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Reinventing the wheel

June 3, 2010

I think it’s time that brands and marketers took a good look at reinventing the wheel. We’ve been adding to, tweaking and re-shaping the wheel for far too long. The result – commoditisation of products and services and an underwhelming proliferation of choice.

The root of this problem lies in a number of areas. A colleague highlighted some of these in a presentation to marketers recently.

One of the root causes of so much sameness is the way we research products. Every brand has access to the same data, asks the same questions and gets the same answers, often in an isolated and sterile environment (behind a one-way glass window). We talk about consumer needs, being consumer led, but fail to realise that they don’t always know what they need and don’t always take to new products and innovations positively. Change can be uncomfortable, for them and us. Indeed, brands and products like Absolut, Sony’s Walkman and the TV show Seinfeld, would never have seen the light of day if Executives had listened to consumers.

I’ve witnessed research of opinions around a media product for young men. Sales had declined by more than 10%, but the blokes still talked about how much they loved the product. The recommendation from the research was a ‘10% tweak’. If a brand is in decline a ‘10%’ tweak will never be enough. Declines start slow and gather pace, it’s not a tweak that’s needed, but reinvention.

I believe another cause of this is the way the annual planning and reporting process works. How often are marketing plans written using the previous year’s template? How often is research commissioned to update findings from a previous wave? How many annual reports are written in the same way by the same copywriters?

We’ve lost our ability to create and think big. We’ve fallen into the habit of editing, not writing (as another colleague of mine often makes the point around a brand’s tone of voice). When we write, we create. We start with a fresh slate. When we edit, we assume the rules, conditions and challenges are the same. When editing becomes the habit we and our brands, all look and behave the same.

Finally, I look at the imitation and mimicry plaguing many markets. Brands that are leaders and that successfully innovate often have a unique, compelling idea at the heart of everything they do. FedEx offer peace of mind, Apple is driven by the idea of human technology. It’s human technology that drove the invention of the iPhone. For every other brand it’s the iPhone that drove the invention of their touch-screen competitor. The differentiating big idea isn’t present.

There are of course many other drivers of commodification. The power of retailers, market regulations, the existence of monopolies. But, hopefully there’s enough in the examples above to help you to question if you’re stuck in your own editing rut. I’ve certainly been guilty in the past. But rising to the challenge really can help to create stand-out, market exceeding results. So next time you’re planning – consider reinventing the wheel.

I’d love to hear your feedback on your own experiences…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacqueline Leko permalink
    June 4, 2010 10:46 am

    Andy, another thought provoking post.
    I think the problem is systemic and in part can be contributed to a serious lack of inspiring leaders. Bold risk takers and visionaries. Not just as brand heads, but further up the ladder, all those in 3 letter acronym roles, starting with C. These people should be agents of change. So many times, I hear and read Apple cited as a great example of brand and marketing. Apple are in the business of innovation. As Rupert Murdoch indicated on Fox News yesterday, Apple realise their success because of an inspiring leader. Reinventing the wheel, really requires a new breed of CEO.

    • July 26, 2010 11:24 am

      Andy: I love this post! When you step back and consider what you’re saying, it strikes me that maybe the instincts among many marketers – and CEOs/Boards for that matter – is just to play it safe; to go with the consensus that’s evident across across an industry in order to avoid the risk of making a mistake.

      I wonder how many times your clients – or mine – have REALLY been interested in research offering up a powerful insight that could be the difference between a great brand and just a business with a brand?

      In my experience, clients use market research to serve up justifications to follow the competition. Instead of asking the question ‘what would create market share?’ they tend to be looking for an answer to the question ‘why have our competitors gained market share?’

      I think that means businesses are inclined to look at the world from their point of view and work from there, rather than a consumers point of view. The examples you cite differ because somebody somewhere asked ‘what would people like?’ rather than ‘what do people like?’ – the equivalent of writing and not editing.

      Great post and great blog :-)

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