Innovation! Without Pain There Is No Gain:
Why is innovation so challenging? Thomas Edison underwent over 1,000 attempts before successfully inventing the light bulb. Visionaries like Karl Benz and Henry Ford dedicated over 20 years to inventing and reinventing, facing numerous unsuccessful attempts to achieve widespread adoption of the automobile. Even the internet encountered a broad spectrum of rejection and skepticism from many prominent figures. Innovation proves challenging because the human mind struggles to grasp concepts that lack a pure physical or consumable form, making it difficult to see, feel, hear, and comprehend the benefits and advantages of a particular innovation. The adage “don’t fix what is not broken” contrasts with the notion that if something can be improved, then it is inherently broken. Let’s explore ways to make innovation more accessible.
Anyone can be an innovator. Consider Thomas Edison as an example. Edison’s natural curiosity and fascination with electrical innovation, coupled with his recognition of the potential to create a practical and affordable lighting solution, contributed to a widely adoptable technology. This solution had fewer limitations and increased safety compared to the prevailing standards of the time, which were candles and gas lighting. Edison seamlessly blended his love for innovation with a real-world problem.
Let’s also examine Jeff Bezos as a case study. Bezos drew inspiration from eCommerce and its potential to revolutionize retail. Not only was he correct in his vision, but he also paved the way for economies worldwide to transition from brick-and-mortar stores to online retail. Amazon has significantly impacted the world, enhancing areas such as convenience and accessibility, facilitating faster product delivery to consumers, faster profits to sellers, all while minimizing environmental impact. Once again, we see the convergence of passion and impact.
“Passion and Impact does not make innovation easy, it makes it easier and worthwhile.” – Paul Anthony Claxton
Innovation is unfolding all around us, and at times, its essence eludes our comprehension. There are instances when we might even harbor a dislike for it. I can recall certain innovations that initially didn’t resonate with me, but in retrospect, I am grateful for their existence. One such innovation that stands out to me is the touchscreen smartphone. In its early days, I hesitated to transition from my push-button Blackberry. The touchscreens seemed prone to greasiness, and the absence of physical buttons bothered me. On my Blackberry, I could effortlessly text without looking, relying on muscle memory to feel the buttons. Yet, after nearly 14 years with a touchscreen phone, the idea of reverting to a push-button cellular phone is inconceivable. Touchscreen smartphones are undoubtedly far superior!
Reflecting on that time, had someone elucidated the benefits and convenience that a smartphone would bring into my life today, I would likely have been an early adopter of the smartphone revolution.
So, what prompted me to make the switch? It wasn’t a profound understanding of the benefits and advantages; it was the concept of cohesion.
Social Cohesion for Innovation Adoption:
Social cohesion and a grasp of the benefits and advantages are two crucial factors that render innovation adoption possible. Social cohesion serves as a pivotal driver of competitiveness, instigating a continuous wave of innovation. Cohesive societies, characterized by shared cultures and common goals encompassing economic prosperity, freedom of choice, and consumption, exhibit a heightened capacity for innovation.
In an attempt to unravel the relationship between social cohesion and innovation, I posed three questions to Chat-GPT:
- What are the top 10 most innovative countries?
- What are the top 10 most socially cohesive countries?
- What are the top 20 most socially cohesive countries?
Chat-GPT referenced the Global Innovation Index (GII) to address the first question, highlighting countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, and Germany as global innovation leaders.
To explore the correlation between innovative and socially cohesive countries, I extended the inquiry to the second question. Surprisingly, 50 percent of the top ten innovative countries were also among the top ten most socially cohesive countries. Expanding the scope to the top 20 socially cohesive nations revealed a complete overlap. This correlation suggests a strong link between innovation and social cohesion among the 195 countries globally.
WIIFM! Understanding of Perceived Benefits:
Consider your favorite brands and ponder why you repeatedly choose them. You likely attribute qualities like reliability, consistency, ritual, creed, icon, tradition, leadership, or other characteristics uniquely associated with the brand.
People make choices that may be unhealthy for various reasons. Whether it’s tradition or relaxation, these decisions boil down to perceived benefits. The decision-making process hinges on simplicity rather than complexity, driven by a primal fight-or-flight instinct. Individuals evaluate whether a choice will help or harm them immediately, weighing the feel-good factor.
