Innovation is the safest way to build a brand in the 21st century

“To achieve originality, we need to abandon the comforts of habit, reason, and the approval of our peers, and strike out in new directions.” Marty Neumeier

Most businesses seek safety in established norms, but counterintuitively, safety lies off the beaten track. Heading out into uncharted waters can be frightful. And with good reason, according to the SBA (small business administration) 90% of small business ventures ultimately fail. 

The key to the problem is: How do you differentiate between being radically different but desirable and radically different and unwanted? 



1: Radical differentiation

Following in the snow plowed paths of others in the 21st century does not supply the same safety it used to. 

In my experience as a brand strategist, while many businesses seek differentiation and innovation, few are brave enough to commit. Often when a bold, clear and actionable idea emerges in a workshop, the initial reaction is fear. 

Taking a radical step to differentiate your company seems risky, but if we look at the bigger picture, is it really? 

The success of great startups has led us to the entrepreneurial gold rush of our century. For the past 2-3 decades, accelerating unprecedented technological development and innovation have become an established norm. Change and its disruption, for a while now, have been the only constant.

This means it's no longer beneficial to bet on established markets because they will be disrupted eventually. The list is long: Uber and cab companies, Netflix and Blockbuster, Airbnb and the hotel industry. 

Innovation is not risk-free, but it can lead to safety. Most businesses compromise where they need to be bold. 

For that reason, many brands end up becoming “me too” brands.


2: Why embrace change?

Like Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim describe in their book Blue Ocean Strategy: businesses are in bloodied red water battling their competition for customers. There is no stable long-term perspective because the whole business model of a “me too” brand is a shortsighted strategy. But there is a more “peaceful way” of doing business. Through branding and innovation, businesses enter blue ocean waters where competitors can’t or won’t follow.

You become the only or major brand in your space because you are radically different. You created your own category, business is stable and predictable. As long as customers still want what you're selling, there is no one else to challenge you, (for now at least). 

The good news in most cases is you don’t need to reinvent the phone, or develop a groundbreaking new technology to move into clear blue ocean space. 

Branding enables businesses to be radically different in more nuanced ways: Southwest Airlines offering free bags as part of their pricing model, which all other airlines used to overcharge for. Mint mobile, a wireless service provider that highly values customer service, which all other wireless service providers are lacking. Or Peloton, a gamified interactive home trainer bike, that turns something as boring as a home trainer into an experience machine.


3: Being radically different in a good way

Renowned branding guru Marty Neumeier who worked intimately with greats such as Steve Jobs coined the key definition of what a brand is. “A brand is not a logo, a trademark, an aggregation of touchpoints, or you're messaging. 

“A Brand is the gut feeling people have about your organization, business, product or service. It's not what you say it is, it's what they say it is.” 

Your customers create your brand and define your business. They decide if the way in which you're radically different is good or bad. You have to find ways to collaborate with customers on building the brand, business model and products.

By developing processes of receiving feedback, you verify and develop your radical differentiation in a way that customers will love.


4: Design thinking to reduce risks

According to Neumeier, design thinking, although the topic has been made quite complex as of late, is best practiced by a simple set of principles: Know, make and do. 

  • Know: use what you know to develop a thesis to move forward with. 

  • Make: create a prototype based on your thesis and test it in a real life scenario that will provide new “knowing.” Prototype your touchpoints (packaging, websites, social media content) as a way of receiving feedback on your brand. 

  • Do: once you’re making has informed what you know, further develop your brand. 

Design thinking is known as a strategy to innovate products and business models, but it is also essential for brand building. 


5. Lower the stakes and win in stages

This brings us to the next strategy that helps to make innovation a much safer process: The stage gate innovation model:

stage gate
©Level C

The risk of innovation is mitigated by investing in 4 stages. Stage 1 a small amount of money to develop a concept. Stage 2 a small bet to develop a strategy. Stage 3 a medium size bet to model and test. And stage 4 a large bet to launch to market.

Don't build out the whole thing before going to market. Don't assume everything before you haven't tested your hypothesis in real life scenarios. Build in stages. As a large company, for instance, invest in many small concepts. Then take the most promising ones and develop a strategy. Once ideas pass the strategy stage test, promote them to the model and testing stage and so forth. 

Mitigating risk by working in gated stages is the solution.

My art school professor used to say, “ideas are cheap, a dime for a dozen.” Allow creativity to flow by lowering the stakes, and nurture the ideas that stand out. Don't kill an idea too soon. Give them time to grow. 

“Fail your way to success.” This is a familiar phrase, but it's not easy for people nor organizations to implement. Branding is a complex process of alignment of all stakeholders involved, ranging from customers to employees and investors. 

Organizations struggle because of the different ideologies present. The main dichotomy being that the type of thinking necessary for innovation, design thinking and branding is creative, but the type of thinking taught in business schools lacks this component. 

Harnessing creativity for branding, business models and new products, is counterintuitive to most traditional business and finance ideologies. But change is, inevitable. 


6: Innovation bears fewer risks than it may seem

In conclusion, building an innovative, radically differentiated brand executed without compromise is a simpler and safer process than it may feel like. 

In contrast, the risks businesses should consider being more aware of are: complacency, dated models of operation, rigid structures, a lack of awareness for customer's true pains and needs, a neglect of employee culture, and the inability to reflect clearly on their own positioning in the market.

The safest way forward is to adapt to the times we live in and become a force of change yourself. 

Enabling innovation helps to create the stability and scalability that all businesses seek.