What to Do When “Innovation” is No Longer Innovative

How to build a B2B brand around innovation while standing out from the pack
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Today, innovation is everywhere we look, and in this fast-paced and increasingly digital world, we don’t just embrace it – we expect it. Recognizing this, brands have jumped on the opportunity to signal to their audiences that they, too, are innovators. But when everyone’s talking about innovation, branding and messaging around it can easily fall flat – and we see this all too often in the B2B space.

Think of the most innovative brands you know. Now, think about the words they use to describe themselves. Apple leads with the tagline “Think Different.” For GE, it’s “Imagination at work.” Neither specifically references innovation, and chances are, the taglines and top-level brand messaging don’t either – and for good reason.

We often tell our financial services clients that building a brand strategy around transparency can backfire and inadvertently raise red flags rather than inspire confidence. There’s a similar dynamic at work for innovation in the B2B branding space: saying you’re innovative without providing a deeper, more nuanced reason to believe can raise more questions than answers. The brand’s message likely won’t ring true, won’t speak directly to customer benefit, and – most problematically – won’t offer any differentiation in a market inundated with me-too messaging.

This doesn’t mean that a brand strategy can’t be built around the concept of innovation – or that it doesn’t have any place in the brand. On the contrary, in many cases, innovation should be a core component – if not the single most important component – of an organization’s brand messaging. But in order to be effective, the way an organization talks about innovation needs to be innovative in its own right.

Here are some ideas for branding and messaging around innovation in an innovation-obsessed era. 

1. Link innovation to what makes your brand unique

In a business environment inundated with innovation, audiences need to understand how an organization’s offerings are different. For this reason, brand messaging around innovation need to feel special – and to do that, it needs to be rooted in an organization’s true differentiators.

This was key during a recent project with a tech company that used artificial intelligence and machine learning in its service offerings, unlike most of its competitors. A highly innovative company, our client regularly developed new features and products that disrupted and helped drive the industry forward. However, given the highly innovative, competitive nature of the space, we knew that this information on its own wouldn’t be enough to set our client apart.

Instead, when research revealed that competitors did not have the same emphasis on artificial intelligence, we saw an opportunity. We decided to connect their innovation-forward approach at the corporate level to the non-stop, real-time innovations happening for their clients at the product level, thanks to machine learning. Linking the company’s forward-looking mindset to the constant improvement happening at the micro level helped them tell a more differentiated brand story about innovation.

2. Translate innovation to what your audiences truly want.

Your clients don’t care about innovation for the sake of innovation; they want to know what your innovative approach means for them. This hit home for us during recent work for a company in the chemicals industry. We surveyed our client’s clients to understand the critical attributes they look for when selecting a solution provider. When respondents were asked what was most important to their decision process – a solution provider that constantly innovates to provide new and better products or a solution provider that provides products and support for specific challenges – they overwhelming chose the latter response, forgoing innovation entirely.

Interestingly, however, we found that there was a strong correlation between innovation and satisfaction. Customers were more likely to be satisfied with the companies they ranked highly on innovation, which meant that innovation was still clearly important to them. Deeper analysis revealed that while they were ambivalent about large-scale innovation, they were looking for a partner that could incrementally modify, tailor, and evolve solutions alongside their changing needs. In other words, it wasn’t that the brand should steer clear of innovation; it just needed to frame innovation as helping clients solve their immediate challenges.

3. Tap into disruptor desire.

Every company wants to be seen as innovative – and nearly every company today is worried about not innovating enough, and being disrupted as a result. That’s what we hear from our clients – and it’s what they hear from their own clients. In a recent branding assignment for an executive search firm, we saw that this shared concern between partner and client could be the foundation of an effective brand strategy.

Our client approached us because they needed a strong brand architecture for a new set of services outside of their traditional offering. They were known as a relatively conservative firm, and needed a brand that signaled a more forward-looking mindset reflective of these new offerings. As we dug deeper, we realized that not only were these new services truly pioneering in their field, but also that their target audiences – executive and leadership teams of the world’s leading companies – were true disruptors of their respective industries. By building a brand focused on the future, we were able to signal the forward-looking mindset of our client while tapping into their core audiences’ preoccupation with the future, all without mentioning the word innovation.

Effective messaging around innovation must maintain authenticity, give audiences real reasons to believe, and differentiate the company from competition. Once the messaging is in place, you can focus on the really tough stuff — continuing to deliver on your innovation promise.

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