How to Establish an Innovative Brand
What does it mean to establish an innovative brand? in·no·va·tive /ˈinəˌvātiv/ is an adjective featuring new methods (advanced and original) introducing new ideas, original and creative in thinking. In today’s rapid-change world, companies rely on innovation to survive. To remain competitive in their industries, companies must not be content to simply do business as usual. The demands and needs of customers are changing – the successful company will not only change along with them, they will anticipate the future needs and wants of the customer and be ready to meet those needs. By being proactive, the innovative brand can lead the market instead of simply reacting to it.
In this article, we’ll examine 1) what is an innovative brand?, 2) applying innovative strategies to brands, 3) balancing innovation with brand, as well as 4) some examples of innovative brands.
WHAT IS AN INNOVATIVE BRAND?
Simply put, an innovative brand is a brand that is re-inventing their industry. Innovation can take many forms and can be used in any industry. While the work ‘innovative’ seems overused, there are elements of innovation that can be seen in nearly every form of business.
Innovation can be relatively simple, or incremental. Adding new colors to an existing product line, offering a product in a new shape or introducing a new flavor are all small innovations that can have a big impact on a brand. (Think about when Lego introduced their pastel colored building blocks. Suddenly a new generation of girls was able to identify with the building sets and didn’t have to share with their brothers. Did it change the focus of the brand? No, it simply expanded it to allow for the inclusion of more feminine colors.)
Along with increasing customer demand for a brand, an innovative brand enhances the existing brand. This intangible result of an innovative brand changes the public perception of a brand. Adding a new line of environmentally friendly products may not instantly generate high rates of return for a company, but it is profitable because it enhances the brand as being earth-friendly.
Creating a new category is another role of the innovative brand. The introduction of Febreeze as a means to eliminate furniture odor was so revolutionary, Procter and Gamble had to create a new category for it. When it was first made available, their advertising included where to find the product in the store – a clear indication that prospective customers had no idea what it was.
Finally, an innovative brand is a brand that benefits society. By adding an innovative product to a company’s offerings, it may not generate large returns in terms of revenue, but is measured by a different set of metrics. A product that is developed to improve nutrition in a third world country may not have much impact in a first world society, but the company continues to offer the product, simply for humanitarian reasons. Their humanitarian efforts may or may not be advertised; it isn’t for a publicity stunt – it’s for society.
To be a truly innovative brand, a company will use innovation strategically to include elements of each form of innovation. Sustainability will increase the success of the innovation and strengthen the brand, leading to future growth and providing the means for additional innovative products.
APPLYING INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES TO BRANDS
How can a company add innovation to their brand, without risking their current brand? Consider these strategies for implementing innovation.
Establish a strategic plan
To be successful, innovation must be carefully cultivated within the structure of a strategic plan. Having a strong, well-written strategic plan will provide entrepreneurs with the framework necessary to maintain their corporate identity. Establishing a strategic plan also reduces the risk of short-term profits at the expense of the company. It allows the company to use innovation as a tool in a long-term plan to increase market share, increase profits and build long-lasting customer relationships. By thinking long-term about the effect innovation has on a brand, the brand can grow and adapt while generating change.
Understand the corporate identity
Before innovative ideas can be added to a brand, it is important to know the identity of the brand. What is the public’s impression of the brand? How do customers view the brand? What is the corporate perspective on the brand? Once a company knows the identity of the brand, it becomes easy to determine if the innovative ideas fit into the strategic plan. In addition, it becomes easy to identify ideas that do not fit into the brand identity.
Use innovation correctly
Keeping innovation in the proper place within the company is essential; innovation supports and enhances a brand, not the other way around. By using innovative ideas and products, companies can grow stronger and increase their product range or market share. When used correctly, innovation can attract new markets and new customers. Handled improperly and innovation can kill an existing brand easily, rendering it useless around the world.
Make emotional connections
Innovation must be about more than simply solving a problem. Today’s competitive market is filled with similar products. When an innovative product or solution is introduced, the marketplace is quickly flooded with copycats. The company that wishes to retain the connection to its customers must make an emotional connection with the customer. Emotions play a large role in the decision to make a purchase; customers want to feel as though they are connected to a larger entity. Innovation without emotional connections will quickly be surpassed.
In order for a brand to successfully integrate innovation, it must remain consistent. If the innovative ideas don’t fit into the brand, customers will be confused about the brand identity and the company will flounder. Maintaining consistency across the brand – through packaging, labelling, advertising, etc – is imperative, especially when adding new products or markets. By remaining consistent, customers are able to identify the new products with the established brand more easily.
There is a tendency to want to fit in; to be cool. It can be seen on high school campuses, in boardrooms and in strategic planning sessions. While it is important for a company to adapt to the trends of the day, allowing the corporate identity to be swayed by the trend weakens the brand. Building a brand based on the trend sets a company up to fail when the trend is over. Companies must be careful to be relevant, not just cool.
BALANCING INNOVATION AND BRAND
Branding and innovation seem to be contradictory in nature. Branding is establishing a relationship with customers based on a consistent, thematic message. Through the repeated process of giving customers what they expect, they begin to identify a set of specific characteristics with a company. Innovation, on the other hand, is about giving customers the unexpected. By giving customers something new, the company builds excitement and interest. A company that focuses solely on brand is in danger of becoming stagnant and out-of-touch. A company that focuses solely on innovation may have a hard time establishing connections with customers. Finding the balance between the two requires careful planning and consideration. How can your company be sure that it is balancing your brand with innovation?
