Digital Tonto: How to innovate your digital brand

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April 4, 2012, 1:56 p.m. | Op-ed — by Greg Satell

Greg Satell

Innovation is exciting, with lots of big ideas and big personalities. People like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and the Google guys have become modern olympians and, just like Greek gods, we follow their triumphs and tragedies.

However, although innovation is a big word, it’s also a messy business, full of blind alleys and red herrings. It’s more of a drunkard’s walk than a linear path; not like in the movies where someone says “aha!” and they’re off to the races.

Innovation, in other words, is hard work only made harder by the fact that you never really know where you’re going until you get there. When you’re a marketer, it’s even more difficult because there’s so much noise about “shiny objects” that it’s tough to cut through the clutter. Here’s a framework that will help you.

Understand digital laws and technological forces

While it may be fun to brainstorm about crazy ideas, the truth is that your options are limited by what technology can do. If you want to push limits, you need to know where they lie. Processing speed, storage capacity and bandwidth all are governed by digital laws that are fairly well understood.

A case in point was Gmail, which Google launched with larger storage limits than market leader Yahoo! It seemed a risky move at the time because storage was expensive, but Google was smart enough to realize that the price for storage was falling by 50% every year, so by the time they had built up a significant user base, it made economic sense.

In addition to the digital laws, there are 4 technological forces that drive innovation in digital technology, which I’ve summarized in this chart (click to enlarge):

The Cloud: Super cheap (and getting cheaper) storage and processing power, along with fast connection speeds, are making it as easy to connect to data in a server farm somewhere as it is to access it from a local drive. That’s enabling “always on” computing from any device we choose to use at any give moment.

Client Side Scripting: When the Web first arrived, it was little more than a universal platform to share documents. Then came PHP, which allowed web sites to become dynamic (and enabled media sites), then jQuery, AJAX and Flash (which brought forth Web 2.0), mobile apps and soon HTML5 which will integrate it all into the fabric of the Web.

Linked Data: In the late 90’s, a decade after he created the first web, Tim Berners-Lee began creating a second, semantic web which would make data universal just as the first web made media universal. Today, semantic technologies are allowing us to use the Web as a common database where applications can utilize data from just about anywhere.

Mobile Explosion: Increasingly, we’re operating in a post-PC computing environment where we carry devices with more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon. With smartphones at over 50% penetration and tablets at 20% and growing fast, we’re using our mobile devices as remote controls for our personal environments.

New innovations tend to combine two or more of these forces to create something completely new.

Brand objectives

While abstract concepts can be helpful, effective innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but with a specific purpose in mind. To achieve anything worthwhile, that purpose must be clear and pertinent to the business. Pepsi failed with their “Refresh” project not because the campaign itself wasn’t successful, but because it had nothing to do with selling soft drinks.

To clarify brand objectives, I find using a path to purchase framework useful. You can normalize path stage against the category norms to find areas where you need lift. That allows you to focus your efforts where they will do the most good. Strategy, after all, is about choices.

There are, of course, other ways to formulate objectives such as using Porter’s 5 Forces analysis to identify category opportunities, reacting to a competitors initiative or to a change in consumer behavior and so on. Nevertheless, whatever way you choose to define your objective, it needs to be clear and communicated to stakeholders effectively.

Consumer insights

Another important area to take into account is the consumer – not just demographics, but their mindset, behavior and culture. As Clayton Christensen points out, consumers hire brands to do jobs for them and any innovation effort should focus on either how that job could be done better or on a new job they want done.

Effective consumer analysis can help identify adjacencies, areas of opportunity outside the current business focus. Much like brand objectives, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat. Quantitative research, focus groups, social listening and consumer anthropological studies can all deliver insights. There’s no one approach that can do it all.

One famous case study identified an opportunity selling milkshakes to busy commuters by talking to people at fast food restaurants. Nike + iPod capitalized on the insight that their consumers expected more from the brand than just shoes. The list goes on.


People interact with brands in a multitude of ways: on TV, in-store, by word of mouth, their own personal use, advice from experts and so on.

Moreover those touchpoints are evolving. Mobile, which was hardly on the radar screen five years ago has become a major communication channel. TV, which has been the marketing workhorse for decades, is showing signs of decay.

Much like brand objectives and consumer insights, a variety of methodologies have evolved to evaluate consumer contact points, from packaging to direct marketing to social media.By combining touchpoints data with consumer insights and brand objectives, you have a powerful framework for driving innovation forward.

Trends and best practices

One of the biggest obstacles to innovation in the digital age is that there is so much going on that it’s easy to fall into the “shiny object” trap. You read an article about a particular case study (the results of which are usually greatly exaggerated) and you want to do something cool too, which is why people often jump to trends first.

That’s a mistake. If you haven’t taken the time to evaluate and understand your business objectives, the consumer mindset and media touchpoints, all of the noise will confuse you more than anything else. However, once you’ve done the groundwork, it’s important to look around and see what’s going on.

Earlier this year, I highlighted three trends that are especially salient. Others are emerging. Keeping track of them all is a full time job, so it’s a good idea to have a dedicated team that is keeping up with trends in the marketplace and a program that implements test-and-learn initiatives.

As I’ve written before, innovation is often crappy. New things tend not to work as well as old ones do, we have less experience implementing them and it often feels like you’re fighting against the tide, but innovation is essential and every brand needs to either move forward or fall behind.

Innovation is more than a flash of inspiration. That’s why they call it work.

Greg Satell is a U.S.-based independent media analyst.You can read his blog entries at
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