Tech Companies Are Not The Only Ones Driving Innovation

It’s often assumed that high-tech com­pa­nies dri­ve all the inno­va­tion in the world. How­ev­er, it’s some­thing that can come in many forms. Andrew Gird­wood explores how brands in tourism, retail, ser­vices, and gam­ing are each dri­ving inno­va­tion in unex­pect­ed...

Andrew Girdwood By Andrew Girdwood from Cello Signal. Join the discussion » 0 comments

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.

MasterCard QKR

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.

Loot Crate

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…

Andrew Girdwood

Written by Andrew Girdwood

Head of Media Technology, Cello Signal

A blogger and a self-confessed digital marketing geek, Andrew dedicates his time to understanding What's Next in digital marketing and sharing that knowledge with clients and colleagues. With a strong digital media background, acquired after a decade at the forefront of the industry. Andrew's knowledge and interest ranges from search and display to affiliates, social media, ad exchanges and demand-side platforms.

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