Saturday, 13 September 2014

Apple, potatoes, onions... Ideas.

Last weeks release of Apple's new products and their bold, albeit expected, move into yet another product category got me thinking about the innovation strategies used by these tech giants. Let me say it right from the get-go, I am NOT an Apple product addict. I live in the simple world of mid-tier android products because they suit my needs and my wallet. Few people would accuse me of being a tech-junkie, and those who do are probably thinking of someone else or compensating for some other thing that I make them insecure about. As I do.

Back to the story. Ideation.

Samsung brought out a the Galaxy S5, water and dust proof (yawn), along with a rubber-looking watch which now can partner with the aforementioned phone where in the past it was only linkable with the under-marketed Samsung phablet, the Galaxy Note. They got it a bit wrong did they not? There is no doubt that Samsung is a cool brand and that Android has a solid following. They proceeded to put Samsung in a dust proof phone, a gym watch and a larger phone that almost looks like a phone but is a tablet but is a phone but is a tablet.

Apple comes along and does their thing, releasing what would look like a very similar product set at first glance, but leaving the global audience with a raised eyebrow and murmur of, "Hmmm, that could be cool."
Once more, I feel nothing for either brand but in the spirit of good business I will choose to learn my lessons from Apple's success in this specific case. 

The following are some general good ideas that I think set Apple apart. 

1. They approached wearable tech from the right direction.

Instead of taking an iPhone, shrinking it and slapping an overpriced, pearl-white watch strap on it, they designed a great looking watch and then redesigned the list of features that went along with this all-too-well-known accessory. The Apple watch looks like something that you would wear as a watch-wearer. They had every opportunity to make a hipster-douche-wrist-bangle that many brand faithfuls would purchase, not knowing what it could have been. 

What am I saying? Well, when Samsung launched a watch, it was a watch only Samsung users would wear. Users with a history of Samsung and Android purchases who wanted more Samsung-swag on their wrists. With Apple, I will not be surprised if there are new users that enter the Apple universe through the door of the Apple watch, simply because it is also a beautiful watch. A very beautiful watch, which boasts a host of other cool features that you will discover while you wear it as... a beautiful watch. 

The lesson? Humility maybe? Hard to imagine, mostly because the whole Apple upper-classity makes it feel like an oxymoron. But yes, the humility characteristic makes ambition intelligent and innovation accessible to wider audience. 

The widget that my business is selling is selling because it is a widget and because of the utility of the widget and the marketing success of my widget brand. If I want to expand into a new category, like shoes, my target market is now a person who greatly appreciates the utility offered by shoes. They already have synapses in their brains for this utility. I would have to completely re-educate them if I asked them to get used the strap that I put on my widget, claiming that now you can wear my widget on your feet. Would it not be better to forget about the success of my widget in its original category and rather consider that my new target market needs a great new shoe, made by the company who makes that other great widget. And oh look, here are some overlapping features!

2. ApplePay is a seed that will bear much fruit

This is an absolutely brilliant move. I feel like the consumer will only realise what hit them when mobile financial services, not just payments, start forcing the traditional banking system to adapt or die. 

The parallel between data usage, cash spending and phone credit is way too strong, which makes it obvious why mobile payments, e-wallets and credit-via-phone purchases have been introduced from all angles. Apple took it to the level of economic agglomeration with the big names in global payments (AmEx, Visa, etc.) and have now set the scene for a total revolution. 

ApplePay sits under the guise of a clever feature to the layman, but once the infrastructure is in place then it will erupt like a dormant volcano and change the landscape of mobile payments. I think there will be other players in the market too when this time comes, but they will most likely be seen as companies that have hitched on the what Apple started. 

So the lesson is here: if we really want to innovate, we look further than one move ahead. Apple may have only put the baby-steps of a global payments infrastructure in place for now, but in years to come they could be announcing AppleBank or AppleCurrency. If you did not know any better better at the moment, you would just call it an app. 

Question to ask yourself, what are the next three of four levels up in your business? How do you make the next change great, and at the same time sow the seeds for what are still only dreams? 

3. Grow the onion to survive, grow the potato to thrive.

Okay this one is going to require a bit of an explanation. 

I hail from Namibia and I have family who are farmers. I grew up on the farm but sadly I now only go and visit once every year or two. A few years ago our family did something unheard of in the region and changed from dealing mostly in sheep and cattle to planting crops. It started out with lucern and then went on to mielies (corn) before we found our calling with onions and potatoes. A potato is a damned tough and expensive vegetable to grow whereas onions are a little easier. 

On my last visit, I asked my cousin which he preferred to have growing on the land. Without much hesitation he said, "Potatoes."

His reason was that an onion will never take the place of a potato on a plate of food, so potatoes will always be easier to sell and more in demand. Onions are very much a complimentary vegetable in most dishes, where potatoes have a way bigger role to play in the food spectrum.

So how the hell does this relate to Apple? 

When Samsung came out with their watch it was heavily marketed as a healthy lifestyle asset. This is great, if the healthy life-style thing appeals to you. To me and many others, this is an onion on the plate. I do not have a problem with it, but I cannot help but get a feeling that for many consumers the feature is as decorative as the onion rings next to my chips and steak. It is nice, but it is it not really a big part of my meal expectations or necessities.

Taking the metaphor deliciously further, I would think that Apple had to come up with the potato. This is where I think ApplePay and the cast iron look came from for the Apple Watch. 

As mentioned before, these two differences set the product aside and draws the interest of a wider audience. The group of people that wear watches and especially the group that makes payments is much larger than the one that subscribes to a fitness lifestyle. The Apple Watch does have the health feature, so it is not like you feel that you are missing out on the onion rings. Apple's true ingenuity here was the inclusivity factor, brought about by careful feature selection. 

Think about it, they could have had main features centered on video and camera. Again though, this would only be a coolness factor and not something that would open the playing field to a product space with a potentially necessary demand. A great wrist camera, sure! But that is a complete want whereas making a payment is a need. Now, we do not all need to have Apple Watches to make payments, but what Apple recognised is that the need to make payments is universal and that they have the opportunity to get in on the action and spearhead the future. 

Question to ask: Are my ideas for innovation onions or potatoes? Look at your current clientele and consider what their life is like. Consider them before you consider your product. Making your widget in ten different sizes might not be as innovative as making it possible for your widget to fit inside a car. The former might be a just be a decorative step with shallow utility but the latter could take your widget to a whole new audience. 

Boston Consulting Group considers Apple the most innovative company in the world for a few years running. Their list is mostly based on popular opinion of other company CEO's. Forbes magazine has more technical criteria and the top position there belongs to SalesForce, another software monster! Truth is that there are many companies that get it right on several occasions, and despite the jest of my article, Samsung is one of them! 

All in all, good questions will lead to good answers. This is the basis of good decisions.

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