Rebrand Or Retread? Why True Innovation Doesn’t Come In A Bottle

Making supercold beer or a 22-blade razor is not innovation. So let's quit calling it that.

Recently, I saw a Coors Light commercial that made its new "wide-mouth" bottle seem as revolutionary as the first Apollo mission to the moon. And I began thinking: Is a new beer bottle really that big a deal?

Upon further investigation, I came across a MillerCoors web page that contained a "History of Innovations"—a complete list of what the beer manufacturer considered to be genuine revolutionary advances that it had created in the past few years. Those other "innovations" included, in addition to the wide-mouth bottle, the wide-mouth can, the cold-activated can, the Summer Shandy can, the Vortex bottle, and a keg-shaped can.

In other words, MillerCoors is really good at changing up containers. But I have to ask—is it really innovation when you’re just changing the thing the actual product comes in? Or is it just another way to create interest in a tired product?

We’ve all seen aggressive and expensive marketing campaigns over the years that suddenly touted a detergent as "lemon-fresh" or a razor adding yet another blade, as if these were breakthroughs on the order of atomic fission. Generally, the best that these kinds of superficial gimmicks can provide is a short-lived spike in sales. At worst, they result in a spectacular flame-out. Crystal Pepsi or New Coke, anyone?

Take the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s remaining major league baseball team in Canada. Fifteen years ago, they completely changed their "branding," meaning their logo and their uniforms. The problem with the team wasn’t the look, however…which is why this year, they returned to their original "classic" logo.

ReBrand, an international firm specializing in brand transformations, released a list of the top 20 biggest mistakes marketers make when rebranding. Three of those mistakes focus on this issue of the limited value of external tweaks:

* Believing the brand is the logo, the stationery, or the corporate colors
* Implementing a superficial facelift in place of significant change
* Basing a rebranding strictly on advertising

In contrast, real product innovation is about more than a new color, commercial, or an extra blade. Real product innovation is Amazon’s creation of the Kindle, Netflix’s introduction of online streaming of movies and TV shows (later undercut by an abrupt and severe price hike), or, of course, Apple’s development of the iPod, iPad, and iPhone.

Most people in business will readily give a nod to the power and necessity of true innovation—but have also simultaneously downgraded its meaning. As a recent New York Times article observed, "we now use the term (innovation) to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool." In reality, true innovation doesn’t look like what came before it, so it tends to scare management, who see it as an unnecessary and expensive risk.

Exceptions do happen. Google remains committed to both actively promoting and following through on genuine innovation. How else to explain a business based on building a better search engine that ends up inventing a car that drives itself? The fact, however, is that small startups tend to be the best at innovation—innovation is a true necessity for them to be successful. Otherwise, they can’t make the kind of impact on investors and the marketplace to make them stand out from the herd.

However, as a recent Harvard Business Review article makes clear, it is possibly the most opportune time for big companies to innovate. "Corporate catalysts"—entrepreneurial minds that exist within the corporate structure—are learning how to leverage a company’s huge size and vast resources as enablers of innovation, rather than obstacles. Not only that, but corporate activity in developing countries is allowing the development of low-cost mobile product solutions that can then be implemented back in places like America.

Innovation has to be ingrained in an organization’s DNA, not in a plaque on the wall that displays their corporate mission. It’s about what that organization makes—not what bottle it puts it in.

[Image: Flickr user Leighton Pritchard]

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3 Comments

  • Pmckeo

    The cynic in me sees the emphasis on innovation as the business concept du jour.  A few years back it was business process engineering.  The problem with innovation at most large established entities is that it really does require a sea change in attitude:  management must be willing to dedicate scarce and valuable resources to efforts that may not pan out financially.  It means taking risk, and many executives can't, or won't, do that.  It won't take but a few innovation failures before the CEO finds him or herself on the street looking for a job. 
    At the other end of the spectrum, at a small or startup company (where I worked for a while), innovation is the heart of the company; it's the reason for existance.  And while we all love to celebrate the success of small/startup businesses, we tend to overlook the fact that the vast majority of those enterprises fail. 
    And so at the majority of companies out there we end up with innovation being paid lip service without it truly being embraced. 

  • dionlisle

    Some fair points about the abuse of the term innovation, trust me I was in a group within a HUGE bank called Growth Ventures and Innovation so I have seen the abuse up close.  However, I still say one of my favorite innovations is the upside down ketchup bottle. Yes, merely a container of a product that didn't change.  I believe innovation comes when you think differently (sorry to steal Apple's term) but that is it.  

    My other issue with the article is the example.  The Toronto Blue Jays was the best example of a branding mis-step the author could come up with.  I am not in advertising but I am guessing some marketing folks could come up with some real doozies.  HP Invent jumps out as but one example.

  • Susan Robertson

    I suppose what you label as innovation depends
    on your definition of innovation.  The one described here is quite narrow.
     In fact, one of the most narrow I've seen.  What you describe here
    is simply one type of innovation - what most innovation experts call disruptive
    or breakthrough innovation.  If you define innovation as the process of
    using new thinking to create value for the company/brand, then all the
    instances you cite would appropriately be reframed as useful innovations of the
    more adaptive or incremental type.  Research has shown that successful
    companies have to do both well.  In fact, they have to do the incremental
    type more and more often.  So don't discount incremental innovation - it's
    a critical compoinent for long term success.