marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Friday, October 22, 2010

What kind of innovator are you?

In Silicon Valley, I hear the “innovation” term tossed around left and right, almost as if being innovative was the key to success or a cure for common pickup line. In my mind, innovation has a more definitive and structured meaning that has developed from brinigng new products to market, striking business deals, and crafting patents.

For structural purposes, crafting patents has probably been the most helpful in formulating what innovation means to me and how I explain it. When crafting patents, there are a number of ‘tests’ I try to apply when determining if something is patentable:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unique?
  • Does it solve a problem?

The 4th test - can it be created by someone normally skilled in the art, is less important for this discussion. Also, to avoid the flame wars around the value of patents, this is not a discussion about patents, but my view on how patent development can provide a potential framework for looking at innovation.

Unfortunately, much of the innovation I hear about fills only #1 and #2 above. Too often, someone will claim a product or service is an innovation because it’s new or different. Yes, a product that auto-tunes any speech to a Rick Astley song might be innovative, but does it really matter? Similarly, a toaster that burns images of religious figures on bread could be called an innovation, but really, is it worth bragging about? These are indeed product innovations, but more for fun.

How would the above compare to a system that tracks eye focus and viewable angle of advertisements in online-games to create an awareness and exposure index for advertising value optimization? How about a contract term where non-payment for 30 days automatically triggers a system audit and daily compounding increased licensing fees until partial payment of >50% of past balances is made and cleared by the bank? These service and contract innovations have a distinct business undertone.

The first two wacky ideas above (one of which I know exists) are indeed innovative, but may not provide lasting or long term value. The next two examples are much more narrow and esoteric, but have implications for long-term advertising and/or licensing structures. This subtlety leads to my main point here - innovation as a term is widely used and abused and lacks distinct meaning.

So while I do think that auto-tuning to Rick Astley is a type of fun and cool innovation, I prefer the longer-term economic value of innovation of the advertising awareness and exposure index. Neither is right or wrong, both are innovations, but be mindful of the mindset of the listener when you discuss innovation. If you and your reader have different definitions of innovation, you could be speaking entirely different languages.

Disclaimer: The “advertising awareness and exposure index” comes from a patent I drafted that was abandoned in 2002 when resource was not available to put the invention into practice. Yes, I know, I kick myself with 20/20 hindsight that it might have been valuable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Set your Brand Free, Protect your Trademark

I was fortunate to have the time to attend the Clearvale 2nd Floor series at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and see the speaker from Lego discuss his social media successes. While the talk was interesting, I especially appreciated how he provoked my thoughts about brands and trademarks.

He said that a trademark has legal protections for color, proportions, usage, and language, but a brand can change based on the actions of the consumers, users, public, and, oh yeah, the company.

I've written legal clauses and trademark guidelines and even sent 'reminders' to firms to use our trademarks with respect. Over the course of several years working with internal legal and marketing teams as well as external partners, it's become clear that a trademark is really that - a symbol or representation with some well defined parameters for use and display.

On the other hand, I've also participated in many discussions about brand. A wise man once told me a brand is not what you say it is, it's what your customers say it is. If you think of it that way, it's easy to separate brand from trademark. You can legally prevent people from using your trademark in incorrect and/or confusing ways, but the way you deal with customers, consumers, and partners determines the brand that people hold in their minds when they think of you.

Is your brand one where you're known for attacking your own customers for trying to promote you? Is your brand one where you encourage your fans to spread the good word but make sure that your fans use your trademarks correctly? Think about that for a moment if you will. How many times have you seen executives or marketing types state "we need to control the brand" only to have the cover up attempt define the people or company as one who covers up errors or mistakes?

So have all the trademarks you need, but work on brand and keep working on it. Your customers are, even if you're not.