Taking on Silicon Valley: How established technology brands can be perceived as innovators

Author: Alanah Author Alanah
Published: 10 December 2021
5 Minute Read
In the last, probably 20 years the term innovation has changed from being something associated with inventors to something that pervades our daily lives through the popular media. We live in a world of technology start-ups changing the way we drive our cars, manage our money, communicate with our friends and ‘improve’ more or less every other facet of our daily lives. The inhabitants of the low rise office buildings of silicon valley and its impersonators have made innovation deriguour and, as we will discuss, have defined it as delivering revolution, not evolution.

This makes the job of established technology brands looking to maintain their reputation as innovators all the more difficult. But should also cause us to think more deeply about the objective itself.

When trying to build a reputation as an innovator within the B2B technology space there are a number of questions that need to be answered in advance.

  1. Is this something that my customers and prospective customers are actually looking for? (i.e. would we be better served building our brand around, our expertise, market understanding, customer-centricity etc)
  2. How am I going to measure perceptions of innovation?
  3. Is this a positioning that is substantiated by our product and service offering?

When we talk about innovation and being future-focused it is important to make the distinction between having our products being considered ‘innovative’ by prospective users and having our brand perceived as being innovative.

Herein lies the dichotomy that most established brands face, particularly those selling technology into the enterprise space. Their customers want to work with innovative vendors, but they don’t want to take any risks with the product, valuing mature, well developed and well-established solutions.

What does the research say?

The research into what measurable factors are taken into account by consumers when making a judgment about whether a product is innovative is inconsistently defined in academic research. However, a 2015 study by Ben Lowe, Professor of Marketing at Kent University into CPI (Consumer Perceptions of Innovation) offers the most comprehensive view and can be summarised thusly: Perception of innovation can be measured over three horizons: time since launch, originality of solution and the perceived difficulty (by the customer) of delivering it.

The study also points out that consumers see marketing-led innovations as easy to deliver and product technology-driven innovation as difficult, Therefore product-led innovation is far more valuable in delivering a long term perception of innovation for the business. In essence, if you aren’t walking the talk you aren’t in the game.

The Product Team must lead the charge

A true effort at changing perceptions of innovation must be driven by your new product development team and not your marketing department. As anyone who has spent time in the marketing or sales departments of a brand that isn’t exactly at the forefront of the market will endorse!

The role of the marketing function in changing consumer perceptions of innovation is to act as the conduit between customers and NPD, both as being the voice of the customer, but also being the guardians of the go-to market strategy, melding together the product’s features and benefits with the goals, challenges and pain points of the customer by means of clear positioning.

Don't underestimate the role of user-interface design 

As a slight adjunct to this point, it is also worth noting the role that user interface and user experience design plays in the perception of product innovativeness. Many a wonderful technology product has been unseated by being difficult to navigate and unattractive to look at.

Consider apps like Monzo and Pensionbee in the financial services industry and the way they have stolen market share from high street banks. Not through having better lending products, lower APRs or more experienced staff, but through simply having a far better and more consumer-centric interface that focuses on taking friction out of the process of doing business with them.

Working now under the assumption that our product team is providing us with a steady stream of market-leading products, with beautiful, well-considered user interfaces and we have in effect answered question 3 from the list above. The role of the marketing and sales team is then to ensure they are well received by the market into which we sell.

Measuring success

Working backwards through our list of questions (and viewing the question primarily through the lens of changing brand perceptions) our next challenge is to establish a basis of measurement. Where are we now and where will we be when the job is done are the main hardpoints.

This can be a challenging thing around which to construct meaningful metrics as perception of innovation is just that, a perception, something felt by the customer that in most cases they cannot reliably articulate the root cause of. In larger brands, brand tracking studies have become the norm to measure the impact of marketing spend on ‘brand’, but in practical terms, these are inaccessible for most B2B businesses on grounds of cost and the size of their customer base being too small to draw statistically significant conclusions from.

Our suggestion is that it be included as a standalone question in regular CSAT/NPS type surveys, where perception of innovation can be tracked over time. In brands with a PR strategy that generates significant column inches, sentiment analysis techniques can also be utilised to scan text for instances of words and constructs that imply a heightened perception of innovation.

Coming back to the dichotomy faced by enterprise technology vendors, weighing the relative merits of being perceived as an innovative brand against the potential risks of having a product development strategy that is pushing boundaries to substantiate this brand positioning. The challenge here is clear: how do we mitigate against the risks associated with perceived product newness, whilst enjoying the benefits of perceived brand innovation? This is a challenge that can, at least in part, be answered by an effective marketing strategy.

How to build perception of innovation, safely.

In a 2008 study by Alexander, et al. they performed qualitative research to define what consumers judged when deciding if a brand was innovative. The answer was remarkably simple, the brand's products needed to be new and they needed to move the game on. Incremental benefits needed to be delivered (and demonstrated) over and above the competition.

To reinforce the findings from the first section of this piece, the marketing strategy that successfully improves the perception of innovativeness of a brand, is in effect a product-market strategy. We would therefore proffer the following characteristics of a marketing strategy that should get your CSAT scores moving up and to the right where innovation is concerned:

  • Regularly reinforce newness: Utilising your PR and content strategy to focus on new product releases will deliver significant benefits over time. Being synched into your product team and being that conduit for customer needs, will ensure that meaningful customer benefits can be delivered regularly and communicated to customers and prospects. This will deliver the perception of a product that is always getting better and a brand that is wholly focused on customer-centric innovation.
  • Build excitement with regular (but not necessarily frequent) releases: Having a clearly defined release cycle is a great way to build excitement. In the consumer space, Apple is the master of this, with their PR team driving speculation and suspense within the technology press with a carefully managed drip-feed of information on the lead up to every Apple Keynote event. B2B brands can take a leaf from their book by constructing a quarterly release cycle for product upgrades and building their customer and prospect marketing strategies around this cadence.
  • Communicate your vision clearly: Your brand vision can be most simply defined as ‘what the world will look like when you finish changing it’. It is a slightly nebulous future state of enlightenment, that should drive the decisions you make every day. Clearly communicating this to your customers and prospects and continually reminding them what you are doing to get there is a great way to underpin your product marketing strategy with a glimpse of what’s to come.
  • Tell true stories: Your PR and content marketing strategy is a great place to build a narrative around the process of innovation. Talk to the stakeholders in product innovation across the business, get under the skin of what they are doing and why. Build a set of brand stories that support your positioning as an innovator and tell them well. If your business will allow it, consider giving trusted press direct access to your internal stakeholders to allow them to tell their own part of the story.
Ultimately the route to changing perceptions is a relatively simple one, you need to define where you are going, back that up with action and regularly and consistently remind customers and prospects that you are moving the game on. Consistency is the key element to change opinions. We need to keep talking the same talk and walking the same walk. Do that and you will be moving those innovation scores onwards and upwards.

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