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Make this the year you innovate

It’s time to get ruthless, and put a line through competing priorities
Innovation is hard. It presents an unready team with a unique blend of difficulty and danger.
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Drop everything.

That shiny new ad campaign you’re about to brief – drop it. Run last year’s copy instead.

That eye-catching social commerce initiative – park it. Pick it up again when you’ve got something amazing to offer.

That co-branding partnership project – back burner. That influencer, search and ranking proposal – long grass. That need-state segmentation study, with all those catchy cohort names – ditch it, and safely leave it ditched.

In this unfolding year of uneasy inflation, cost-of-living pain, anaemic macro growth and global political upheaval, my considered counsel to marketers is to drop everything. Except one thing: innovation.

Marketing’s central purpose

If you take the view that marketing is about working back from consumer needs and desires and using the brand’s expertise to add value to lives, then it’s axiomatic that innovation is the central purpose of our discipline. It’s not that the rest doesn’t count, but it is subordinate to this aim.

And, to be fair, you probably do have innovation projects in play, scattered among those other brand-building tasks. But that is the problem. Where they are scattered – one initiative among many – it is the ‘many’ that will take precedence at innovation’s cost.

And the reason for that is simple: innovation is hard. It presents an unready team with a unique blend of difficulty and danger. Far easier to brief the agency for a ‘big idea’, in the hope that it will power the growth the board demands, than to come through their door at the outset with a big innovation idea of your own, and look for the sensational spark that happens when internal inventiveness meets external craft.

And it’s not just easier but also relatively pleasant to spend time with those other, peripheral, but oh-so-fashionable, social and co-branding schemes. The problem is that they are, indeed, peripheral, and will do more to excite industry chatter than they will to build brand share.

Even data crunching, though dry, is a more attractive prospect than sitting down with a multidisciplinary team in an anything-goes session, not knowing quite where to start. You’re aware, of course, that an ounce of inspiration is worth a ton of analysis but you’re also conscious that the heady moment when breakthrough happens – if it does – is preceded by days of tussle and torture. What will regs make of this? How can we get ops on board? Where are the numbers we can predict with any certainty?

So, being human, you, the team, the department put it off or water it down. There are other things to busy yourselves with.

Well, ditch those other things now. Get to the point where it feels like the future is naked, and you know there is no way to go but to remember what marketers are here to do. Drop everything except innovation – but then, within that orbit, open out again. And dismiss nothing.

What kind of innovation, and when?

Innovation is a single word, but it comes in varieties that are totally diverse.

Marketers, and especially their agencies, are inclined to round on disruptive innovation as the default starting point. But how many have read Clayton Christensen’s original paper and understand that this is about cutting across the current norms of the sector in a way that simplifies the offer, vastly reduces cost to the customer – and hits incumbent profit?

It’s a noble thing to try, but by no means the only route to travel.

Incremental innovation is less thrilling, but with empathy and imagination can make a real difference to lives. One tip is to look at ‘workarounds’ that your customers might be employing right now in their interaction with the category. This is how entrepreneurs often get the first signals that innovation would be welcomed.

Another tactic is not to feel confined by the substantive offer itself, but to find new ways to cross the line between product and service. To willingly blur, in other words. In China, you can buy a Nio electric vehicle where the battery – the heaviest and most expensive component – is not included. Instead, you subscribe to the battery, and you never personally recharge it; you drive into a Nio change station, the battery is replaced in a three-minute swap and on you go. And if you want to switch to a lighter, lower-capacity battery for just local driving, you can. So, the car isn’t an ‘it’; it’s a range of possibilities.

Or you could start with an open mind and a proven academic tool and see where it takes you. The best of these is the value curve, brought to us by Insead professors W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. This simple framework helps marketers map out the brand and its competitors against the defining characteristics of the category. The next step is to probe whether some of these characteristics could be deliberately reduced in order to fund a dramatic improvement in the one customers value most. Not for the fainthearted – but it can be a gamechanger.

Finally, process innovation is something marketers rarely consider. Well, they’ll have to now, with AI finding ways to introduce efficiencies and cut cost or hassle for customers.

Consumers love brands that don’t stand still. Think Apple, Red Bull, Spotify, Zara, L’Oréal. So, commit. Make 2024 the year you innovate. And by year’s end, you might find that you have not only better ridden out this bleak backdrop of economic and societal gloom, but perhaps, in some small way, actually done something to change it.