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Most CMOs want innovation. Most don’t understand it is a spectrum


By Phil Rowley, Head of futures

February 29, 2024 | 8 min read

Top marketers know they want innovation, they just have a tough time quantifying it or measuring it. OMG’s Phil Rowley has the receipts to prove it.

Red Bull's space work, an example of innovation

/ Red Bull

Marketers know they should be investing in innovation. It future-proofs their brands and demonstrates cutting-edge credentials to their consumers. Yet according to McKinsey, only 6% of executives are satisfied with their company’s innovation performance. Why is that?

Is it possible we’re thinking about innovation in the wrong way?

To that, we say: ‘yes’. In fact, there are two mistakes we make when we’re trying to be innovative.

Failing to define innovation

The first is not agreeing to a collective definition before we attempt it. If we want to hold each other accountable for our efforts, we at least need some form of objective measure in place.

Imagine, if you will, a Formula 1 race where none of the twenty competitors had agreed on how many laps to win. After 21 laps, some teams decide that they’ve done enough to declare themselves victorious and stop. Others do another 17 laps. Only a week later is it retrospectively announced the chequered flag was waved at 32 laps, and the first car to complete the 32nd lap has belatedly been declared the winner. You can’t decide the rules of the game once the game is over.

Likewise, the first time that marketers mull over whether their efforts could be deemed innovative should not be after the activity.

Defining innovation poorly

But there’s a second, more thorny problem. Even if you resolve to put some prior definition on the word ‘innovation,’ there are still multiple iterations to argue about. Moreover, much of the wording around these definitions is insufficient. Here’s an example: In a recent LinkedIn exchange on this subject, someone maintained innovation is merely something new, that’s useful. But, for me, the word ‘new’ is not working anywhere near hard enough. What does ‘new’ mean in this context?

Is a well-established car company launching its first-ever EV in 2024 innovative? We might say: “Innovative? That’s not new! Competing Car Brand X has been making EVs for decades”.

However, though its competitors may have introduced EV models years before, it doesn’t follow that ‘first to market’ means ‘best in market’. Years later, brands that are late-to-the-EV-party could have built on the mistakes of rival predecessors. Conversely, being the most recent entrant doesn’t make you innovative either, unless your product fundamentally changes the industry.

In short, enjoining us to be ‘more innovative’ isn’t discerning enough instruction, and requesting ‘new’ isn’t helpful either.

So, what do we do?

Innovation is a spectrum, not a word

The best solution we have uncovered, as detailed in our latest report, How To Innovate, is to treat innovation not as a monolithic concept, but as a spectrum or continuum. We like to imagine innovation as three daubs of color that blur into one another at the edges. Those colors are incremental innovation, exaptive innovation, and disruptive innovation.

Incremental Innovation advocates for small but consistent advancements. Like the late EV-bloomer, these innovations may not be ‘new’ to the market, but if it’s new for you specifically, and you’re attempting to neutralize your competitor’s advantage, then you’re innovating. As an example, space company Blue Origin’s motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” or “step by step, ferociously”. For founder Jeff Bezos, it’s the compound interest of small breakthroughs laid end-to-end that will ultimately close the gap with SpaceX. Like a galactic tortoise versus the galactic hare.

Exaptive Innovation teaches us to look beyond our immediate neighborhood and seek out opportunities to co-opt and reformat innovations already in use elsewhere. In marketing, Red Bull began its ascent with traditional product sampling in bars. By 1992, it was a content company. By 2012, it was space pioneers via the Red Bull Space Jump. At every turn, Red Bull actively sought to borrow from other disciplines to evolve its marketing.

Disruptive Innovation rewrites the rules of the game. In marketing, these are ‘media firsts’ or fame-driving activations like owning the specific shade of pink to launch the Barbie movie or creating outdoor ads that eat pollution. When marketers articulate innovation aspirations for their brand, they are more likely to be dreaming of this kind of brand superstardom, even though it requires more time, more budget, and carries more risk.

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Unpack one word, and you can find at least three definitions. Understanding which kind of innovation you need for the job is key.

Dimensionalize your innovation

To return to the 6%, it’s likely that the other 94% are dissatisfied with company innovation efforts not because of a lack of ambition but because of a lack of definition.

So, instead of seeing innovation as a singular dry dictionary prescription, made murkier by its association with ‘new,’ reframe it as a spectrum that spans the sweep of your aspirations.

Ask: do we want to make progress via the compound interest of incremental progressions? Or via the importing of codes from an adjacent territory? Or by trying to change the game forever? Also, ask: how can we do all three?

The word ‘rainbow’ is one word but describes seven colors. Start thinking of ‘innovation’ the same way. The How To Innovate report can be downloaded here.

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