I had an interesting conversation with Kevin Corkum the other day. Kevin is a bit of a renaissance man – one foot firmly in tech (he engaged me to reboot brand strategy at the web theme company he was running) and the other in good old-fashioned brands (he also owns several high end bicycle shops specializing in European road bikes).
When I asked Kevin if he saw any trends tipping the brand strategy applecart, he replied ‘hyperinnovation’ without skipping a beat. He believes tech has unleashed a beast of constant iteration and innovation that will rapidly change consumers’ expectations, and send many venerable brands to the glue factory. In his words:
Today, consumers aren’t waiting for new seasons, new launches – they want constant new, constant updates, constant improvement. That may be greens’ fees in tech, but it’s spreading to other sectors as well. You can drive your Tesla into the shop anytime for a software update that improves cruise control, for example. So where does that leave my VW – it wasn’t designed to be constantly upgraded. If I want a new model, I have to wait until next year.
I’m fascinated by the impact this hyperinnovation is going to have on sectors that – unlike tech – require massive retooling to effect even relatively small, iterative changes. Imagine if your favourite detergent went through 50 different bottle designs in a year, constantly tweaking to find the ‘right’ one? Would the cost collapse the company?
The culture of iteration
In addition to rethinking production, companies will need to embody a much more fluid corporate personality to succeed in a climate of constant iteration. I think the leader with a grand vision for the future will be consigned to the trash heap of history, replaced by people happy to roll out smaller ideas and evolve them without remorse for what they left behind.
The hyperinnovative company will, I believe, bear a close affiliation to maker culture. Imagine a corporation building ‘rough models’ for friends to try out again and again, adding features here, taking features away there, crafting and tinkering tirelessly.
With all this, the concept of product longevity will go away. As Corkum said “When I launch a product, I’ll have six months to pump it before I have to start the tweaking process all over again.” And as no-longer-quite-new products begin to iterate furiously to hold consumer attention, there’s a real danger they’ll lose their sense of self and become bloated with new features to please perennially dissatisfied consumers. At which point, they’ll crash and be replaced by leaner, more focused products.
I have six months to pump my product before starting to tweak all over again.
Consumers (or co-creators, as I think they’ll increasingly become known) will welcome some of these shifts, but bemoan others. Products and services will be constantly tailored to their changing needs. But the brands themselves might possibly cease to become ‘shorthand’ for things consumers trust. Last week, you turned to deodorant X because it promised ultimate dryness. This week, it’s become the deodorant with more fruit scents. You’ll feel cut adrift, constantly looking for something you can hold onto.
I was curious if fashion, the ultimate seasonal business, was experiencing this shift to hyperinnovation.
I spoke with Barbara Atkin, VP of Fashion Direction at Holt Renfrew (Canada’s most exclusive fashion retailer) while she was in Paris this March for Fashion Week.
Everything comes with obsolescence that’s measured in weeks, not months.
Atkin confirmed that seasons were rapidly going away. “Just yesterday, somebody leaned over to me at a show and asked what season we’re in” she quipped. “Consumers don’t care anymore about Fall or Spring – they want fur for summer, shorts in winter, everything whenever, and they want it now.”
Atkin summed it up nicely “Acquiring newness is what it’s all about. Everything we’re creating comes with obsolescence that’s measured in weeks, not months.”
Even the kids are confused
In addition to consulting, I teach marketing at a university. This semester, I brought aboard a complement of startup tech companies for whom my students would create marketing plans.
Even the students – average age 22 – were perplexed at the fluidity the startups embodied
The founders would arrive with products that seemed pointless one week, only to have completely new prototypes crafted seven days later. It was nearly impossible to get a bead on old-fashioned concepts like brand attributes, brand values and target market, not to mention nailing down revenue models. Putting together marketing plans was challenging, to put it mildly.
The stupid curve
In my new book, I devote an entire chapter to the effect this constant state of product – and by extension brand – flux is going to have on consumers:
As humans, we’re used to learning curves. You get a new device, bumble along as you figure out how to make the damn thing do what it’s supposed to, then start feeling smarter as you gain proficiency. Eventually, you reach the learning curve’s peak. You’re the king of the world and ready to take on another challenge.
But what if your device is rendered obsolete before you’re halfway along the learning curve, and you’re back to square one with the new version? Now multiply that by every device you own, every operating system you work with, and every app people say you simply can’t live without.
Suddenly one little learning curve becomes a tidal wave of curves that buries you. Too many improvements to absorb, too many updates to install, too many new ways to get the old job done. You’ve been sentenced to life as a newbie, feeling perennially stupid and incompetent. Worse still, you can’t stop the train and get off, for fear of being left behind in the Luddite dust.
You’re condemned to spending the rest of your life at the bottom of the stupid curve.
Whereto, brand strategy?
I believe consumers love newness as much as they loathe the stupid curve. It’s an uneasy relationship, but I don’t see it leading to anyone putting the brakes on.
Instead of plunging into frantic brand strategy iterations to keep up with product development, smart strategists will be looking for perennial qualities upon which to anchor their brands. The old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” will take on a whole new meaning.
It’s not an unfamiliar concept. In turbulent times, people gravitate to safety and security. They need to trust. As the products they love change beyond recognition, they’ll want to know the company behind them has values as steadfast as a lighthouse in a storm.
Therein lies the challenge – and the possible undoing – of many brands that are swept up in hyperinnovation.
Will you be able to keep your brand stable in the storm, or be capsized by the turbulence?
This story first appeared in Unreasonable.is March 17th, 2015