Innovations are not self-propelled

Innovations are not self-propelling and are often associated with belly landings. Read about why failures and experiments are part of the innovation process and why there are no principles that guarantee success.

One evening last summer on the German island of Rügen, I met a long line of people waiting – they all wanted to buy a balloon. But not just any balloon – the seller had come up with something innovative: helium balloons with flashing lights around them. An obviously attractive product for which he could charge ten Euro each. So attractive that the queue became longer every evening and he stood there with several salesmen during the week.

Every week we see advertising for new products on every corner. Overall, investments in innovations are also growing in Germany. After all, they are a key growth driver for companies. At L’Óreal, product innovations account for 15 to 20 percent of annual sales figures. According to analysts, this figure applies to the entire category. So it is hardly surprising that companies spend large sums on developing and testing new products – according to PwC around 20 trillion dollars a year.

Only few “real” success stories

Many of the innovations are not so innovative. In 2015, Nielsen determined that only 18 out of 8,650 product launches in Europe were really an innovative breakthrough in the market – this corresponds to a rate of only 0.2 percent. Most innovations are not really so exciting from the user’s point of view that they find their way into our heads and households in the long term.

Museum of Failure

With nnovations the numbers of belly landings are high. According to Nielsen, around 76 percent of new launches fail. Some are so impressive that they now even have their own museum: the “Museum of Failure” – with branches in Sweden, Canada and Shanghai – and from September also in Munich. Here you can admire such unpopular brand innovations as Harley-Davidson perfume, Colgate lasagne or Coca-Cola Black with coffee flavour. The Apple Newton is also part of the exhibition and a good example of a failed innovation that also represents a first step on the way to the iPhone.

Marrying the familiar with the new

In “Hitmakers” Derek Thompson explains very vividly what hits are all about and how we better understand how to get people excited about us in this age of fleeting attention. He clears away the myth of absolute innovation as well as the viral distribution of hits. He shows that we humans are on the one hand neophilic and almost addicted to new things – but on the other hand just as neophobic and full of fear of all too new and strange things. Only those who understand how to cleverly marry the familiar with the new have a chance of success.

Distribution plan is the be-all and end-all

What applies to films, books or songs also applies to the development of new products and services – as Thompson shows using Instagram as an example. And this also makes it clear: an innovation hit requires a convincing product but also a good distribution plan. In the case of Instagram, it wasn’t just a simple, clear product that was fun, but also the move to share an early version of the app with US tech giants, journalists or entrepreneurs like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey before the launch. After they had shared numerous Instagram images on Twitter with their own networks, the app was downloaded 25,000 times directly for launch in 2010, taking it straight to the top of the App Store. The rest is history.

The success of the blinking balloons

In principle, this is exactly what I observed last summer during the holidays. Maybe the balloon salesman at the Baltic Sea tried a lot before people queued up for blinking balloons. Perhaps he has intuitively combined familiar elements to create an exciting new experience. Maybe he was simply lucky that this summer many people were in a good mood and spent ten Euro on a blinking balloon – and a sea of blinking balloons was thus created on the boardwalk. The very analog influencer campaign for other balloon customers.

Failure must be allowed

The comforting thought is that ultimately there are no principles that guarantee success. The possible failure is always part of the innovation process. Experimentation remains an essential point on the way to successful innovations. This applies to products as well as to the communication around them. As agencies, we are always called upon to find surprising new solutions. On the one hand, companies and agencies can therefore become aware of what successful innovations are made of today – but they should also always keep in mind that we can only be innovative if we also create room for experiments and possible fearless failure.

The article first appeared in Absatzwirtschaft (2018).

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