Growth is at the heart of every marketer’s work. Growing market share, growing revenue, growing customer advocacy—marketing and growth belong together like bread and butter. But, contrary to common wisdom, the most successful firms don’t use “big bang” innovations to grow their business. Instead, they constantly make things just a little bit better for their customers.
As I’ve written before, as a customer leader in your business, you must stand for revenue and not be only a cost. If you understand where future growth can come from, your CEO will listen to you. “Marketers need to get more involved in business strategy and be able to show where markets are headed. Highlighting sources of future growth is a way of doing this,” said Christopher Macleod, marketing director of Transport for London.
Let’s look at two diametrically opposed marketing leadership strategies for growth:
Big Bang Innovation
Apple’s famous theme “Think Different” still holds true for many marketers. The most exciting customer innovation is a “big bang” one that takes the whole market somewhere completely new. Customers often don’t expect the “big bang.” Steve Jobs once said that the iPod wouldn’t exist if he’d asked customers what they wanted.
A generation earlier, much the same was said about the Sony Walkman, which was allegedly developed so that the company’s co-chairman could listen to opera on long-haul flights. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream wouldn’t exist if Ben Cohen hadn’t tried unusually intense flavours and textured objects to please his friend Jerry Greenfield’s poor taste buds.
Occasionally, even established firms come up with a “big bang.” Examples include IBM’s all-compatible System/360 mainframes in 1964 and, on a smaller scale, P&G’s Swiffer cleaning system in 1999. Many well-known entrepreneurs such as Fred Smith (FedEx), Larry Page (Google), and Jerry Yang (Yahoo!) have all achieved big success by inventing new product categories.
For many marketers, “big bang” currently means rethinking what category they work in and where future value creation is likely to come from. Today, for example, most customers own their cars. In the future, they may want a mobility solution that includes a car on demand, a bus when it’s practical, and navigation along the way.
The world still needs marketing leaders who come up with game-changing and radical new ways to meet customers’ needs. So which customer needs could you tackle? How or where people eat? Sleep? Work?
Do you have a profitable “big bang” vision? Great.
If not, that’s fine too. Just read on.
Simply Better Innovation
Everyone loves breakthrough innovations. They’re extremely profitable and widely celebrated when they succeed—but they rarely do. Incremental (like follower) is almost a rude word in today’s business world. But, in reality, the great majority of brands and businesses enjoy long-term success because of relentless incremental product and service improvements.
The idea is straightforward: focus on profitably meeting customers’ basic needs “simply better” than competitors, said London Business School professor Patrick Barwise in his book “Simply Better.”
Just think about the most successful companies you know. With very few exceptions, relentless incremental innovation is likely to be an important (if unglamorous) driver of their long-term success. That’s even true for companies that started with a breakthrough innovation.
Jobs, famous for disruptive innovation, said at an investor conference a few months before he died: “It was this relentless improvement that was able to beat our competitors and yield the market share that it did.”
A good starting point, then, is to think about the things letting your customers down. Addressing these issues will improve your position, relative to the competition, in customers’ minds.
To get further ahead, also look for customers’ unexpressed “latent” needs. Think about ways in which you and your competitors could all do a better job. That will help you discover things customers value but don’t necessarily complain about today.
Can you be the first to serve these latent needs? If so, you could end up raising the bar for the whole industry.
Constantly delivering small improvements has made Colgate toothpaste a leading brand for almost a century now—quite an achievement for a product people use every day without thinking and with tough competitors such as P&G and Unilever. The brand has continuously kept the market moving through small innovations such as MPF Fluoride, Blue Minty Gel, or Colgate Total. Few of these innovations would be seen as groundbreaking by consumers, but they delivered relevant benefits and have kept people buying the brand decade after decade.
In 2012, chief designer Sir Jonathan Ive, responsible for the design of iconic Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad, said: “Our goals are very simple—to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.”
So, how can you make things “simply better” for your customers? The answer is, perhaps, more down to earth than you think.