience warming to digital music (and especially to Sonos).
Just by making their alliance tangible, Sonos and Blue Note created something remarkable: not in the revolutionary fashion of, say, an Amazon Echo, but something out-of-the-ordinary, memorable and likely to be remarked upon.
Collaborations: Sociable and Social-friendly
Their co-branded initiative enjoyed wide coverage and sharing. It looked good, it felt special and it spread valuable information to a broad base of consumers: for outliers it was perhaps a first encounter; for undecided buyers it was a call to action; for brand aficionados, a collector’s piece.
Rather than waiting for a next-generation product, Sonos iterated an existing product, giving it human-like qualities that revealed something about the brand’s passions, style and the kind of company it keeps.
For Sonos, Blue Note brought social cachet to give its story context, reach and validation. It was a relationship that surprised and delighted consumers and invited them to recalibrate their opinions.
Remarkable Products are Always in Fashion
Increasingly, consumers are actively seeking out collaborations because of the growing global demand for personalisation…and the declining popularity of average products for average people.
The clamour for special edition releases from the likes of H&M and Supreme are well known, but they take place at the extreme end of the scale. Elsewhere, brands that are clear about what they stand for are increasingly using collaborations to create a social footprint, creating new propositions that consumers can easily bookmark or use to become immersed in the brand narrative.
Collaborations and other brand innovation models simplify innovation and lower the creative and financial barriers to remarkable products. They give product managers more options to iterate frequently, while improving the odds and costs of earning engagement and sales.
From a leadership perspective, they give a common focus to sales and marketing, and perform valuable, front-line work for brand recognition, empathy and buy-in.
Is it gimmickry? Perhaps. Depending on how passionate you are about music and hi-fi, the brand-fit in the Sonos x Blue Note case is more or less obvious. Perception varies from person to person, but even the most discerning consumers enjoy taking part in a manipulation as long as it flatters their own taste or intellect.
The most prolific users of collaboration come from categories with the most sensitive and impassioned followers like fashion, sneakers, luxury goods and the arts. How consumers react ultimately depends on many factors besides fit, including design, activation strategy and price positioning.
Think Small. Act Big.
Rather than viewing innovation as a face-lift, brands should actively look for opportunities to micro-innovate and iterate products. The objective is not to leap into the future, but rather to pivot and lean towards the target audience, and provide brand experiences that are – literally – out-of-the-ordinary.
By additionally leveraging collaborators and their hard-earned notoriety, brands put “remark-ability” within closer reach. Creators, institutions, cultural property and other brands are all sources of social lubrication that can dramatically lift the contribution innovation makes to brand performance.
The innovation stories we are exposed to these days are breathtaking, but their scale needn’t be intimidating. Brands don’t need to disrupt the world to succeed: they just need to disrupt expectations.
Based in Spain, I run Crescendo Brands, a boutique brand innovation agency that helps brands and agencies build remarkable products consumers want to buy, by bundling them with ideas they already buy into.