I live a pretty cosmopolitan futuristic life atop a glass skyscraper in New York City, but I’ve yet to get a pizza delivered by drone, order a taxi from Alexa or open a hotel door with my smartwatch. I’ve also not booked a hotel from a bot (because trying that drove me crazy) nor consumed news from one, because that’s a terrible way to do it.
In a world where what’s possible is advancing at breakneck speed, it’s odd that British Airways has developed an emotionally aware smart blanket, but doesn’t “do” email. It’s strange that IKEA has VR to help you experience your kitchen, but struggles with the basics of e-commerce. My car rental company has invested millions in onsite video-calling kiosks, but their app loses 50 percent of the bookings I make.
We’ve got the questions wrong. It shouldn’t be how are you innovating or which project is doing new things, but why are you doing it and on what level. From pizza by emoji or bot or smartwatch, to emoji-inspired aubergine-flavored condoms, we’re experiencing a very superficial type of innovation. It’s something new, physically notable and at the edge of the relevant business. It’s typically the product of a small innovation unit, primarily with the goal of a funky press release, a great photo call or something to talk about on the next earnings call.
And, generally speaking, it’s the wrong types of companies that are doing it. It’s CPG companies with beloved products but perhaps little to talk about. Maybe having a brand worth billions and steady sales is a bit boring. So we have special editions, apps and direct e-commerce with dubious unit economics. We have mattress brands becoming publishers. Why? Because Conde Nast, The New York Times or Hearst make it look easy? Or wildly profitable? Every new SKU is disruptive or, better still, reimagined.
Yet many companies must innovate, desperately. The TV industry is making better shows than they ever have, but is suffering because they have little understanding of modern consumer behavior and choice architecture. We’ve got airlines that use incredible technology to keep their fleets in the sky and on time, but who routinely fail in even the most basic communication functions.
From car rental desks that look shocked when it’s busy to hotels that can’t tell you when your room will be ready and ask for credit card details three times, physical retailers need to adapt to a world in which online shopping has made people impatient, expecting to find things immediately — and to be served even faster.
For all companies, innovation needs to be deeper. Not token gestures on the edge, but fundamental rewiring of business from the core.