New Features Are Not Innovation

by Steve McKee

Dot one…Recognizing the remarkable success of Apple’s iPhone, Palm launches the Pre, which (according to its ads), “does things iPhone can’t.” True enough, and as an iPhone user I must say that the Pre’s exclusive features are appealing. There’s just one problem–I don’t believe for a minute that the iPhone won’t adopt the same features within months. Given the time and psychological costs associated with switching not just my phone, but my service provider, I’m content to wait.

Dot two…Ford launches the all-new Taurus by touting “radar that monitors and alerts you when sensors detect vehicles in front of you…” and “hands-free, voice-activated communications and entertainment.” Like those of the Palm Pre, these features are highly attractive and I would like to benefit from both when I purchase my next vehicle. In all likelihood, I will, because if they’re as appealing to most people as they are to me, soon enough they’ll be available options (if not standard equipment) on most cars.

Connecting the dots…good luck trying to differentiate your brand based on features. As Joseph B. White, automotive columnist for the Wall Street Journal put it in his review of Mercedes’ new E550 Coupe, “Electronic gadgets such as radar-assisted cruise control or blind-spot hazard detection are falling down the technology-cost curve so fast that premium brands have only slits for windows of exclusivity on much of this hardware.”

Slits for windows of exclusivity. It’s true for cars, and it’s true for cell phones. It’s also true for computers. And hotels. And hamburgers (witness the recent scuffle between McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr over their “angus” burgers). Feature filching is a fact of life in just about every category of product or service. Unless an innovation is protected by intellectual property laws (and often in spite of that), not only can a given company not “own” it in consumers’ minds, but by hanging its hat on a feature it may inadvertently be sowing seeds that its competitors will reap.

What, then, is a marketer to do? Keep innovating, of course – that’s the ante. And when you do develop an exciting advance, do all you can to make the most of it. But keep in mind that it’s not individual innovations that will build brand equity, it’s your unique arc of innovation, presented in a credible, relevant, winsome and consistent context, that will ultimately differentiate your brand from its competition.


Steve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at https://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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