Brand Innovation

Passikoff: Brand Exnovators

Here’s my “Word of the Day.” Exnovation. I used a thesaurus to find it.  “Exnovation” has been described as the “flipside of innovation,” but to call it that would be misleading. It’s not so much the absence of innovation. And it’s not stagnation. More like a feeling of standardization. What was once felt by you to be innovative is now, well, everyday. A kind of ubiquity. You know, expected. Price-of-entry. Mundane. Conventional. Humdrum. Well, you get the idea.

I was looking for a word that described the status of brands like that because we just completed our 21stannual Brand Keys Most Innovative Brands survey. This is the one where consumers (this year 7,806 of them) identify the top brands they felt were delivering cutting edge solutions, breaking new ground in their categories, and generally being innovative. You’ll want to keep those phrases in mind as you read further. You can find `2024’s Most Innovative Brands‘ here.

So, kudos to them. Innovation is hard. But kudos to us too. Our list is the only innovation survey based 100% on the consumer perspective, identifying what consumers feel best addresses their expectations via innovation. Not editors’, or reporters’, or industry experts’ opinions. Just consumers and their insights into innovation! 

This year 30% of the Most Innovative Brands list were first-time mentions by consumers. Showing up on the list for the first time is a big deal. It’s indicative of something singular going on in the consumer-brand continuum. Oh, and CPG brands outpaced Tech nearly 2:1 this year. Which category gets the most mentions is a leading indicator of all kinds of consumer value shifts.

But perhaps even more telling is the list of brands that were on the list last year but were not on this year’s list. Nearly half (48%) of last year’s most innovative” brands were not mentioned as being innovative by enough consumers to make this year’s list again. 

And sure, newbies always show up each year. Brands riding the wave of invention or some category newness or novelty. But fair is fair. These are (mostly) big brands I’m talking about. But “big” doesn’t automatically translate into “innovative,” and apparently consumers agree with that. That’s how I ended up looking for a word like “exnovation.”

See, innovation generally delights consumers. But when that innovation “delight” turns into the “same-old, same-old,” as well-known as brands may be, as big as brands may be, as good as brands may be, consumers don’t QED see them as innovators. Yes, they’re big, most have universal awareness, and all are profitable. But “innovative”? Not so much. From the consumers’ innovation perspectives, they’re yesterday’s news. Has beens. Nothing burgers. Defunct. Kaput. The snows of yesterday. And yes, I’ve been reading the thesaurus again.

And while consumers like you and me can’t necessarily articulate what form we want that innovation to take – we’re consumers, after all, not designers, engineers, programmers, or lab technicians – we do know what innovation feels like. So, when we feel it, we acknowledge it. And, at the very least, try it. Probably buy it. Maybe recommend it. Because brands that address those feelings, particularly via invention and re-invention, always have a leg up over the competition. And when it comes to showing up on our annual list. 

I hasten to add that lack of innovation-recognition doesn’t make these brands bad. Or less well-known. Or immediately less profitable. Or less edgy or forward-looking. Just normal. Or ordinary. Everyday. Regular. Generic. Category placeholders delivering primacy of product or service, maybe offering good (even great value) but not innovative. (OK. I put the Thesaurus back on the bookshelf!)

Anyway, here’s an alphabetical list of brands that were on last year’s list but didn’t show up in this year’s top 50. 

  • Adobe
  • Airbnb
  • Bonobos
  • Caulioower
  • Chewy
  • Coca-Cola
  • Colgate
  • Duolingo
  • Dyson
  • Everlane
  • Ford
  • GM
  • Hulu
  • Hyundai
  • Intuit
  • MAX
  • Nike
  • Peloton
  • Pringles
  • Shopify
  • Spotify
  • Square
  • Squarespace
  • Zipcar

That said, at some point one of the brands on the list above – pick one, your choice, any one of them will do – and think about what it was that the brand did or gave you or made you feel, “Wow! This is soooo cool. They’re really innovative.” Or “How did they come up with that?” Or just “OMG!” OK, now think about what they’ve done in the past year that made you feel that way. Take a minute. I’ll wait.

Ready? So, what did you think? If what you thought sounded anything inside your head like, “Well sure, but what do you expect brands to do?” you hit the nail right on the head! It all comes down to what you expect. And you expect a lot! Usually, a lot more than brands deliver. If you couldn’t immediately come up with something, that tells you something right there. 

Or if you thought, “Well, sure, but there are others doing (FILL IN WHAT WAS INITIALLY INNOVATIVE TO YOU BUT DOESN’T SEEM THAT WAY ANYMORE) now, but they were first!” that may be true, but that was also yesterday. And if what I asked you to do sounded like some brand-guilt version of “What have you done for me lately?” it was! 

BTW, acceptable answers will have nothing to do with awareness, loyalty, share of voice, reach on social media, engagement, or even last Quarter’s bottom line. No, it’s the answer to the question, “What absolutely amazing thing have you done that no other brand has (or ever will – at least not for the next month until they catch up and do it too) that massively shifted the category-to-brand-to-consumer paradigm to change the way I live or feel, better meet my expectations, and, as Steve Jobs’ noted, put a ding in the my universe?”

Yeah, innovation is hard. And, yeah, people are only consumers part of the time. But to get them to acknowledge brand innovation, you need to get them to feel it first. Brands can help manage those feelings by better-measuring consumers’ mostly emotional category expectations via big ideas and innovative thinking and planning. Do that, and consumers will always respond positively because those expectations are the ultimate roadmap to real brand innovation.

Or, if it’s easier, just go with the answer to, “What have you done for me lately?” 

Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash

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