by FRANÇOIS LAURENT
“Innovating is about embracing major societal movements while keeping in mind all of the available technologies.”
François Laurent, Doctor of Semiology, Co-Chairman of Adetem. After a career in advertising (Havas, Publicis), market research (Millward Brown) and marketing (Thomson), he founded ConsumerInsight in 2006. He is the author of several books including Marketing, 100 pages, ça suffit. He also writes a blog (MarketingIsDead.net).
THE INNOVATION MINDSET
There will always be two opposing approaches to innovation: on one side there are the proponents of product-centric marketing (leave everything up to the engineers and the techies) and on the other side there are the advocates of customer-centric marketing (asking the consumer is the only way to go).
The advent of social media and new technologies has not changed this situation. If anything, the oppositions are exacerbated. The startuppers, fired up by the success of another would-be Steve Jobs, believe only in their own creative genius — while those on the other side base their arguments on the profusion of insights left on the web by social media users.
These two contradictory approaches indicate a profound lack of understanding of the innovation processes …
Innovation is a very long process
One day, Steve Jobs looked at his Apple II and said to himself: “This isn’t very user-friendly – people work in offices, so let’s put an office on their computer”. But the real story is that Jobs took much of his inspiration from the work of Xerox, who had been labouring in this direction for years.
So when Bill Gates launched Windows and was accused of copying Apple, he responded: ”We both benefitted from the work that Xerox PARC did in creating graphical interface – it wasn’t just them but they did the best work.”
What is interesting about this remark is not so much the Microsoft founder’s little dig at his rival, but his acknowledgement that all of the segment’s key players had been working on the same thing, some more successfully than others.
The research that culminates in technological advances takes place within an extremely long time frame, during which all the contenders ask themselves the same questions – and may even discuss their work with one another within the framework of standards organisations.
In developing mp3, launched in 1995, Fraunhofer IIS relied on work initiated 20 years earlier by RCA in the USA, and the project was financed by the European Union as part of the Eureka programme.
Once the technologies were perfected, there was a race to get there first. Even though Apple was a latecomer to portable digital audio players – Thomson had been involved in the development of the mp3 standard and Archos was already selling a hard disk-based audio player – the iPod’s ergonomic design responded to users’ expectations and Apple snatched the lead.
The consumer may not be asking for anything
Studies carried out by Orange’s predecessor, the Direction Générale des Télécommunications, clearly showed that the overwhelming majority of French people saw no point in a phone that would let them make calls in the street.
This could easily have led to the conclusion that there was no future in the mobile phone — but not a single operator drew such a conclusion. As we have pointed out, research takes its place within a long-term context, and you do not dismiss years of work just because consumers are unable to see the advantage of what you are working on.
This does not mean that we should not be concerned about what consumers really want. It simply means that asking them directly is not always the most appropriate approach – because it was obvious that in an increasingly urbanised, fast-paced world, people were bound to welcome a device enabling them to stay in touch with those in their microcosm at all times, wherever they happened to be.
Simply put, one must not just look at the small picture, but consider broader societal trends and emerging phenomena — and not only from the narrow angle of one’s own business.
We must see our customers as being at the centre of a gigantic trade-off. For 30 or 40 euros, a young person can treat himself to a night out…or he can buy a microwave. The two things do not serve the same purpose, but if he cannot afford both he has to make a choice.
At Thomson, we developed the Consumer Insight Network, sharing knowledge with Orange, PSA, Danone, Prisma and a few others, in order to gain a better understanding of such phenomena within a long-term context and a better grasp of the broader consumer picture.
Consumer Insight Network
Within this network we organised encounters – and not only among marketing people. We also invited the engineers and the designers, as well as people from sales and product development, and sometimes even legal and financial people.
Without forgetting experts from outside our companies – sociologists, ethnologists, foresight experts, etc.
Innovation is a strange alchemic process, to which everyone can contribute: Consumer Insight Network provided its members with stimuli that enriched the thought processes of everyone involved.
Innovation also means looking at reality in another way, examining it from a different angle: An engineer, a marketer and a legal expert will never understand innovation in the same way. Bringing together different perspectives multiplies the breaking points that are the necessary basis for reconstructing something original.
What about today? Everything has changed … yet nothing has changed.
Everything has changed because things have accelerated, and opportunities have multiplied.
This acceleration does not concern basic research, but rather the time for new products to go to market: Nowadays everything happens in a sort of absolute urgency.
The cause: the multiplicity of “building blocks” available on the market. Yesterday (and this is still the case today), none of the big tech companies had all of the licences necessary for developing a new product – so each bought what they needed from their competitors. The tradition lives on, with Samsung remaining Apple’s number one supplier today.
And when it comes to launching an Airbnb, a BlaBlaCar or an Uber, everything is there online. For a smart watch it’s pretty much the same thing: you can buy everything you need from a bunch of external suppliers.
But it’s not enough to come up with the right idea – or even to be the first to come up with it. When Airbnb provided an online platform that people could use to rent out rooms in their homes, they were not inventing anything – but they were the first to achieve the critical size that would enable them to corner the market.
This is where urgency and the tools to respond to it come in. Growth hacking is an example – you test some stuff to see if it works, and if it doesn’t work you try something else … or you shut up shop! It was with growth hacking that Airbnb was able to divert Craigslist’s customers.
A question of attitude
Everything has changed … yet nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed, because even if you do these things you don’t necessarily have it made: all startups see themselves as unicorns, and are often quick to forget that more than nine startups in 10 disappear within two years.
Innovation is not about focusing solely on technology while not being overly concerned about the consumer – no more than it’s about wandering endlessly around various social media platforms, hoping that serendipity will lead you to the Holy Grail!
Serendipity is above all a state of mind, or rather a state of open-mindedness: being constantly ready to seize a piece of relevant information that the majority of web surfers would not even see.
It’s the same for innovation: it’s a question of attitude, a mindset.
It means not seeing the world exclusively from a technician’s perspective, not falling into the product-centric marketing trap — but it also means not falling into the customer-centric marketing trap of only considering that which is visible on the surface and at the present moment.
Innovating is about embracing major societal movements while keeping in mind all of the available technologies: sometimes one can have a brilliant vision — but often it’s better to work together and combine our talents.
Then you do some tweaking and some fine-tuning.
From both perspectives: You optimise the technical aspects and polish your end product so it suits its future purchasers.