No matter the complexity of the decision, it all revolves around understanding and perceiving the benefits. Innovative products must showcase outstanding benefits that overshadow any drawbacks. Widely adopted innovative products wield such beneficial power that their demand supersedes associated problems and side effects from using the products. The automobile stands as a prime example; we use it despite environmental impact, recognizing the greater harm to the environment if we were without it.
In contrast, society grapples with the balance of scales for artificial intelligence. We can halt its progress, but the consensus leans towards control rather than cessation. Similar to automobiles, regulations, and environmental considerations guide its usage.
Every innovation incurs an opportunity cost. People engage in activities, even those deemed unhealthy, as long as the perceived benefits outweigh the potential dangers. Skydiving, driving fast, or indulging in alcohol and cigarettes all share this dynamic. The key is the perceived benefit outweighing the opportunity cost. If any of these activities were likely to kill us immediately, then we would not do them. Even though each of them have a variance of danger, the near term benefit outweighs the long-term opportunity cost so we do them regardless.
So we see, perfection isn’t necessary; delivering immense value and satisfaction, not perfection, is what makes a product truly innovative and propels it to success. The culture surrounding a product and the emotions it evokes often contribute more to its success than the product itself.
Diversity Drives Innovation:
Primarily, product engineers are young, white men who often operate under both known and unknown biases. The situation would be no different if the majority of product engineers were young Asian men or any other ethnicity. The key point is that without diversity, we all become susceptible to predispositions and risk overlooking that perceived benefits are contingent on conditions, demographics, and backgrounds.
Consider facial recognition systems, acknowledged for their inherent biases due to the data they access. Another instance is the historical increased susceptibility of women to injuries in car crashes because crash test dummies have in the paste traditionally represented male body compositions.
The sustained success and adaptability of cutting-edge products depend on ongoing innovation in both product development and brand evolution, leveraging diversity in engineering and generating consumer accessibility to accomplish this success. To ensure products withstand the test of time and resonate across sectors and cultures, a diversity-centric approach must be integral to a company’s strategy. Clearly, diversity aligns with the relationship I established between maximum social cohesion and maximum innovativeness.
Creating and Innovating Addictive Brands:
Look at the photo below and tell me what comes to your mind in Figure 1:
To craft addictive brands, the management of product marketing and branding must encompass speed, surprise, style, and excitement, evolving with the times. Consider the impact of specific colors like red, green, and yellow, each capable of eliciting varied emotions. Humanitarian causes can also play a crucial role, such as linking product purchases to initiatives addressing global issues like poverty in Africa or responding to geopolitical conflicts like the Ukraine-Russia war.
For instance, a major cell phone manufacturing company might produce phones in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukraine flag. Marketing these phones involves explaining to consumers that 20 percent of net profits from phone sales will support Ukrainians affected by the conflict. Such strategies aim to evoke emotions, prompting consumers to make decisions that fulfill them and strengthen their connection to good cause and the product and brand, ultimately driving more sales and brand loyalty.
Various emotions can be evoked through causes, branding colors, novelty, and uniqueness. The power of names, causes, and identifiers creates relevance for both brands and consumers, perpetuating the perception that the most expensive things are inherently better.
While all brands adapt their styles over time, the most successful ones share a common trait: they cultivate addictive rituals, communities, and icons for people to follow. Brands that directly or indirectly establish rituals are more likely to succeed. Consider Starbucks, strategically placing facilities at the entrance of major highways leading to bustling downtown areas. This indirect creation of a ritual taps into the human tendency to stop for coffee during the morning commute, therefore increasing sales and product awareness and adoption. Additionally, brands that incorporate iconic figures and foster communities, as exemplified by figures like Michael Jordan and community-centric brands like Amway, possess an almost religious and cult-like dimension to their brand identity. Consequently, individuals become an integral part of the brand narrative. A noteworthy illustration of this phenomenon is when individuals adopt brand-related identities, such as calling oneself a Trekkie (devotee of Star Trek) or identifying as an Amazonian (an employee or user of Amazon). This personal alignment with the brand not only demonstrates a deep connection but also showcases how people integrate these brands into their personal identities. Furthermore, all of this generates feelings of self-identity, self-esteem that increase dopamine and serotonin levels, making their brands inherently addictive. Everything from brand colors and ingredients to rituals and communities plays a role in fostering brand addiction.
