Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Association Innovation as Brand Strategy

Here's a post from the usually lucid Michael Schrage that I'm not sure I buy. In it, he advocates an approach to innovation that focuses not on meeting the expressed needs of customers, but on pushing customers to become something they're not.

All authentic innovations ask you — want you — to become a different dimension of yourself. The best and most enduring innovations make you someone else.

On the surface, that sounds good. As recently discussed on the Innovation Hub for Associations, innovation is fundamentally about change, and Schrage is asking us to consider not the change we would make within our own organizations to be more innovative, but the change we can create in our marketplaces to better accept our innovative products. But his examples, at least for me, fall flat.

What does Wal-Mart's innovation ask? The Bentonville behemoth wants you to become someone who gets the brands they desire at the best possible price every day. What's Target's innovation ask? The Minneapolis merchant wants you to become someone who appreciates the value and appeal of great design at a great price; you're as much a connoisseur as a consumer.

These examples are less about innovation and more about marketing--the kind of brand marketing that's becoming more and more popular, especially in the retail space. Retailers today don't just market their products, they heavily market their brands, creating a story and a culture around their brands that attracts customers because they want to be affiliated with it. They want to embody the principles that the brand represents.

This may be less obvious with brands like Wal-Mart and Target, but what about Apple, Starbucks and REI? They all sell products, sure, but more than that they are selling a brand--a set of ideals that represent what their customers want to see in themselves. When someone sees you tapping away on your iPad, drinking your Starbucks coffee, or wearing your REI gear, they have an impression of the kind of person you are that is closely associated with those brands. That mental brand image is really what those companies are selling.

So how does that connect to innovation for associations? Maybe instead of Schrage's question (What does your innovation want your customer to become?) association professionals should ask: Why do members want to be associated with us? What's our brand image and what does it communicate to people in our marketplace? And if we don't like the answers, what can we do to start changing them?

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