5 min read

By Lutz Dietzold.

Innovation – a paradoxical phenomenon: in common parlance, particularly of advertising and marketing, its presence already is inflationary – at the same time, it is in truth a scarce resource, coveted, sought-after, worthy of protection and promotion. But why do we need innovation, where and how does it thrive best and what does it have to do with brand and design? Let us start with a glance at the development of the term ‘innovation’.

There have been inventions and technological progress for thousands of years, of course, but it wasn’t until the dynamics of the industrial revolution apparently caused the pace of innovation to speed up relentlessly. At the beginning of the 20th century, the economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter created terms and a theoretical framework for this dynamic: not only did he posit the frequently cited principle of ‘creative destruction’, thus anticipating the current idea of disruption, but he even designated innovation as ‘the actual function of an entrepreneur’. And he took the important definitional step of distinguishing innovation from an invention or a new idea in the respect that innovation is inextricably linked with its successful implementation and establishment in the market.

Schumpeter likewise recognised at an early stage that innovations always encounter resistance, too. From a psychological standpoint, novelty is very intriguing, but this appeal carries a certain ambivalence. Innovation brings change with it – along with the hackneyed ‘opportunities and risks’, to be sure, but this change is usually uncomfortable at a minimum. Although recent generations of humanity have experienced huge increases in prosperity and comfort thanks to technological and social innovations, most people have difficulty adapting to change. At the same time, this progress undeniably created many new, urgent problems – for instance, in ecological systems – which in turn require innovative solutions, resulting in the general consensus that stasis is not an option.

The famous „coffee house chair“ was a revolution in several ways when it first appeared: thanks to the innovative bent wood, industrial production was possible based on a division of labour, it saved space during transport when dismantled – and its elegant shape continues to impress. Picture: Anniversary Edition © THONET 214 by STUDIO BESAU-MARGUERRE

Accepting innovations

How people handle change in general and innovations in particular is also a question of personality and mindset. Whereas Schumpeter still made a very basic distinction between the entrepreneur, the entrepreneurial personality as the bearer of innovation, and a rather passive mass of consumers, later scientists took a much closer look at the issue. Everett Rogers broke new ground in 1962 with his oeuvre ‘Diffusion of Innovations’: he posited the classification of consumers along the time axis under a Gaussian distribution curve that started with only a few genuine innovators, then shifted to the ‘early adopters’ before an early and a late majority accepted the innovation. At the other end of the curve, a minority was reluctant to embrace the progress. Rogers’ work was pioneering – even today, hardly any target audience in marketing is formulated without using his terms. And it encouraged other scientists to ask new questions on their quest for the secret of successful innovations.

In his bestseller ‘Crossing the Chasm’, the organisational researcher Geoffrey A. Moore identified in 1991 that one transition in Rogers’ diffusion model is particularly critical for the long-term success or flop of new products and services: namely the transition between the targeting of a relatively small group of innovators and Early Adopters, who love innovations simply because of their novelty, and a benevolent and rather hesitant consumer majority. Moore identified a gap, the „Chasm’, between these two groups – did one fail to bridge the gap, innovation deflagrated. Moore specifically recommended to change the communication strategy entirely at this stage of the product lifecycle: simply put, from a ‘Nobody has it. Be the first!’ to ‘Everybody has it, join us, too!’ Moreover, the aim is in particular to convince open pragmatists with arguments: if the innovation provides a concrete, identifiable added value, they are happy to be on board as an ‘early majority’.

Being first is not a guarantee of success

This is also the reason why not always the ‘First Mover’ dominates a market in the long term. An example: the iPhone was by no means the first smartphone. But based on a strong brand and a culture of usability, the Apple product was undoubtedly the first smartphone that focussed uncompromisingly on the user experience – and went on to become a global success in the long run. Which brings us to the role of brand and design in the innovation process. Dieter Rams, the former head designer at Braun, is one of the world’s best-known industrial designers; Apple designer Jonathan Ive, too, cites him frequently. In his famous ‘Ten principles on good design’, Rams started off with the statement that ‘Good design is innovative’. And he pointed out that ‘Technological development keeps offering new starting points for innovative design concepts which enhance a product’s value in use.’ Design, indeed, is an extremely effective means to communicate technical innovations and to attract buyers or user.

The multifunctional kitchen appliance from Wuppertal is an innovation whose breakthrough was a long time coming. Global success came with the TM5 model, the recipes integrated into the device and the guided cooking function. © Vorwerk

Absolute must: Visibility

But at this point I would like to go beyond Rams: Not only technology, but change and cultural and social innovations, too, find their formulation and sensual expression in design. The German economist Jürgen Hauschildt who created a standard work with his textbook ‘Innovationsmanagement’, put it clearly: Only those who perceive innovation, can it be an innovation – therefore, without perception there is no innovation. Here it does not matter whether there is an improvement at the detail level of a product or a process or a groundbreaking, disruptive innovation: both remain invisible, if placement, communication and design do not allow the necessary sensory perception and concise brands do not provide a solid basis for the attention of target groups. On the other hand, good design can contribute to the crucial quality advantage of a product or service with which all ‘chasms’ can be overcome. Especially for medium-sized companies involved in the process of brand creation and development, the triad of innovation, design and brand has a huge potential for synergies: design catalyses and communicates innovations, which in turn add to the reputation of the brand. Once the brand is associated with innovation – ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ – it will not only lead through the perils of the market, but also attract the best brains of technicians and managers, which eventually will perpetuate a culture of innovation.

Such a culture of innovation is without a doubt one of the key success factors in the economy in the long run. Reason enough to foster, to preserve and to develop it strategically. Besides individual companies, the cultivation of innovation is of vital importance both from an economic as well as a global perspective. Innovative capability also stands for the capability to adjust to an environment which changes at a great speed. Education, knowledge and creativity, the preconditions for innovation, are intangible resources that are ultimately inexhaustible. Let us use it to promote the quality of everyday life with the acceptance of innovation.

First published in the German Innovation Awards 2018 catalogue.

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