How to Sell New Innovations Without Killing the Excitement

So you've got a great innovation on your hands—a new product or service that is going to change everything. Well, soon you'll face your first battle: How to explain the thing. If it's new, it's going to take some explaining, but long explanations make for lousy marketing. So how do you talk about your innovation without killing the excitement?

The first thing you've got to do is anchor in what people already know. So let's say I had to explain Netflix to somebody who'd never heard of it. Well, I could start by saying, Netflix is like Blockbuster. Now at least you're in the right mental space—okay, I get it, it's a movie rental business. But then I can add to it: Netflix is like Blockbuster—but it's by mail. Or it's Blockbuster with no late fees, or Blockbuster that actually has the movies you want in stock.

So Blockbuster is the "anchor" here—it gives you very quick intuition about what Netflix is. As another example, think about the first generation of cars—how are you going to explain a "car" to someone who's never seen one. Well, they were called "horseless carriages." "Carriage" is the anchor—people understood what that was.

Notice that an anchor alone isn't enough. An anchor is about creating similarity—Netflix is like Blockbuster, a car is like a carriage. But the whole point of innovation is that it's something new, something different. So you're anchoring to help people understand, but you also need a twist. A twist is what gets them excited.

It's not a carriage, it's a horseless carriage. "Horseless" is the twist. It's not Blockbuster, it's Blockbuster by mail. Tivo is like a VCR that lets you pause and rewind live TV. LaserWash is a car wash where nothing actually touches your car but the sprays of water. You get the idea. To sell an innovation, you need an anchor and a twist.  Thanks for watching.

For more on the "anchor & twist" concept, see our Fast Company column on the topic. If you're interested in learning more about how the automobile was introduced to a skeptical American public, read this book, Market Rebels. Also note that Hollywood high-concept pitches (e.g., Alien is "Jaws on a spaceship") often use this same "anchor & twist" format.

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  • damian skinner

    Great post! We use a very similar method in pitching film concepts to studios. Instead of saying we have a very unusual film (which financing sees as a risk) we say something along the lines of "Its like Jaws meets Indiana Jones" or "X-Men meets Elf".

    Without sounding rude or pretentious the reality is that usually those that hold the financing for our project be that films, inventions or products do not have the ability to see the impact of a venture UNLESS it is connected to past successes.

    Damian Skinner

  • Dan Rockwell


    Cool, clear, and understandable. In order to explain the unknown begin with the known.

    I wonder if another way to explain innovation is moving from problem to solution. For example, Netflix solves the problem of late fees! whoo hoo. Now I'm getting it.

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Recent blog - The power of progress

  • Chris Reich

    Great concept. Change is the hardest thing to sell, even when people make statements like, "we need to change something!" Propose a solution and sure enough, the people who told you change was necessary will cling to existing ways.

    This technique opens the mind to change. It increases receptivity but the innovator will still have a long way to go to get a green light for a new idea.

    That said, I'd add one more component. You have the anchor (a carriage for car) and a twist (and it's horseless). I would then add a single powerful benefit: It eats only when you use it!

    The twist alone isn't enough because that will become the point of attack. Netflix is like Blockbuster except by mail. The attack will be "it will never work, people won't want to wait." So a benefit has to be tossed in that Blockbuster doesn't have: You can keep the movie as long as you want.

    If the discussion opens up, proceed with other 'wowing' benefits. If not, stage another time for more in depth discussion.

    Chris Reich

  • John-Scott Dixon

    Nicely done: simple and timely advice as we struggle to market a 3D Printer to new audiences for one of our clients!