When was the last time you saw a retailer, financial service provider or travel company do anything particularly clever? Or new? There’s an argument to be made that the tech companies, especially the platforms, are driving all the innovation — but is that true?
LinkedIn (which Microsoft will buy for over $26bn) tells me that I’ve had the word ‘technology’ or ‘innovation’ in my job title for over 12 years. The word ‘strategy’ pops up in between to illustrate how closely all three are linked.
Do brands actually want to innovate?
I’ve learnt to be careful with the word innovation. Most brands I’ve worked with expect innovation, demand it even, but rarely actually want it.
With my media hat on I’ve generally found that when a client wants ‘innovation’ they’re looking to keep up with competitors and keen to try new marketing techniques. That’s cool with me too.
In fact, that’s great, it takes a forward-looking brand and strong in-house teams to get that far. It’s very hard for large companies to do anything that looks risky, doesn’t have a robust business case (as true innovation rarely does), or when there is little threat of a competitor getting there first. Perhaps that’s been your experience too.
I changed jobs recently, swapping the word ‘innovation’ in the job title with ‘technology’, and quickly found myself involved with a pleasantly surprising example of a non-technology brand doing something innovative.
But is this the exception that proves the rule? Are only technology companies, who’s business model depends on inventing the next big thing, capable of innovation? (Pharmas too, of course, bless their little hearts.)
What are some examples of innovation from non-technology brands?
The National Galleries of Scotland
The National Galleries of Scotland are my homegrown example of a non-tech company doing something innovative and impressive. In this case they’re racing Google. The charity has undertaken to photograph, in incredible resolution, their internationally important archive of art and to make the collection available online. These aren’t ordinary cameras we’re talking about. This is suitably high-tech and it’s a fantastic project to be involved with.
Google’s similar, but unrelated, project gives you an idea of the technologies involved.
You can check out Google’s progress here, over one paintings photographed and a lot more to go.
I’d argue that the National Galleries of Scotland are not the exception that proves the rule. Yes, its rare for a gallery to be developing a proposition in pace with Google and that’s why it stands out.
Innovation, actually, can often be more than you might think. For example, I consider how I bought my lunch today to be both an innovation and a step forward.
I used QKR, developed by MasterCard, to order and pay for my food. QKR saves me time, feels secure and makes going to the restaurant that support it (ASK, Zizzi and Wagamama) more tempting when I’m in a hurry.
QKR is an example of a finance brand investing in innovation ahead of the curve. Yeah, the technology companies were pushing into the area and in this case MasterCard decided to get out front.
I also think the restaurants already using QKR are being innovative. They’re trying something new.
It’s a little harder finding an example of a retailer trying something new. One former area of innovation that’s now safely in the me-too sector is the subscription box model. A whole category of geeky retailers saw a good thing and moved quickly to copy. Why try and sell specific things to customers when you can get them to pay in advance and then cut bulk purchase deals with suppliers in order to improve costs? In recent years the subscription model has gone from niche to mainstream.
A pioneer in this space has been Loot Crate. They very quickly moved to an influencer marketing model, working with Vloggers and making affiliate deals to showcase their merchandise offer, growing their audience and sales. I call this thinking like a publisher.
Publishers: BuzzFeed, TechCrunch
Speaking of publishers – there’s no shortage of innovation there. BuzzFeed insists they’re discovering the future of journalism. It is fair to credit BuzzFeed with the reinvention, and invention, of a host of embeddable goodies for their content (sliders, for example).
TechCrunch are another publisher who tried something pretty innovative this year too. Okay, they didn’t develop their own Facebook Messenger bot but they did get their own launch. Now you can have your daily tech stories delivered to your Facebook messages.
Think this post is too wordy? Another innovation of interest comes from Skype and the world of communications. If you add the Summarize bot to your contacts, you can send it the URL of this post and get back a summary.
Or should we disallow Skype? Too close to its technology parent Microsoft to be considered an example of a non-technology doing something innovative? We surely can’t dismiss 1–800-Flowers and Spring, a clothing site, which both also have shopping bots for Facebook Messenger.
Kickstarter & IndieGoGo
If you’re still not convinced companies outside the technology space are capable of coming up with, and pushing forward, new ideas then let me try and finish the debate off with two killer areas.
Ready? Pop over to Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Both crowdfunding sites are full of impressive new ideas and innovations. These innovations aren’t always technical either. I’ve had a Settlers of Catan gaming board carved out of wood. It looks wonderful and the tiles don’t slide around. What a great idea! It’s an innovation. Right now I’m waiting on an engineering project to bring me a pocket-sized stabiliser for my smartphone.
There’s a downside I want to highlight here. A less welcome ‘innovation’ in the area of crowdfunding good ideas is the increasingly shady area of marketing specialists who prey on independent creators, offering to promote campaigns, sliding in revenue share contracts, or even building whole websites designed steal traffic the crowdfunding campaigns generate.
While not all Kickstarter marketing specialists are shady, it is my sad experience that one way to spot an innovation boom is to look for bottom-feeding marketers hoping to exploit it.
Finally… Niantic and Pokemon GO
Lastly, just take a look at the gaming industry if you want to see lots of innovation. Don’t restrict yourself to computer games in this analysis as there is a mini-boom in tabletop, card and board games. There’s plenty of innovation on show here. Board games, for example, aren’t just designed to be a fun game, they’re designed to be a re-playable as possible and to support expansions.
A current favourite example of a games publisher doing innovative work is Niantic Labs. They’re the only company that I can think of that successfully incubated inside Google, broke away to go independent and then raised funds from Google Ventures and other companies.
As you have probably seen hitting the headlines recently, Niantic have unleashed their augmented reality game, Pokemon GO, onto the world which is seeing players get up off their sofa, walk around their local city, and hunt Pokemon.
Not many Pokemon GO players will be aware of their previous title, Ingress, which served as the framework on which Pokemon GO was developed. Ingress may have been the first computer game ever to be impacted by a human virus after an Anomaly Event in Brazil was downgraded in response to the Zika virus.
Ingress may show us where the direction of Pokemon Go could go in future. Niantic have developed Ingress into a transmedia success. To support their smartphone game, there are novels and comic books, there are real world events and YouTube shorts complete with actors playing re-occurring roles.
Do you know of any big brand technology companies doing that?
Who is driving innovation?
Here’s my argument – let me know if you agree with it – technology companies aren’t driving all the innovation. A lot of innovation happens around technology, however, and that can be more of an expensive gamble for brands outside the sector.
As a result, a vital role for marketers is to help drive innovation, to be up to date with the latest trends and be able to make education predictions as to where any client needs to get to next. Maybe the next post should explore whether marketing and comms teams are pushing innovation hard enough…