It seems as though the past year I’ve heard a lot of people with early adopter tendencies, especially the media, complain about the lack of innovation coming from the tech industry. It again up again at CES this year. Quite frequently I heard from people that there was nothing ground breaking or truly innovative at the show. Now we can define innovation in many different ways where even simple improvements can be innovative. But I think it is important to point out that true limit pushing, ground breaking innovation is cyclical not annual. We are coming off the re-invention of two primary technologies categories, the smartphone and the tablet. Furthermore we are in the midst of now re-defining what a personal computer is, does, and looks like. Of course I believe innovation is still around the corner but I think there are some important market truths that need to be pointed out.
Innovate Then Communicate
Innovations fail if they can not be marketed. Sometimes I think the importance of effective marketing is taken for granted. I think many industry observers simply assume that when something innovative is released that everyone will magically understand it at a glance. The truth is, even the simplest innovations need effective marketing if they are to be embraced by the mass market.
This is the cycle we currently find ourselves in. This is why it actually becomes much easier to discern the winners and losers by judging not just the product but also the marketing. Great products have the potential to fail to be considered by the mass market with poor marketing while at the same time bad products do not get embraced by the mass market even with great marketing. Great products require great marketing.
There is also the danger of over innovating during a market’s maturity process. When this happens a company tries to add too many bells and whistles and runs the risk of it being too much for the market to handle. Thus their market doesn’t grasp the value of all the new features, or perhaps it just isn’t ready.
Marketing Matters in Mature Markets
Perhaps the most fundamental point for the reason we are in the marketing driven cycle we are currently in is due to the market largely being a mature one. Mature markets function very different than when they are maturing. As a market is maturing it is receptive to more limit pushing innovations. As the market reaches maturity it is more receptive to the marketing of that mature product in order to drive its growth from the early adopters and into the mass market.
Early adopters are important segments for every company to understand because the things they value today will be the things the mass market of tomorrow values in the future. Early adopters rely heavily on new, cutting edge, and innovative features. They appreciate the wow factor, the things that no one else has and they can be the first to embrace. However the mass market is often more down to earth and doesn’t necessarily understand why the flashy, shiny new gadget adds value to their life and is truly useful. Luckily for companies the mass market is significantly larger than the early adopter market. The billions need marketing to help them understand why they need something, the millions need to be wowed by something. Moving from early adopters to the mass market is the fundamental key to a product’s success and that is where marketing comes in.
We also have to understand that the demand to innovate by companies also catches up with technological limits. Many of the things in labs that I have seen that I think can lead to the next round in innovation for smartphones and tablets, like flexible displays, new semiconductor process technology, battery science, etc., are still years away for being ready for mass commercialization. This is why we should simply expect more evolutionary hardware than revolutionary.
This happens all around us, especially in post mature markets. Look at the automobile industry for example. We don’t see revolutionary hardware on an annual basis. If fact we rarely see it at all.
The Myth of iPhone Fatique
I’m in no way saying innovation isn’t important. Just that it is cyclical and we need to understand where we are in the innovation cycle. Maturing product segments require time for original innovations to be adopted by the mass market. To make this point, I’d like to address something I think is interesting. From many early adopters I know, it seems as though they frequently complain that iOS feels dated. For the early adopter this is the challenge. They adopt technologies extremely early and then have to wait for the rest of the market to catch up. As per iPhone fatigue, for many (hundreds of millions of people) they will be experiencing the iPhone and iOS for the first time throughout the next few years. For them there is no such thing as iPhone fatigue. This is the point that many early adopters miss.
Believe it or not, marketing is more important than innovation in the cycle we are currently in. Value needs to be communicated to the mass market. People need to be shown the usefulness of a product or feature and fully grasp the why not the what. Too many companies market the what not the why. Anyone analyzing any company in today’s market needs to heavily evaluate said companies marketing plan as much as the product itself.
Innovation at its best solves problems. Great marketing communicates the value the innovation is bringing to solving a problem people either knew or didn’t know they had. In my opinion there is only one tech company who currently does this well.