After turning a modest sum into a few million I realized that a close friend of mine had to have a system to explain her über success. When I pressed her to reveal the secret, she astounded me with something I always knew was there, but never awakened to. It was as if she bestowed wisdom on me with the touch of a magic wand.
“So, what’s your secret, Val?”
“Well, first I look for who’s the leader in their industry.”
Everybody does that. Come on, spill the beans.
Like everyone else, I wanted enlightenment NOW!!!
“Then I look at the seasoning of the management team.”
Val plodded on, completely unaware of the dialogue
in my head.
“And?” This was basic investing advice.
I was getting impatient.
“What?” You gotta be kidding me?
“I look at who’s got the most creative products.
Then I invest.”
It made me stop in my tracks. Here was a woman who ran the largest data base in the country, had multiple degrees mainly in mathematics and computer science, and it all boils down to creativity? Was it that simple? Had she cracked the DaVinci Code for the investor? I went home that night analyzing which companies stood out in the marketplace and which one’s bombed miserably. She was right; it was creativity that separated the good from the great – both in management, training and product.
Look at the last 20 big-ticket purchases you’ve made. Unless you were raised during the Great Depression like my father, you probably chose those items because they were cool, innovative or well designed. Not because they were the cheapest. What kind of car did you buy last? Chances are, despite what consumer reports said, you boiled it down to three choices and made the decision after a test drive. The car, minivan or luxury car that won out was the one that gave you the most innovation for the dollar. You “felt” it was a sound decision.
Once again, we don’t buy things, we buy experiences. Consumers believe the thing they purchase will provide a better life. Remember the old ad agency argument? Nobody needs a drill. They need a hole so they can hang a picture. All they need is to hang up a picture. The drill gets them there. Period. What about your house? Unless you are into fixer uppers, or built your dream house, I would guess you bought something that stood out. Or how about the last gadget you bought. Was it sleek and cool? Did it make you the envy of your friends? We buy groceries on a budget, but when it comes to enriching our lives, we spend a little extra.
Good, creative design stirs us at our emotional core.
Henry Dreyfus was America’s father of industrial design. When companies like AT&T approached him to design their products, he wasn’t reinventing the phone but rather analyzed how we use it. Remember the first Trim-line phone with the dial in the handset? Thank Henry Dreyfus and his team for that little innovation. He figured out how we used products and then delivered an industrial design the made the product work seamlessly into our world while inspiring us to buy it.
Great design does that. His work was so ahead of its time that many of his standards are being used today. Ever wonder why a stop sign in Europe has the same shape and color as one in Aruba or Canada? The International Symbol Library was Dreyfus’ opus.
The science of design and creativity starts with usability analysis. It takes months to look at how a product is used, what the consumer hates, loves or wishes of the product. Where does it sit in the buyer’s mind versus where it sits on the shelf? What is it about the competition that they love? What would be the innovation that sets the company apart? There is a structure to great design. It doesn’t just happen because some guy named Claudio stands up and declares his love for plastic. It is strategic and methodical, and it can take years before a product hits the market. Look at the Gillette Fusion: $750 million and 3 years for research & development and industrial design before it wound up on store display racks. Now that’s product analysis!
Executives and entrepreneurs need to remember that if you want to step up your company to the next level, look no further than what you offer the consumer. Is it the most innovative, most creative product available to set you miles apart from the competition? Are your systems capable of bringing your customer a truly customized experience? If the answer is no, (be honest) then you need to get your creative team back to the drawing board.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these companies:
SONY, WalMart, GUCCI, Jet Blue, Electronic Arts, Red Octane, Microsoft, Starbucks, Gillette, Chanel, Porsche, Nintendo, BOZE, Andersen Windows, Sumitomo, Amazon, etc… Every brand on this list is innovative, creative and the leader in their industry. They are also consistent with their innovations. Each has also taken the lead position away from a rival to such an extent that the competitor never caught up. The next time you want to decimate the competition, sit down with a creative director first. Tom Peters actually believes that designers should be invited to board meetings. Something about the right and left-brained thinking coming into balance.
To learn more about this balance check out my latest article at
Notice how GE was not on the above list. General Electric is a strong company but a weak consumer brand. Let me explain: When was the last time you ran out and bought a GE television because it was the best? Or a GE dishwasher? How about their refrigerators? The point is, GE products sell, but they try to be everything to everybody. There is no clear position for their brand (at least amongst the retail consumer). And there is no innovation – their products are just like everyone else. In the turbine engine, B2B category, they are one of the leaders. Nevertheless, here in our world, GE suffers from a sort of Jack-of-All-Trades inertia.
Specialization comes from brand focus. Brand focus leads to innovation. Innovation leads to creativity. Apple is a great example of creativity and consistent innovation. What makes Apple the great company it is today? It boils down to good design, cutting-edge technology and convenience. It’s as if Apple is anticipating what I’ll need. What makes them great is they keep doing it year after year. One innovation does not a mega brand make and Steve Jobs is well aware of that. Perhaps this is why Apple has the largest niche within the computer manufacturing industry.
