Monday, February 05, 2018

Don't forget the steak: What Super Bowl ads forget

There's an old marketing adage that you sell the sizzle, not the steak.  Sell the benefits, not the features.  I wonder, as I watch Super Bowl television ads, how many marketing people have forgotten the basic tenets of their craft.

This isn't to say that the ads aren't catchy, funny, endearing and often engrossing.  But sometimes the ads are so interesting or so well developed that they neglect to tell us what they are for.  In other words, watching these ads makes me think that we've completely lost the steak in all the sizzle.

A good example is Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) up against the voice of god himself (Morgan Freeman).  The rap battle was great, but the products they were featuring were barely acknowledged.  It's as if we are supposed to buy the products because of the really interesting advertising, rather than the benefits they provide.

What's this diatribe got to do with innovation?

Going through the elaborate motions

As a blogger and consultant I make a living talking about the importance of innovation process, that innovation is a repeatable business process that any company can learn and master.  So I have to tread the razor's edge here when I say increasingly corporate innovation looks a lot like Super Bowl advertising.  Too much focus on the sizzle and not nearly enough on the steak.  Alex Osterwalder has taken to calling this "innovation theater", where the players do their bit, act out innovation roles but in the end we are left with nothing but an empty set.

Let me be clear:  innovation processes, defined workflows, fully understood tools and methods, are vital to doing good innovation, but increasingly what we see is Potemkin Village innovation (if you'll excuse the introduction of another analogy), a false front dressed up to look great, but with very little going on behind the scenes, and no results.

Many innovation teams are going through elaborate motions, adopting many techniques on the surface but not fully understanding them, or doing the exploration and deep thinking and discovery necessary to develop breakthrough ideas and products.  There's a lot of activity, reference to interesting tools and methods, some templates are completed and with a lot of fanfare, ice breaking and sometimes yoga.  But in the end, there aren't any interesting or valuable ideas.

What's missing

What's missing from this elaborate kabuki theater is actual commitment to investigate needs, understand future trends and draw conclusions about emerging markets and needs.  What's missing is the desire to put in the work to change the existing business model, disrupt existing revenue streams and products.  Innovation will often spin off into elaborate motions when people realize just how much and how radical the change is that's needed.  Once the realization happens, it's easier to go through the motions, to call on Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman to rap battle, than it is to say exactly why Doritos or Mountain Dew is so much better, or tastier, or healthier, or less expensive, than other alternatives.

 And yes I get the fact that Dinklage being on fire means the new Doritos are spicy or that everything Freeman touches turns to ice means that the Mountain Dew flavor he was advocating (which one was it?) is cooler or more refreshing.  And this is where the analogy breaks down.  When you are marketing, subtle signals may reinforce value propositions for the potential customer.  Other than discovering customer needs, there's nothing subtle about innovation.  It's not called "creative destruction" for nothing.  You can't wink wink nudge nudge innovation.  It requires commitment, willingness to change and to overturn existing markets, customers and revenue streams.

I love the Super Bowl ads, don't get me wrong, but I think you could easily insert the logo of a different company into many of the ads and the ads would achieve about the same effect.  They are too subtle, too full of themselves to do any good except for the advertising agencies that create them.  Likewise, a lot of innovation is too subtle, and too resistant to change, to do any good.  It becomes innovation theater, and we need to go back to the basics to create really compelling products.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:11 AM


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