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Brand or Bland?

Q: How do you know when an idea is innovative?

A: When it scares the hell out of everybody.

A friend of mine once observed that the only thing worse than the fear of death is the "fear of stupid." Some companies are so afraid of appearing less than dignified that they settle for proud, stiff, or inhuman. Against this backdrop of stuffed shirts, smart companies have an excellent chance to stand out—to zag. The Volkswagen Bug did it to great effect in the 1960s (and again in the 1990s) by using self-deprecating humor as a strategic weapon. But humor is only one way to surprise people. Mostly it just takes the guts to be different.

Of course, while audiences may reward guts, corporations usually don't. Japanese salarymen have a saying: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Corporate America has a similar saying: "Don't rock the boat." No wonder people are afraid of signing off on new ideas—by keeping your head down you're more likely to keep it attached. Then where will innovation come from? Most likely from the outside, or from people inside who think outside.

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