On invention

Brands, their marketing and those who advise them tend to live at two polar extremes of the world and oscillate wildly between them. The first state is where we paint a grand vision of the future, steal a load of ideas from Minority Report, greatly overestimate the long-term impact of change and highly inflate the brand’s role in the brave new world.

A far more dangerous state, however, is the world we spend most of our time in. A world of managing the day-to-day. Of mistaking tactics for strategy. And a world that is frightfully devoid of imagination. It’s the world of brand management. Its very name denotes a cautious and incrementalist approach while its actions often trap brands in their present rather than give them the conviction and inspiration to shape their own brighter future. Our approach to managing brands comes with an inbuilt myopia and laziness that limits their very potential.

Our frame of reference is, at best, inward looking and at worst narcissistic. We look at other businesses, brands, marketing and communication for inspiration, rather than the broader world and culture we live in. We position ourselves (or get positioned) by other brands in a mythical construct called the category. We focus on incremental efforts to become the tallest dwarf. Yet, we act surprised when forces and competitors currently at the margins reframe our brand in unfavourable terms.

We have failed to realise that people hire brands to do a job for them, and the brands they consider to do this job may come from outside what we, as marketers, think of as the category-competitive set. We forget that expectations are no longer constrained by the category; they are set by experiences that delight us in our day-to-day lives as human beings. We’re no longer prepared to lower our expectations for the delightfulness of the experience delivered by a financial services brand just because security is ‘hard’ or money is ‘serious’.

This inherent lack of ambition in brand management can perhaps best be seen in the current obsession with innovation, fast becoming an overused and bankrupt term. As I’ve argued before, marketing is excellent at the wrong type of innovation, relentlessly pursuing and celebrating the latest ways of doing what we’ve done before, rather than looking for better ways to do new things. Perhaps we might have more impact if we obsessed over invention in the way we have been obsessing about innovation. Invention is about creation of the new; innovation is about incremental improvement to what already exists. Invention is more difficult as it requires imagination, but has far greater long-term upside.

The argument often made is that invention sounds risky. It certainly feels risky when many of the approaches to brand plans that exist today encourage and reward 5% deviation from last year’s. But there is perhaps a smarter model for brand management in a risk-averse world, one built on a philosophy initially introduced by Eric Schmidt at Google to better utilise its employees’ time. He advocated that 70% of time should be dedicated to core business tasks, 20% to projects related to the core and 10% to projects unrelated to the core. This unleashed a wave of innovation at Google — from Gmail to Maps. So, 70% focused on the now, 20% on the new, 10% on the next. Might this be a better way to look at how we manage brands?

In an article in Harvard Business Review focused on the challenges of innovation, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff analysed how the most successful brands grew. They looked at three types of innovation: core projects that optimise existing products for existing customers, adjacent projects that expand business into ‘new to the company’ business, and transformational projects that develop breakthroughs and invent things for markets that don’t yet exist. Their analysis showed there is a correlation between companies that allocate their resources 70/20/10 and those that have a meaningfully higher share price. Importantly, the analysis also showed that there is an inverse relationship in contribution to total RoI. Ten per cent of resources invested in transformational innovation generated 70% of the total RoI.

This is proof of the aphorism that the greatest risk lies in not taking one. It’s time for brand management to become less incremental in nature and instead focus on inventing new ways of creating value for their customers and therefore companies. As Alan Kay said many years ago, perhaps the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

This originally appeared in Admap December 2016

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Gareth Kay

Lucky to have Clare and Esme in my life. Unhealthily obsessed by music. CMO at Twill after working at, and running, agencies.