In Search of... Innovation

Innovation. It's the lifeblood of growth and success. Yet trying to come up with a new idea, one that stands the test of time, is a daunting task — to say the least. The landscape is littered with ideas that look good on paper but just did not succeed.

Apple's iPod is clearly a great idea. This portable music device trumped all MP3 players, even checkmating such consumer electronics stalwarts as Sony, selling nearly 4 million units. But even Apple, renowned for being an innovation leader, has stumbled in its storied past.

Apple's Newton personal digital assistant, while groundbreaking, never enjoyed the laurels accorded the iPod. Newton was too big and its handwriting recognition was poor. The Palm Pilot, on the other hand, achieved great success because it learned from Apple's mistakes and was designed to fit in your pocket and was simple to operate. It became an overnight sensation.

While hindsight is always perfect, there's a recurring theme in these stories: transportability and simplicity. The idea of simplicity also permeates Google's success, which enabled it to soar to great heights in a segment dominated by deep-pocket brands such as Excite@Home, InfoSeek, Lycos, and Yahoo.

Except for Yahoo, none of those brands conjure up the cachet each once enjoyed among Netizens. The lesson for technology players, or anyone else chasing mega-success, is to focus on the user experience.

Apple's iPod and Google make it easy to accomplish the task each is designed to do. While that may sound simple, many new products and services stray from these key concepts. Who can forget IBM's PC Junior with its "chiclet" keyboard that garnered zero respect? Or Sony's Betamax, which recorded just one hour when VHS could do two?

And while ease of use is a noble goal, there are lessons to be learned from that egregious blunder, Microsoft Bob, which was too annoying for words. But technology is not the only field that has seen its share of larger-than-life blunders. Many a marketing lesson is filled with examples like Coca-Cola's New Coke or Ford's Edsel. Then there's Pepsi A.M, Nude Beer and, well, you get the idea.

In Coca-Cola's case, the company ignored the inertia of the status quo, not understanding the true reasons why consumers drink Coke. While market research and thousands of taste tests showed that consumers actually liked the taste of New Coke better than the original, Coca-Cola learned the importance of knowing "why" the hard way.

Sometimes new product ideas that may seem counterintuitive are just that. Volkswagen, a brand known for hip, reasonably priced cars, has met tepid response for its $80,000 Phaeton. Clearly, upscaling one's brand along with an aging boomer population is not necessarily what the doctor ordered. Lesson No. 2: New product ideas should fit within the framework of your corporate mantra. In Volkswagen's case, it's all about farfegnugen, dude!

Whether your customer's status quo is hip or not, there's always room for innovation. That fashion statement du jour, the baseball cap, is a perfect case study of how a confluence of ideas can propel product sales.

Americans have always worn baseball caps, but a major shift occurred in the '90s when Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., popularized turning caps around. While that was something urban kids had done before, Griffey propelled the trend and provided the first lift for cap sales.

A more direct impetus came when Spike Lee approached one of the largest makers of baseball caps, Buffalo-based New Era Cap, in 1997 with a request for a red New York Yankees baseball cap. Saying yes to Lee was a good idea for New Era Cap, because since 1998, U.S. sales have hit a minimum of 800 million units each year, with the worldwide market topping 2.5 billion units annually.

Still, most companies don't have a Ken Griffey, Jr., or a Spike Lee to boost sales, so they need to invent the future internally. That's no simple task. "It's not easy for people to reinvent themselves," comments David Yorka, a Columbus, Ohio-based career education consultant.

While innovation in a seemingly mundane area like baseball caps is difficult to come by, Atlanta-based All-Star Apparel has a patent for the "Pro Pocket" — you guessed it — a baseball cap with a pocket under its front panel. Even in baseball caps, a market controlled by a few players based largely in Asia, one has to protect one's IP with patents, says founder Kent Purdy.

The lessons learned from market innovations and failures are many, but can be boiled down to three simple edicts.

Make sure to heed the consumer, intuitively. The New Coke and Newton examples speak volumes about flawed market research.

Your new offering should be a genuine improvement over the way things are currently done, as Apple's iPod, Google, and the failure of IBM's PCjr clearly underscore.

Don't be afraid of innovation. While it's certainly not easy to be a pacesetter, falling behind can be a lot worse. Remember the words of Honda Motors' founder Soichiro Honda: "Success is 99% failure."


What is your favorite marketing flop or product blunder? Innovation that just didn't make sense? Join the discussion!

Add New Comment

0 Comments