Two simple paths to brand innovation.

The relationship between any product and its customer can be broken down into a series of steps starting with desire and ending with consumption. However the number of steps and the level of consumer involvement at each step differs for every product. Once you understand all the steps and the role of each, two forms of innovation can take place.

1. Remove Steps from the Process. This is the option that gets all the ink. Making things simpler for customers is the most basic form of innovation. Take a walk down the beer aisle and you’ll see what we mean. The twist off cap and the fridge pack are two examples. These innovations were born from the search for inefficiencies or unnecessary motions that could be removed from the process.

2. Add Steps to the Process. Although often overlooked, savvy marketers realize it can sometimes be beneficial to add steps to the process. Trader Joe's, Target and Fresh Market actually added an extra step for beer customers by allowing them to assemble their own six-packs. It takes more time and adds complexity to the shopping process. But it creates new value for customers.

So, there you go. Two simple paths to innovation. Now you give it a shot.

Creating disposable brands.

Today there are about two dozen compass iPhone apps sold at the iTunes store. With yesterday’s announcement of the new iPhone 3GS (with its built-in compass app), Apple has pretty much leveled the entire market. With the speed of innovation increasing every day, no brand is safe from being made obsolete overnight.

Marketers work hard to build up brands over time. We nurture and invest in them. We promote their legacy and legitimacy. And we’ve bought into the notion that while trends may come and go, strong brands will always endure.

Perhaps that’s merely wishful thinking.

Rather than focus on how to build an enduring brand, could it be more constructive to think about what might make your brand obsolete? What societal trends, if played out over a few decades, would spell disaster for your brand? What companies outside your category could easily enter and disrupt the current balance of power?

Better yet, why don't you determine the fate of your brand? Make it disposable. Decide how and when it should die. Plan to kill it and create a new one. Make speed of innovation your ally rather than your enemy.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Everyone knows that guy who tells the same jokes all the time.  It doesn’t matter where he is or whom he’s with, he routinely pulls out his tried-and-true “killer material” which he hopes will evoke the same laughter as it did the first time around. There are three types of reactions:

1.) We can pretend we’ve never heard the joke and laugh as if we haven’t. 2.) Beat him to the punchline. 3.) Or, slowly and quietly dismiss ourselves from the conversation before the joke is finished.

All options make us uncomfortable and none make for a healthy conversation. Consumers mentally cycle through the same options when they hear a familiar brand say the same thing (or slightly “new and improved” version thereof) in the same ways it has before.

Sadly, for decades most marketers have been instructed that the best thing to do for their brand is to say the same thing over and over again.

What’s more important than using repetition to burn a brand into a consumer’s memory is giving them something worth remembering in the first place.  Real financial gains these days are being realized by a handful of what we call "Renaissance Brands" who consistently redefine their product offering, service approach, and marketing style – not beat consumers over the head with the same, worn-out sales pitch.

Are you looking for consensus or inspiration?

Over the past couple decades it seems we’ve evolved our market research practices to weed out respondents with extreme biases.   We don’t want to include anyone in our research who rejects our product or uses too much of it. We don’t want anyone who is too shy or too talkative. Too young or too old. Too savvy or too inexperienced. We go to extreme lengths to capture the opinions of the “average” customer. However, now more than ever, it’s the biased customer - not the average customer - that is driving our businesses.

Morgan Spurlock was biased. He would have never met the focus group criteria. But his film perhaps changed how McDonald’s does business moreso than any other piece of consumer research that company conducted over the past 50 years.

Marketers who try to eliminate biases from their research are sacrificing inspiration for consensus.

Each marketer has to ask themselves this key question: Would I rather hear one uniform opinion from eight identical people or eight different opinions from eight different types of people?

To truly come up with innovative solutions and ideas, we need to find mechanisms for harvesting diverse viewpoints.