Consider customer feedback
Customer feedback at every stage can be instructive for a company that is committed to remaining competitive in the market. Taking feedback into consideration can give indication of how customers are using products or services, what the overall perception of a brand is and the likelihood that customers will return based on what they already know about a company.
Customer feedback should not be the sole indicator for innovation, however. Innovation based on customer feedback is typically tied to the solution of their immediate needs. This limited perspective can restrict a company’s innovation based on the narrow perspective of what customers feel as though they want today – not on what may be sustainable and relevant to the future.
When a company can move beyond the existing limit of their brand, while still remaining true to the ideals of the company, their customers are able to make the transition easily. Keeping customer feedback in the proper perspective is essential to the innovative brand.
Diversification vs. Market penetration
Corporate strategies for growth can move in different directions. A company can innovate by creating new products for already established markets, by adding new markets to their already existing product line or by a combination. Each method of growth requires innovation and affects the corporate brand. To maintain a balance between innovation and branding, a company must find the right ratio of diversification to market penetration.
Diversification is the addition of new elements to a company’s brand. This growth method is risky and requires the largest stretch of a corporate brand. The development of new products – either to expand the customer base or to solidify an existing customer base can be both time consuming and expensive. The growth potential, however, can be huge. The addition of lawn mowers to the Honda brand is a form of diversification that required customers to take what they knew of Honda – reliable motors – to a new element – lawn care.
Market penetration is the least risky method of corporate growth – it is simply adding to the existing customer base and market, often through increased marketing efforts and promotion. One method of market penetration is to expand the scope of the brand. By maximizing the already strong customer perception of a brand, the company is able to increase market shares and profit, with minimal risk and expense. Adding the sale of coffee grounds to their coffee shop brand, Starbucks was able to further penetrate their market and expand the products their customers already enjoy.
Product development vs. Market development
Another important feature to maintain balance between innovation and branding is the choice between product development and market development. Adding new products to a brand can allow a brand to grow exponentially. New products can be added to an existing company market, or can be developed to create a new market entirely. Consider the addition of a line of baby clothes to the Harley-Davidson brand. This stretch of the brand opened the customer base to people who identified with the brand, in spite of never owning one of the expensive motorcycles.
Market development happens when a brand stretches to meet new needs of the current market. This can be seen in the addition of housewares to the Ralph Lauren brand. Already famous for their classic fashion styles, the Ralph Lauren brand was easily accepted as a provider of style for the home. A company must consider the potential for growth in every area of development carefully before acting. Using innovation to generate sales should not be done at the expense of the brand, yet the brand must not be protected to the point of losing innovative ideas.
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EXAMPLES OF INNOVATIVE BRANDS
Examining the successful stories of innovative brands can be helpful in a discussion of how innovative brands work.
It is impossible to discuss innovative brands without including Apple products near the top of the list. Apple has maintained prominence in the market place for their innovative ideas, but many of the products they are most famous for were not completely the result of their own innovation. When Apple introduced the iPod, there were other products on the market that allowed for the portability of music. Apple, however, created a new category by integrating hardware and software to give customers control over a large collection of music while on the go. This new category of products put the customer in charge of their technology, hence the ‘i’ line of products that continues to dominate the market.
The Nike brand has moved beyond the initial tennis shoe with ‘the swoosh’ on the side that started their line into a complete athletic company that offers virtually every component of athletic clothing. Through a constant push to create athletic wear that benefits athletes, Nike is dominating the marketplace. Their focus? The athlete. Every aspect of Nike is designed to innovate athletics – helping the professional athlete, the amateur athlete and the wanna-be athlete who all want to be identified with their brand. Innovative materials and support provide a framework for athletes to perform at their best, with apparel and gear that will perform right along with them.
Drinking coffee is not an innovative product, and the corner coffee shop is not a new concept. Why, then, has Starbucks had such startling success in selling coffee? Starbucks reinvented the coffee category. By extending the coffee line to include new flavors, as well as introducing new forms of coffee to the general public, all presented in a modern, stylish format, Starbucks not only convinced the world that they need a good cup of coffee every day, they convinced the world that they should pay more for it. They leveraged a traditional morning beverage into an emotional connection that keeps people standing in line for a grande latte on their way to work. They created their own culture around coffee, and invited the world to join.
From his humble beginnings as a black and white cartoon, Mickey Mouse has evolved into a global personality that can be seen on clothes, housewares, jewelry, holiday decorations and more. He has an empire that includes theme parks, digital production studios, a television network, toy stores and other divisions all under the name of his creator: Disney. This innovative brand encompasses a billion dollar industry and has its reaches into multiple product lines. They created the category for family entertainment and have maintained their dominance of the category ever since.
A brand that wishes to remain competitive must not be content to simply maintain, it must innovate. Careful and strategic planning can provide a framework for including innovation into the corporate plan without sacrificing the existing brand. It requires foresight and planning, mixed with a dose of courage and inspiration. The truly successful company, however, will already have the elements in place; after all, it requires those elements to start a company. Adding innovation simple creates a new phase of the company and keeps the company moving forward. How can you add innovation to your brand?
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