Half Life of Innovation

The impact potential of new ideas in the marketplace is not what they used to be. The rate and pace that new ideas, both products and services, that are hitting the market is accelerating. And that’s changing the innovation game.

It was a big deal when Henry Ford put the Model T into mass production and buyers could get it in any color you wanted, so long as that color was black. People underneath him kept insisting that people were asking for options. He wouldn’t hear of it and fired some of his out-spoken detractors. Ford’s Model T and its ingenious production line were eventually caught up to by other automobile companies who offered a comparable, reliable, mass-producible cars with options to meet people’s wishes. Back then, Ford had years to pivot. Today that luxury doesn’t exist.These days it takes about six months for new smartphones to hit the market once conceptualized by the manufacturing brand. This means when Samsung, LG, or Motorola have conceptualized a new feature set, it only takes about six months for that phone to get it into customers hands. Five years ago the concept-to-market turnaround for similar products took from 9-12 months.

 

A two-part impact

When companies put a great or good idea into the marketplace they can capitalize on the buzz of that innovation for a limited period. The barrier to entry in replicating and producing it can be measured in days or weeks, not years. In one product concept I worked on with a client partner, it only took an overseas factory six weeks to borrow the idea and sell it to customers, sometimes regardless of IP protection.

 

We see it each year at industry events like CES, the Natural Products Expo, ToyFair and countless other industry trade shows. A brand puts an innovative product into the marketplace, consumers come to purchase and competitor brands come to be inspired. The next thing you see is a handful of different brands with similar products on shelves. Prices are driven down by competition. Then commodity happens. Once an idea hits the market, and sometimes well before, it’s up for grabs to inspire competitors.

 

As companies innovate and tell the world, two impacts happen. First the innovation, which makes its own solution-oriented impact. Then there’s the marketing buzz that is generated. In my Humanized Marketing book, I talked about going beyond digitizing for lasting impact. Unless you take this approach, the marketing buzz will have a shorter life-span than the innovation because there’s so much noise in the marketplace. But the innovation impact can last longer, due to its intended lasting effects on customers’ lives. Brand loyalty can also play a role. Neither lasts as long as they used to because there’s always something new coming, with that consumers have more choices than ever.

 

The antidote is embedded in the problem

The only way to stay ahead of this idea half-life is to keep innovating. The antidote to this is not going to be found by your brand making slight improvements on your competition’s ideas, but rather in you closely noticing what your customer needs. This means digging deeper into the lives of your customers, understanding what motivates them, and then anticipating and solving their needs in thoughtful and predictive manners. To stay ahead of the competition or even “blue ocean” your products, you could swim the depths of listening and learning from your customers. In my Innovation Workshops, I use customer story-mining techniques to help with the innovation.

 

A company can either be great at innovating through the practice of noticing, deep curiosity, and by anticipating customers’ needs, or they can be good at noticing what competitors are innovating, copying those ideas and putting them into the market quickly. The later is a no-win game because you’re always playing catch-up and you’ll be branded as an imitator, not innovator. With this positioning, you can only compete on price and speed, which is a race to the bottom and a recipe for a burned out or high-turnover culture.

 

Of course, the innovator won’t always get it right, or right on the first try, but as you keep at trying you’ll get rewarded for solving the only problems that really matter: the ones of your customers.
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