In 2017, our CEO Claire questioned whether innovation was stagnating across social media channels. Almost two years later, I believe we can say with hindsight that the answer to this was and still is a very firm ‘yes’. The Facebook, Twitter and Instagram experiences that we all have today are much the same as they were two, three or even five years ago.
But my colleague Charlotte recently raised another question - was anyone else really underwhelmed when Apple announced its expansion into streaming and credit cards? Perhaps the mega-brand will make incremental innovations in these markets, but I’m certainly not at the edge of my seat, anticipating something exciting.
In the noughties, innovation accelerated at such a pace that it was unlikely it could be maintained. Instead, the innovation we see today is either incremental, or in the start-up world, and these firms are quickly snatched up by larger organisations to help fuel their innovation initiatives.
However, is this an overly glib view of the world? After all, the smartphone wasn’t born overnight – the first ‘personal communicator’ was released by IBM in 1992, costing $1,100, with a one-hour battery life but fully capable of sending emails. It sold just 50,000 units. 15 years later, in 2007, the first iPhone was released with a humble 3.5” screen – but it still sold over 6 million units.
And in fairness, it’s not for lack of trying – AR and VR have not provided the next revolution of technology that we expected. Even 3D printing has only just started to deliver a very specific set of capabilities in plastic and metal printing after being hyped in its infancy. This is one technology that we do believe will have a revolutionary impact, but it will take time.
It feels like the technological ‘base’ of the next ‘innovation jump’ has simply not arrived – neither blockchain nor quantum processing nor graphene has immediately delivered on the hype; probably because genuine innovation is soul-crushingly difficult. I remember talking to Stephen Sasson about how he invented the digital camera back in 1975 – before most people had computers in their homes! It wouldn’t be until 1986 that the first model (from rival Canon) hit the markets with a list price of ¥390,000 – just over three thousand pounds in today’s money, accounting for inflation!
Solutions and Remedies
So, from a communications standpoint, how can we counteract this? After all, having an awesome product isn’t the only way to stand out. I’ve lost track of the times when I’ve bought an Innocent Smoothie because of those little knitted hats they put on the bottles in winter to support Age UK – even though other smoothies taste pretty much identical. The advantages of a strong brand, and that brand’s reputation, is inestimably important in this regard.
Clearly, one (non-communications) possibility is rapid iteration of products – but then you run the risk of ending a product line that has a large number of loyal users already. It’s much safer to make use of your other brand assets, including:
- Great support: Do you go the extra mile for customers? Like Rackspace, could you build a reputation for ‘fanatical support’?
- Great personality: Does your brand know exactly what it stands for? Is it almost a person in its own right? The cute, friendly image that Innocent Smoothies cultivated sold a lot of smoothies even after competitors launched their own rival products, often at a huge discount.
- Amazing staff: When I worked with Red Bee Media (now part of Ericsson) the firm had a 98% staff retention rate because people absolutely loved working there – and you could feel that pride radiating through the office. One guy said to me “I’m the last person to handle footage before it goes live on air – why would I do anything else?”. When you’ve got staff like this, shout about them.
- A more personalised service or great consultancy: Do you stop at nothing to make sure that your product absolutely fits the customer need? If you’re working for a boutique consultancy or a services firm, like a hotel chain, this is another point of differentiation to seize.
- Great sustainability initiatives: Are you the greenest of the green – or do you just have a great, pragmatic vision for how sustainability is a genuine business asset? My colleague Marco was telling me about HP’s vision for running a datacentre with cow dung the other week, and it’s not something I’m likely to forget!
Once you’ve identified this factor, you then need to work out how to ‘turn it up’ and use it as a differentiator. As I’ve said before, every single brand has a story to tell and something to shout about – it’s just a matter of working out what that thing is!
Similarly, in the post-#metoo age of transparency, an authentic, transparent, kind brand is often as valuable, if not more so, than a truly unique product. Don’t despair if you think your product / service is ‘boring’ (and we disagree if you do think that) – there are plenty of other ways to stand out and win the communications race.