Look Past Your Industry to Innovate Within

Posted by Angeline Vuong on November 20th, 2012 at 5:12 pm

In today's rapidly changing digital landscape, it can be difficult for brands to keep an eye on what industry competitors are doing.  Between monitoring competitive search keywords, keeping track of social conversations, marketing messages, and more, brand marketers risk developing a myopic view of their digital presence.

For brands, "Keeping up with the Joneses" can result in little differentiation

For example, let's take a look at the auto industry.  If you look at the home pages for some of the leading auto insurance providers, most tend to follow similar design patterns.  Progressive and Farmers took similar approaches to presenting content on their home pages, featuring a spokesperson and savings, followed by supporting content underneath.

The effect can be a "me too" digital approach, which can result in little differentiation.  This has the potential to leave users frustrated and brands vulnerable if a competitor successfully meets user needs with a disruptive design approach for the industry.

Working for a digital agency, I've seen this scenario frequently in qualitative research.  As users try to compare products and brands, if the competition has a similar look and similar value propositions, ultimately users end up deferring to third party sources to help them make their purchasing and research decisions.  Sometimes, this also results in users remaining undecided until absolutely pushed to make a product choice.

To truly lead digital, go beyond industry and user expectations

By only focusing on what the digital landscape looks like within a specific industry, an organization can only optimize for incremental success against competitors, rather than completely setting new standards as to what users expect from a specific industry.

The exciting part is that as consumers and marketing budgets are increasingly shifting to digital, there are more opportunities for companies to disrupt the industry status quo. If Chase had only looked at what competitors were doing in digital, the standards for online banking today might not include mobile check deposit.

The thing is, these disruptive moments of genius don't always come easily. So, what's a brand to do?

A great starting point is to look at analogues beyond your industry to innovate within.

Everything I needed to know about customizing consumer electronics, I learned from snowboards and sneakers

Not long ago I had the opportunity to work on a project that re-imagined the purchase process for a consumer electronics brand.

In our user research, we found that a key pain point in the purchase process was configuration. Users were confused by tech jargon and unclear of what they were actually buying. The phrases "RAM" and "Solid State" meant nothing to them.

So, we looked at the idea of online configuration and customization as a whole -- experiences such as Nike iD; the MINI car configurator; the Schwinn "Which Bike is Right for Me?" tool; the Burton snowboard finder, and many others. The goal was to understand how companies outside of the electronics industry tackle the endless permutations of customization and explain complex options.

We saw across the board that great configurators succeeded in providing full transparency (i.e., "Why does the price change when I do this?" "What step am I in this process?" "What comes next?") while educating the user about the configured elements. Often, users are configuring a product to learn about it. By making the learning process more straightforward, we saw an opportunity to provide users with more confidence while driving conversion.

These findings informed our solution and provided us with a framework that was much easier for consumers to understand.

Analogues drive new approaches to problem solving

Looking at analogues is not about copying design patterns and it's not simply looking at best-in-class experiences and saying, "Hey! What is Apple doing with their category pages these days?" It is, however, asking the right questions to help you find the best solution, for example: What other brands have faced similar challenges? What did they do? How could that solve my organization's or user's needs?

Analyzing the framework of a similar concept and applying it in a way that makes sense for your brand will get you one step closer to competitive differentiation.

One Response to “Look Past Your Industry to Innovate Within”

  1. This is great advice and it's one of the key themes I read about earlier this year in "Eating the Big Fish," which talks about the various stances taken by successful challenger brands (Ex: The People's Champion, The Scrappy David vs. Goliath, etc.). There are a lot of interesting and unexpected opportunities that present themselves when brands try to adapt key attributes that have made other companies successful (Google + simplicity, Zappos + customer service, etc.) and make it their own, like when method took a boring category (household cleaning) and injected it with fresh design and an environmentally friendly philosophy. It's an approach every business can take, from small mom and pop shops to Fortune 500 brands.

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