There are plenty of companies that quietly turn a profit, produce quality products or services, and treat their customers well. Then there are companies that spark excitement with breakthroughs that tap into unmet needs or meet those needs in a whole new way. These are the innovators — some of which have made innovation their brand.
Take Tesla, for example. It’s had its challenges as a company, but it’s notable that in early 2020, its stock price was soaringwell above that of automotive giants like General Motors and Ford. There are multiple reasons Tesla’s stock has shot up, but I believe one reason is that the company, like its mercurial founder Elon Musk, is innovative.
Innovation as a brand is powerful. It can eclipse the stock market value of entrenched competitors. It can capture the imagination of consumers. It can offer new solutions for important needs like energy efficiency, cloud computing or big data analytics. Innovation has propelled companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Virgin Group and others.
But the “innovation brand” can be a mixed blessing. In this era of deep concerns about data privacy and the whole notion of a “surveillance economy” arising around big tech companies, tech innovations that move forward without putting the customer first can backfire. The idea that tech companies should “move fast and break things,” a former motto that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once used to describe the company’s approach to development, is fraught with peril.
The era of “move fast and break things” may be over(subscription required), but it’s still certainly good to be thought of as an innovator. If you are out to make innovation your brand, however, there are issues to keep in mind and pitfalls to avoid. Here are a few priorities:
Balance innovations with respect for privacy.
Consumers often want convenience and access to third-party functions, but not if it means loss of control over their privacy or the risk of a hack. Companies need to be transparent with customers about how the platform they offer, or the software they put forth, makes use of private data.
Fortunately, companies have learned lessons over the last couple of years, and now some technology companies offer a “privacy checkup” function. It all comes back to balancing the need to innovate with putting the customer first. Today, it’s better to err on the side of protecting the customer.
Don’t confuse agile software development with slow product development.
Agile product development, which is basically about breaking up software development into shorter chunks of coding and testing that can be completed in sprints, is here to stay. Developing an entire product in one swoop and then testing it takes too long. But there is no reason a company can’t have a responsible product development road map and use agile methods to build it.
It’s up to the leaders of the company to see the risks in the road map. Being agile is good, even though it may seem like a slow process.
Humanize the brand.
Find ways to spotlight your chief technologist, key developers and other technology visionaries in your company. Many innovators are highly driven, focused people. Find out what they do when not at work. What inspires them? They might lend that same focus to community or charity efforts, or have other passions like music, art or some offbeat sport.
Marketers need to tell their stories and show the human side of innovators and engineers. After all, people trust people. People buy from people. And it’s people who are creating innovative and amazing products.
Thinking big can help the world.
We often hear the idea of technology breakthroughs or companies as “disrupters” that will turn an industry upside down and make the competition obsolete. There is truth to that thinking, but the problem is, it comes across as ruthless.
However, when you take what’s been called “10x thinking” (subscription required) — a motto espoused by Google and other companies for breakthroughs that are 10 times better than what existed before — and apply it to fields like healthcare, sustainability and energy efficiency, the disruption ends up being good for society. Maybe companies need to focus on making things 10 times better for people, rather than being 10 times better than the competition.
Niche innovations matter.
Companies don’t have to be the next Apple with its iPhone or Tesla with its electric high-performance cars to be considered innovators. There are companies that are great at innovation within a niche area. It might be something that makes cloud storage more efficient or that makes it easier to feed sensor data to the cloud, or other breakthroughs in the business-to-business (B2B) realm.
These more niche B2B innovators have important stories to tell and might be missing out on the chance to position themselves as the innovators they are. So, let’s help tell those stories.
Innovation as a brand can work if you keep your focus on your customers and respect them. It’s a challenge for many companies to stay innovative after their first breakthrough. Certainly, it can be done.
Google has moved beyond its roots in internet search, while Virgin Group, the venture capital group led by Richard Branson, has diversified and strengthened its brand. There are also some older companies that have evolved and positioned as innovators today, such as Siemens, Microsoft and IBM.
Making innovation your brand will work if you can meet the needs of your customers and demonstrate how your technology helps society. And yes, that’s why you need marketers to position your company right and tell your story.