It seems as though the past year I’ve heard a lot of early adopters — especially the tech media — complain about the lack of innovation coming from the tech industry. Now, we can define innovation in many different ways; ways in which even simple improvements can be innovative. But I think it’s important to point out that true limit-pushing, groundbreaking innovation is cyclical, not annual. We are coming off the reinvention of two primary technologies’ categories: the smartphone and the tablet. Furthermore, we are in the midst of redefining what a personal computer is, does, and looks like. Of course, I believe innovation is still around the corner but I think there are some important market truths that need to be pointed out.
Innovate, Then Communicate
Innovations fail if they can not be marketed. Sometimes I think the importance of effective marketing is taken for granted. I think many industry observers simply assume that when something innovative is released that everyone will magically understand it right away. The truth is that even the simplest innovations need effective marketing if they are to be embraced by the mass market.
This is the cycle we currently find ourselves in. This is why it actually becomes much easier to discern the winners and losers by judging not just the products, but also the marketing. Great products have the potential to fail to gain mind share by the mass market thanks to poor marketing, while at the same time, bad products do not get embraced by the mass market even with great marketing. Great products require great marketing.
There is also the danger of over-innovating during a market’s maturity process. When this happens, a company tries to add too many bells and whistles to a product and runs the risk of it being too much for the market to handle. The market doesn’t grasp the value of all the new features, or perhaps it just isn’t ready.
Marketing Matters in Mature Markets
Perhaps the most fundamental reason we’re in the current marketing-driven cycle is due to the market largely being a mature one. Mature markets function very differently than when they are maturing. As a market is maturing, it is receptive to more limit-pushing innovations. As the market reaches maturity, it is more receptive to the marketing of that mature product in order to drive its growth from the early adopters into the mass market.
The billions of people who make up the mass market need marketing to help them understand why they need something, while the mere millions who make up the early adopter segment need to be wowed by something. Early adopters are an important segment for every company to understand because the things they value today will be the things the mass market values in the future. Early adopters rely heavily on new, cutting edge, and innovative features. They appreciate the wow factor, the things that no one else has and the things they can be the first to embrace. They also have short attention spans with technology. The mass market is often more down to earth and doesn’t necessarily understand why a particular flashy, shiny new gadget adds value to their life. This market largely values convenience over innovation. Luckily for companies, the mass market is significantly larger than the early adopter market.
Moving from early adopters to the mass market is the fundamental key to a product’s success — and that’s where marketing comes in. Just look at how much car companies spend on marketing. Similarly in tech, Samsung and Apple are leading the charge; they’re both companies who spend and focus quite a bit on marketing.
We also have to understand that the demand also catches up with technological limits. Many of the things I’ve seen in labs that I think can lead to the next round of innovation for smartphones and tablets — things like flexible displays, new semiconductor process technology, battery science, and others — are still years away for being ready for mass commercialization. This is why during certain cycles, we should simply expect hardware that’s more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This is the cycle we find ourselves in. As the mass market begins adopting new technology, marketing matters more than innovation right now. In my opinion, these cycles will happen much faster than before. Just look at the iPad: It’s the most quickly adopted consumer electronics device in history, selling more than 100 million units in just three years. The market will move from innovation to mass commercialization in three- to four-year cycles rather than 10-year cycles like before. The impact of this new adoption cycle shift will cause chaos for the companies who do not understand it and make adjustments. Anticipating and adapting to market changes will be critical for any companies hoping to live the next 10 years and beyond.
Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.