Inspiration is the New Investment

If businesses want to engage the new consumer, they need to reconsider innovation.

By Rudo Botha

The information revolution has produced a market in which consumers are ten times more informed, a hundred times more exposed and a thousand times more jaded. Never before has competitive edge been so important to the survival of businesses. But the days in which a deodorant brand, for example, could slap a cool new metallic paint and nozzle on their can, call it innovation and market it to death in the hope of gaining a competitive edge, are long gone. Generation Y has seen it all. They’re bored, disinterested and disengaged, which has caused no small amount of panic among those marketers who only know how to reach an audience in the traditional way. After all, how is one to gain a competitive edge if the consumer chooses to ignore you?

The secret lies in the ability to inspire. If brands want to be attractive to the new breed of consumer, they’re going to have to forget all about push marketing and start looking at ways to pique their interest and turn their heads.  Bombarded by marketing that for years has been sadly lacking in essential integrity, most consumers are cynics by the age of 8. They’ve seen, been sold and bought it all. They’re not interested in hearing brands bang on about how cool they think they are. The softer, ‘intangibles’ are what dominate this market and influence their decision to sell. So ask yourself not what the consumer needs, but what he desires. And know at the outset that what he’s waiting for is to be inspired.

It is here that brands are really missing a trick. To inspire, you need to innovate. But what most businesses call innovation is the mere shifting of existing metrics in order to deliver a slightly enhanced version of something that already exists. For years businesses have been geared towards the manufacture of products that they can push onto the market so they naturally look at what they already have and can make, and ask how they can do it better. Invariably they find their answer in technology and so technological advancements become the only exponent of innovation. What these companies forget to ask is the most simple of questions: will the products we are producing meet not the needs, but the desires of the market? And so finally at the end of the long production process, they give a product that nobody desires to a marketing, packaging and branding team and ask them to dress it up in such a way that will make it attractive. But Consumer Y, who’s seen it all before, stifles a yawn and walks off in the opposite direction.

The brands that understand true innovation are the ones that genuinely identify with the new consumer, make a real attempt to understand their desires, and then take as their end goal the delivery of a product that touches, inspires and moves that consumer. This perhaps is the single biggest reason for Google’s meteoric rise to success. They pioneered a way to give the world what it wanted with an open-source philosophy applied to the internet and information.

What Google and its peers have as a competitive edge is the ability to look beyond the existing metrics of what is already produced, and ask ‘What if…?’ about future product development. Nike, a shoe manufacturer, and Apple, a computer company, dared to ask ‘What if … we could give people a musical and training experience beyond what we can imagine in science fiction?’ The result was something totally unique that touched and inspired a new generation of athletes, re-defining both brands in the minds of the consumer and opening the door to engagement. And for these reasons it deserves the label ‘innovative’. Similarly, Goodyear teams up with Adidas and in so doing transforms itself from a manufacturer of automotive products to a provider of fashion footwear and an aspirational lifestyle.

Another good example of a company that has the ability and courage to ask that all important ‘What if…?’ question is the now famous and incredibly hip Hotel Fox in Copenhagen, Denmark. It looked beyond its existing definition as a provider of accommodation and transformed itself into an art gallery. Each room is an individual work of art; from comic strips and fantasy to graphic design and Japanese Manga, hotel guests find themselves transported into the creative world of one of 21 international artists that the company let loose on its rooms. Unsurprisingly, the move has turned the formerly three-star establishment into a world-famous trend-setter.

So committed are these visionary brand leaders that their innovation drives have resulted in the blurring of industry sectors, categories, and everything else that stands in the way of reaching the end goal – making the consumer king again.

The lesson? Raw creativity and skilful design application are revolutionising views on innovation across industry sectors. Innovation with an absolute focus on the end consumer has the ability to create a competitive advantage greater than technological advancement alone. For too long, a premium on tangible metrics has meant that the potential of the ‘softer’ more emotional and human instincts have remained grossly underutilised; this needs to change if brands want to touch new consumers. When companies start inventing ways to fundamentally engage the drivers of these ‘softer issues’ in consumers, it will bring about meaningful paradigm shifts in industries that will unlock a value far superior to the metric equations we have been optimising. As the examples illustrated here clearly show, design innovation that appeals to the human instinct can yield rewards not only in terms of revenue but also in terms of brand value.

To get there, we need to turn the traditional brand-appeal model on its head. In past quests for competitive edge, businesses used a preliminary capital investment to fund the search for a significant ‘innovation’ factor. In many cases, this would lead to the identification of an opportunity for minor technological advancement that they expected to deliver evolutionary development to the brand, and in so doing inspire the consumer. At best, it was a gamble.

What’s required in today’s market is for businesses to commit to insight and inspiration first and from this starting-point, draw up a blueprint for innovation. Only once they are sure what will inspire, are they required to invest in development; the approach is therefore designed not only to deliver inspiration through innovation, but to do so in a more cost-effective manner.

When brands allow themselves to identify with consumers on this essential level, priorities are rearranged, new opportunities are identified and key insights are discovered that will for the blueprint for delivery of inspiration to the market. Return-on-inspiration, and not return-on-investment, now holds the key to creating competitive advantage. When companies focus on return-on-inspiration, they start to reconsider everything from the consumer’s perspective and gear every faculty of the business towards delivering on the essential and holistic desires of the consumer.  They create products and build brands that have emotional properties that offer the kind of integrity and appeal that the market is looking for.

The Apple iPhone is yet another example of how this has been successfully achieved. The fact that it is a good product and meets a simple consumer need makes it competitive, but the fact that it has been designed to be irresistibly attractive makes it almost unbeatable. It’s the result of a design philosophy whose starting point is delivering innovation that will engage the holistic desires of the consumer, instead of simply what the company can provide at the time. Such commitment to the consumer not only produces an unbeatable product but also serves to strengthen the superstar status this brand already enjoys.

Unsurprisingly some of the best examples of successful consumer brand engagement use the universally inspirational properties of music, art, design, creativity and science to touch consumers. And instead of just a product, they use these elements to deliver an integrated experience that bundles the full marketing mix to surprise, delight and engage consumers, and in so doing, change their current habits and perceptions. This is the realm of designers and creative thinkers, and it is essential that these right-brain thinkers join their left-brain counterparts in a company’s strategic brand and product innovation discussions much earlier in the process. Design has almost unlimited potential to deliver that longed-for competitive edge to a brand and designers have a great deal to add to the understanding of what will inspire a consumer.

If we’ve learnt nothing else, it’s that inspiration needs to be the starting point. So begin with this end in mind. “If you want me to listen to you, don’t tell me – touch me,” consumer Y challenges. Which means forget about putting your money where your mouth is and start putting your money where their hearts are.


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