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Brand Innovation: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

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All brand innovation, whether for a website, a package, a product, an event, or an ad campaign, should be aimed at creating a positive experience for the user. The trick is in knowing which experience will be the most positive—even before you commit to it.
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A combination of good strategy and poor execution is like a Ferrari with flat tires. It looks good in the specs, but fails on the street. This is the case for at least half the brand communication done today. Don't take my word for it—pick up a copy of your favorite magazine and leaf through the ads. How many actually touch your emotions? Will you remember any of them tomorrow? If not, it's probably the fault of execution, not strategy. Execution— read creativity—is the most difficult part of the branding mix to control. It's magic, not logic, that ignites passion in customers.

Our cultural distrust in creativity goes back to the Enlightenment, when we discovered the awesome power of rational thinking. The movement became so successful that rational thinking became the only thinking—at least the only thinking you could trust. Yet in spite of our continuing reverence for rationality, we don't really do many things by logic. Our best thinking depends more on the "illogical" skills of intuition and insight, which may explain why logical argument rarely convinces anyone of anything important.

Benjamin Franklin, despite being a child of the Enlightenment, showed both intuition and insight when he observed: "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason."

Innovation requires creativity, and creativity gives many business people a twitch. Anything new, by definition, is untried, and therefore unsafe. Yet when you ask executives where they expect to find their most sustainable competitive advantage, what do they answer? Innovation. Because the truth is, innovation lies at the heart of both better design and better business. It magnifies drive inside the organization. It slashes the costs of inefficiency, duplication, and corporate ennui. It confers the ability to produce uncommon, yet practical, responses to real problems.

When Everybody Zigs, Zag.

Would-be leaders in any industry must come to grips with a self-evident truth—you can't be a leader by following. Admittedly, it's difficult to zag when every bone in your body says zig. Human beings are social animals—our natural inclination is to go with the group.

Creativity, however, demands the opposite. It requires an unnatural act. To achieve originality we need to abandon the comforts of habit, reason, and the approval of our peers, and strike out in new directions. In the world of branding, creativity doesn't require reinventing the wheel, but simply thinking in fresh ways. It requires looking for what industrial designer Raymond Loewy called MAYA—the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable solution. Creative professionals excel at MAYA. While market researchers describe how the world is, creative people describe how it could be. Their thinking is often so fresh that they zag even when they should zig. But without fresh thinking, there's no chance of magic.

An effective use of the MAYA principle was the career of The Beatles. They began in the early 1960s with songs that were commonly acceptable, then raised the bar of innovation one record at a time. By the end of the decade, they had taken their audience on a wild ride from the commonplace to the sublime, and in the process created the anthems for a cultural revolution. Their formula? As one critic observed: "They never did the same thing once."


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