Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Balancing a focus on your competition with one on your innovation 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 1, 2013

When is innovation cosmetic? When does it represent genuine and significant change? When does it rise to the level of the disruptively novel? As a matter of common practice, this all depends on who you ask. If you ask your own Marketing and Communications people, and certainly in industries that fiercely complete over minor differences, even a relatively modest upgrade might very well be called a major improvement. And under those circumstances, a genuinely more major upgrade might very well be lauded as a market changing disruptive breakthrough.

The problem with that is that if the marketplace does not agree, any perceived over-inflation and hyping here can only serve to erode credibility. And in a social media context where the crowd shares its collective opinion, good and bad, through explicit online reviews and other viral messaging, the collective consumer message can come to dominate. I stress here that individual consumer and marketplace sourced messages might carry a lot less weight and show less visibility than a well-financed marketing campaign from the manufacturer or selling business. But those online reviews and other “real world” messages can and often do collectively rise to higher levels of marketplace credibility, and certainly when posted on what are considered to be credible crowd sourced review and commentary sites (e.g. sites that actively seek to identify and screen out trolls and shills who claim just to be average consumers but who post with an ulterior motive and an agenda.)

I could easily bring this into real world focus by citing a fundamentally mature industry such as Automotive. People in that industry would probably contest my labeling their industry and certainly their company in it in that way, and particularly as they seek to transition to hybrid and even fully electric vehicles and as they add more and more automated driving features. To clarify what I mean by that at the time of writing this posting, cruise control that locks in a speed that the car will automatically stay at has been around for a long time now and particularly for highway driving. But a number of new car models are now coming out with features like collision avoidance technologies that automatically apply the brakes if someone steps behind that vehicle while it is being backed up. Is that a dramatically new and innovative feature?

How about the seeming flood of new online communications features that are showing up on automotive dashboards of even more modestly priced cars? Built in GPS-based route management with traffic and other updates come immediately to mind, though this also includes hands-free cell phoning and voice texting and much more. Are these dramatically new game changers? That depends on who you ask.

Automotive industry representatives in either manufacturing or sales would laud their cars and trucks as being truly cutting edge, and so would their marketing professionals and their marketing campaigns. Consumers and prospective buyers might be slower to reach such conclusions and they would definitely be more muted in acknowledging claims like that. Most, for example, already have smart phones with all of the communications-related hardware and app-based software needed for them to already have that part of this sweep of new innovation in their hands, and regardless of what they drive. They already have apps that help them to navigate the roads with similar or better maps and voice prompts on those same handhelds – that they can take out of the car with them for route planning from anywhere.

A collision avoidance feature might gain greater value-defining traction in the marketplace, and particularly if couched in terms of saving real lives – and particularly if it is offered at a price point that would make this additional level of safety seem worthwhile: cost-effective for the consumer where they feel they are buying value as defined by them and their needs, that matches or exceeds the cost of obtaining it. In this, if a risk that this aide would help limit is already considered to be very low, then an acceptable price for buying the aide itself would be low too.

I could also bring this discussion into a more real-world focus by citing a company such as Microsoft and its Surface tablet, that came out in conjunction with its major new Windows 8 operating system release. Microsoft made a major investment in this venture into hardware, and it took a massive gamble that the general public that it sells to, would see its tablet computer as offering enough game changing new innovation to capture a significant market share from Apple with its lines of iPads. My goal for this posting is not to attempt to analyze in detail how and why the Surface has failed to significantly catch on. I will simply note that it did not help Microsoft that Apple has so much marketplace momentum for its innovative hardware platforms and Microsoft has come to be seen as a somewhat stogy software provider. Delays and other glitches in bringing this new product out did not help them either. Microsoft sought to leverage consumer interest and sales by linking release of their Surface tablet with a release of a major new operating system version that would enable its touch screen and other features. But touch screen technology is old and well-established – where is the explicitly exciting innovation from a consumer perspective in this new product? Microsoft made a big issue out of the way that a user could synch their tablet and other computer and communications devices, but once again – while their implementations might be new and even back-end technically quite novel, the basic functionality as viewed from the user perspective and from the user interface side of the hardware and software is already fairly standard.

I could continue that part of this discussion, but leave it with that. My point is that unlike Automotive, Consumer Electronics and Information Technology are rapidly evolving, innovation-driven industries with consumer bases always looking for new. And the same basic principles that I write of here apply equally to both mature and established and to rapidly innovatively advancing industries and to their businesses and their products and services.

I have been outlining a basic challenge here. I am going to follow this posting up with a second one where I will at least begin to discuss an approach for limiting a perception mismatch between how providing businesses see their product offerings, and how their prospective consumers would. And in anticipation of that, I begin by noting that it is a trap for any industry professional to assume that just because they are an industry professional and an expert on what they do, that they must automatically know more about their products – and certainly from the user side than their customers do.

What is cosmetic? What constitutes significant change? What rises to the level of being disruptively new and novel? Ultimately, those questions can only be answered from the consumer and end-user perspective. You can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also see the first page and second page listings to that directory.

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