Look at the iPhone. It not only answers the problem of too many devices to carry by converging email, phone calls and entertainment into a personalized PDA-styled device, but it also makes several generational leaps in technology touch screen access, a robust operating system, vertical to horizontal sensors, intuitive interfacing, large icons, data management, data accessibility and of course, sleek design. I love Apple. Most people who buy Apple products eventually say that. We have an emotional attachment that I will address in a moment.
Apple’s innovation forces the rest of the industry to change. Look at how many PC laptops have a 17-inch screen, a robust operating system, icon driven interfaces, CD readers and burners as standard installations, and basic multi-media cards. They are all being forced to follow Apple’s lead. Prices have followed as well. The cost of a Mac is very close to a similarly configured Dell. The gaming industry is also a major driver as well. People want their computing, entertainment and business interaction to be seamless and Apple, Microsoft and SONY know that. There is a wicked rumor going around that game console companies want all your home computing, entertainment, and house functions like lighting and heating to be happening from one box. But that, is somewhere in the future.
Leaps like the iPhone are very calculated. I know it seems like such an arcane reference, but hear me out. - when companies like Studebaker take leaps quicker than the consumer is ready, it can leave them bankrupt and removed from the history books. Studebaker made the first economy car, the Lark, back when people didn’t know that a decade later, gas prices would go through the roof. Too soon to market can create a flop and here’s my point - how many of you remember Studebaker? Not many. Yet it was one of the greatest American made car companies ever. Built well and managed well, they took leaps that the consumer wasn’t able to keep up with. They had no contingency plan for when their ideas might catch on. Hope is not a strategy.
On the other hand, look at Netflix – the company took more than 10 years to become a household brand. It took the consumer all that time to adapt (as a whole) to a new way of getting movies. Shopping online also took 10 years to become the standard, as did the ubiquitous use of DVD technology. (My Dad has 2 DVD players. This is amazing to me!). Netflix had enough of a subscriber base comfortable enough with ecommerce to be early adopters. It allowed Netflix to grow slowly, strategically and economically. By the time Blockbuster discovered Netflix had outpaced them and became the leader, Blockbuster could never catch up (and they never will). Only the paranoid stay in the number one position forever and the Internet allows more innovative brands to destroy your leadership position.
Apple respects the intelligence of their audience, and the logo shows it. There is a subtle tongue and cheek humor about the Apple logo. The very first Apple logo used an image of Sir Isaac Newton and the moment when the apple struck his head to give divine insight. I wonder what Robert Langdon (Dan Brown’s main character in Angels and Demons and the wildly popular Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol), would say about the current Apple logo with the distinctive bite missing? The same bite from the apple in the Garden of Eden. The original tale was from Akkadian texts in Sumeria – a fairy tale for children about the gods who created the human race. A thousand years later it was written down as fact by the Levites and later integrated into The Book of Genesis. Similar stories with similar tones on how the human race acquired some serious technology. The implication is that we are getting secrets from a higher authority!
The Apple logo is a subtle piece of symbolism genius. It seems as if I’ve digressed, but creativity is actually a very structured discipline that requires multiple channels of arcane and common knowledge. Apple respects our intelligence and sense of humor.
Steve Jobs seems to be our generations’ Prometheus. Creativity trickles through every aspect of the organization and it shows – from their products to their brand. Hey, maybe the iPod won’t change lives, but many of Apples’ products have. I look forward to the next 20 years of innovation, creativity and leadership from the Apple brand.
Cutting costs may make you profitable, but it won’t make you an industry leader. Today’s brands are all on a precarious edge because more and more people have migrated their shopping habits to the Internet. For a brand to stay on top, the executive team must ask themselves how the new technologies are changing their business and what they need to do to stay on top. Moreover, most importantly, act on that analysis. Tower Records failed to realize the Internet was changing the how and where people buy music. It drove them out of business. Their mega stores disappeared overnight. I wonder how Virgin Records’ Mega Stores are holding up? So the next time you want to take your company to the next level, start with creativity.
There is a balance to all this; check out my other article on the leadership side of innovation at
Stay creative and strategic first and you remain the leader. One of these days I plan to write an article on symbolism and the importance of a start-ups brand. Stay posted for future Blogs.
Thanks for reading,
May I recommend?
Tom Peters Essentials – Design by Tom Peters
The Cult of Mac by Leander Kahney
*My favorite book:
Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit by Russell Flinchum
The History of Studebaker
Or the Studebaker Museum
My father owned a 1951 4-door bullet nosed Studebaker until 1977, so I kind of have a fondness for them. He and my grandfather were the only owners when it was driven off the lot in 1951. It still ran like a dream in 1977. Like I said, Studebaker was ahead of their time. Now they seem to be lost in history.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown