Don Williams, CEO of brand and design consultancy Pi Global advises staying in touch with the real world when it comes to innovation

If there were ever a concept for which the word ’hype’ was invented it’s... innovation! Innovation is, without doubt, the most over-used noun in the marketing world’s vocabulary.

Not only is it often seen as an almost alchemic cure-all for brand problems, but it seems to magically conjure exciting images of slick group sessions, stimulating away-days, wacky brain-storming and kindergarten game-playing. Yes we’ve all indulged some of us more than our fair share.

The reality, though, is a little more sober. Over 90% of all brand/product innovations fail miserably; the money wasted on innovation in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) would probably buy back the gold reserves that our beloved leader flogged off.

What we should remember is that all these failures have gone through processes that, to all intents and purposes, would seem to be professionally sound: strategic, creative, R&D, finance, communication, research. Yet there we are, with a jaw-dropping statistic that should have serious business-folk heading for the hills, swearing to never go near innovation, lest they be struck blind (or worse).

So why, then, does innovation, which is vital, perform so miserably in our business, with a success rate record that would make Eddie the Eagle look positively Michael Phelps-ish? I’ll tell you: it’s rooted in flawed thinking.

The innovation fest often starts with a conventional brainstorming where a disparate group of people are confined to an airless room with a tightly controlled and well-timed agenda nicely abbreviated by little coffee and food breaks and are mesmerised by a jolly moderator, equipped with dog-eared magazines, Pritt Sticks, pretty coloured pens and a rainbow of Post-it notes. And through this, they are expected to be seriously ’creative’ and generate world-shattering ideas, which will miraculously spew forth from the rear end of an assembly line. Well, I’m here to tell you that great ideas do not come from daft formulaic sessions like this; they come from inspired individuals! And, to add insult to injury, the cherry on the whole farce is the ever-so-slightly suspect research ’science’, giving a green light for the ensuing train wreck.

There are generally two fundamentals missing from the innovation process: real-world understanding; and common sense the most sadly lacking attribute in our combined industries. Great brands don’t become great through constant change; they become great through continuity and familiarity, so anything that changes the consumer’s perception or confuses their understanding of what a brand stands for can be catastrophic.

Now don’t get me wrong, innovation is vital to sustain freshness, news and sales around a brand, but the trick is to ensure that the innovation is real world-relevant, provides the consumer with something that is truly beneficial or desirable, is researched sensibly and objectively and, crucially, is right for the brand. Would you believe it if Hovis launched a French rustic Couronne or if McVitie’s created a Heston Blumenthal range of biscuits, for example?

Innovation is not about being clever or sexy or über-creative. It’s about delivering real-world developments that will meet or in some cases create a genuine consumer desire or need and, like all tools in the marketer’s toolbox, it should be used judiciously.