We Know What We Are Good At and You Know What You Want:
People don’t purchase Ferraris for reliability; they opt for Toyotas and Hondas for that. Ferraris are sought after for prestige, thrill, and status. Ferrari recognizes its strengths but acknowledges it may not provide the kind of long-lasting dollar-for-dollar mechanical durability Honda does; that is not really their niche. Building a race car, designed for speed and racing, focuses on performance but may not align with everyday practicality.
Look at some of the brands below in Figure 2 and think of some of the things that come to your mind first.
Reference to brand free association below in this article.
Considering various brands, certain associations come to my mind:
- Shell: Racing and American muscle cars.
- I love NY: Tall buildings, 9/11 attacks, Statue of Liberty, the United Nations, and Times Square.
- Starbucks: Coffee, internet, lounging, work, and reading.
- Nike: Michael Jordan, running, and shoes.
- McDonald’s: Ronald McDonald, hamburgers, French fries, and my childhood.
- Mercedes: The AMG brand, amazing engineering, class, status, and importance.
Of all these brands, McDonald’s, Nike, and Mercedes hold the strongest emotional connection for me. Mercedes draws connection for me because I used to own one, and I also worked for Mercedes. McDonald’s, for instance, carries iconic and ritualistic significance dating back to my childhood. Ronald McDonald is the icon, and the ritual involves going to McDonald’s, getting a toy in the Happy Meal, or playing in the children’s playpen. In example, fast-food companies aren’t perfect in terms of products or brands. While there’s a general expectation and consistency in the fast-food industry, experiences may vary – from the cleanliness of the restaurant to overcooked fries. Despite these imperfections, factors like convenience, relevance, community, belonging and a certain level of consistency prevail with consumers.
Have you ever heard your grandparents reminisce with statements like, “Back in my day, we had to make our own toys; you kids today have all this technology, and you don’t have to work to have fun”!! Most likely, we all have. This phenomenon is what we call identity shaping. It’s the brands that have left an indelible mark on their lives. The viewpoints your grandparents hold are, in part, a product of the brands and the era they grew up in. Understanding this is crucial because it’s challenging for them to relate to brands that haven’t played a significant role in shaping their lives.
When we embark on the journey of innovation, we must consider whether our products have the potential to define not just an era but an entire lifetime. For instance, a grandfather and his son might hold differing memories of childhood toys, but they could share the same passion for timeless collectibles, such as a ’69 Camaro. In some cases, they might even find joy in restoring the car together. This prompts us to ponder how we want our brands to impact people—whether to foster unity or create distinctions. If we succeed in promoting unity, we have the opportunity to craft a brand that stands the test of generations. On the flip side, if we inadvertently create separation, we may end up creating memories that are limited to a specific time period. The direction we choose depends on the goals we set for our brand and what we hope to help consumers achieve. It’s worth noting that some of the most innovative brands in history were, paradoxically, very short-lived, like a one-hit music wonder.
So brands wield an immense influence in shaping not just our preferences but also our very identities, the essence of our businesses, and the overarching culture we collectively embody. These brands, much like individuals and companies, are inherently imperfect yet possess a distinctive uniqueness. The truly innovative and iconic brands distinguish themselves not merely through features but by addressing the emotional, mental, and physical needs of humanity, providing a profound resonance.
Innovation, in the realm of brands, extends beyond mere product attributes. It encapsulates the art of storytelling, the creation of iconic figures, and the establishment of rituals that deeply resonate with the prevailing zeitgeist. Aligning these elements with a company’s authentic mission and values becomes the bedrock for fostering loyalty and trust among consumers.
Trust and loyalty, the cornerstone of enduring brand success, find expression in the timeless allure of auto brands like Mercedes and the indelible legacy embodied by figures such as Michael Jordan. The most innovative brands adeptly balance the legacy they carry against the relentless tide of pervasive innovation.
This collective narrative, this interplay of iconic brands and transformative figures, intricately weaves the cultural DNA that shapes our society. It doesn’t just influence trends and norms but becomes an integral part of our collective traditions, contributing to the very fabric of our culture.
Ultimately, it is the brands that have not only adapted to the times but have actively participated in shaping them that have molded us into the individuals and the society we are today. They are not just labels; they are the living chronicles of our shared experiences, the narrative threads that have interwoven to create the richness of our societies, communities, companies and personalities, resulting in one unified cultural identity.
In the end, it is the brands that made us who we are today.