Getting Innovation ‘Unstuck’

In most mature categories, there’s a common pattern: there are pretty clear Tier 1 and Tier 2 companies, and there are worrisome smaller players. Worrisome because they have an edge – the benefit of not being all things to all people – or because they do something that the top players just can’t seem to get done. These are the grounds for the archetypal battle for growth in American commerce.

If you are Tier 1, the battle plan is finding new markets and fending off number 2. If you are Tier 2, the battle plan is being a challenger brand and fending off the nips at your heels without validating the smaller guy’s relevance as a competitor. If you’re smaller, the plan is deciding how to simultaneously keep your difference and to grow beyond the choice you have made to be different. Some form of this battle plan is what constitutes most people’s jobs.

So, based on the size of our army, we are mostly occupied fighting a battle that has been fought many times over, and it occupies most of our working hours. It’s the basis for the SWOT analysis, and SWOT can get your innovation efforts stuck.

How do you make a difference when it is difficult to get unstuck from the SWOT-based battle? I am certainly not going to assert that innovation cannot be found in fighting one’s immediate competition.  There are examples when that happens and every company must exploit the weakness of its immediate competition. But sometimes you should change the battlefront.

At Ipsos Marketing, we study breakthrough innovation, and there are a few thematic approaches that frequently rise to the surface. These ideas can be used when you feel stuck in the same battle:


Scaling basically means opening a new audience. Some of the best examples of this come from the very industry Ipsos is in: Survey Monkey, Google Surveys, Qualtrix, CivicScience.  All of these have made it possible for new audiences to do the same thing (sort of) that had been the realm of professional services companies. It’s not just technology; insurance companies scale frequently by adjusting their risk tolerances (think Accident Forgiveness). A simple question can ‘unstick’ you: what would our 4Ps look like if everyone could buy our products/services?

Leave the neighborhood

With apologies for shifting the metaphor, clever innovation often comes from studying not your neighbor, but a different neighborhood. SWOT mentality frequently keeps you focused on your neighbors. My favorite example of leaving the neighborhood is Commerce Bank (now TD Bank) – they asked the question of what their business would look like if they behaved like a retailer wanting people to come to/stay in the store. Hilton now lets you pick your room like a seat on an airplane. Dollar Shave Club is mostly a service experience. Jokingly I hear this referred to sometimes as “WWAD?”  What would Apple do (or Amazon)? Or WWGD? Maybe that will help, but we like to go just one or two neighborhoods over, to start (i.e., what would Weight Watchers do differently if they wanted to be more like a hotel rewards program or a broadcast network?).

Ignore consumer purchase intent

Don’t ignore research, but ignore the obvious research. Go back and look at rock bottom ideas from your past and study them for signs of life. Our experience tells us that about half of those bottom dwellers will have signs of life if you look at them through a different lens. iPad did not test well on consumer purchase intent, nor did Keurig, the biggest Dyson products, Netflix, etc. Question to ask: What if the worst testing concepts were really the best ideas?

These three approaches have consistently helped our clients change the front and are common themes behind many of the best innovations we have worked on over the years.