Even the oldest, most straightforward business models are capable of innovation. Your company may never be revolutionary like Apple or become a category buster like Starbucks. But if you innovate by making small, often simple, changes you can alter the way your customers and prospects think about you and your products. No matter how staid or commoditized your business is, follow the three tips at the conclusion of today’s post and you will become an innovator, with all of the attention and revived interest that innovation creates.
I love beer. Leonard and Darlene, my mom and dad, owned a bar and adjacent pizza place when my sister, Susie, and I were kids. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are of the people and patrons whose joie d’ vivre convinced me that the business of conviviality, in this case beer and places to drink it, was a worthy pursuit.
Though my memories of those days are fond ones, the work itself was grueling for my folks, so when my dad was recruited by the Rainier Brewing Company to run their sales operation for the state of Montana, he happily sold the business and began a long and extraordinarily successful career as the “Rainier Rep” in a territory that eventually extended well beyond Montana’s borders.
In those days, the Rainier Brewery was a prominent fixture on the Seattle skyline, perched right next to I-5 between downtown and the airport. At its peak, brewing and bottling took place 24 hours a day to feed the demand for the Northwest’s (certainly Montana’s) favorite beer. Even more remarkable than their iconic physical plant was the relentless energy they devoted to keeping the brand, like the product, “Mountain Fresh”.
Rainier experimented constantly with its product, packaging and positioning – ultimately leading to its becoming the biggest selling beer in the region, quite a feat in the Bud and Miller dominated days long before the explosion in craft brewing. Many of the strategies they employed are adaptable to all businesses. With a little imagination and the willingness to make the effort, any business can innovate. Here’s how…
We all get used to thinking about our companies and the products or services we sell in a fixed way. After all, our customers aren’t asking us to change the way we present our wares. They have a need. We have a solution. It’s as simple as that.
But is it? At Rainier then, and other breweries today, they are constantly working on new packaging designed to intrigue and persuade customers. Maybe it’s a can that signals when its contents are cold enough or a 30-pack that consumers assume is a better value. At Rainier, they developed a truly unique bottle shape unlike anything else on the market – then or now.
How can other businesses “repackage”? Let’s say you have a professional services company, maybe a law firm, and your practice has a specialty in business start-ups. You can bundle the competencies and services that apply to most start-up engagements in a way that conveys specialized authority, and makes it possible to target your marketing with new, more relevant and compelling messaging.
Starbucks busted an age-old category wide open by delivering quality, accessibility and consistency with both its products and the customer experience. They’re also developing new products all the time. Whether it’s a new line of food, the addition of wine and beer in select locations, prepackaged beverages for retail distribution, or instant coffee.
At Rainier, they offered side brands like Rainier Ale, and at one point they even experimented with an alteration to the basic formula, developing their “Light, Light Light, and Not So Light” brews (pictured at top). This was pretty revolutionary at the time. Today’s craft brewers have embraced what is really an ancient brewing tradition, offering a variety of products to suit the season and a wide variety of tastes and moods. Even the mass brewers now recognize that new products, or spin offs of existing products are a potent way to drive sales and revenue growth.
If you provide financial, accounting or legal services, you might begin by thinking of your product as the clients’ experience. Unless you can or will do something your competitors don’t, then the only thing that distinguishes your company is the ease and satisfaction your customers experience in their interactions with you. If you can develop a whole new competency, great. If that’s probably not in your future, think about ways to make your company and its services more accessible, valuable and indispensable to your customers.
Rainier did something back in the 70s that made it stand out in a really crowded and competitive marketplace. It became the fun, funny brand. With brilliant advertising across multiple media and a cohesive event and sponsorship strategy, Rainier achieved brand awareness that survives to this day.
The first two videos here feature hilarious musical treatments of the Rainier brand. The first is a wonderfully odd piano and whistling recital (check out the name on the piano) and the second is a take off on the old Lawrence Welk Show. Look close and you can see my dad, the dark-haired guy with the bushy mustache on the far right of the screen blowing the bass beer bottles. Way to rock it, Len!
It probably doesn’t make sense for you to position your business as fun or funny, but you can influence the way your customers and market thinks about you, especially as it relates to your competition.
Again, start with your customers. Understand why they trade with you and the problems they face. Explore ways to position your company as the one with a unique appreciation for your customers’ struggles and ambitions and be ready to change the positioning as your customers or business evolves.
Rainer Beer knew that good times and good beer went hand in hand. By positioning themselves as creators of good times, they earned a special kind of consideration from beer drinkers and became a best seller despite powerful and unrelenting competition. What positioning makes you the best, most relevant choice?
What companies do you admire for their innovation? Are there any companies in traditional businesses whose innovations have surprised or impressed you? What can you and your company do to reframe or refresh your company in the minds of your market?
Thanks as always for reading. If you made it all the way to the end, I really appreciate your patience with my long form content. It’s not the fashion, I know, but I hope you hang in there because you feel like you’re getting something out of my observations, ideas and suggestions. If so, please like, comment, share and keep tuning in.
By Michael Morrison
Michael is a Portland, Oregon-based CMO with Chief Outsiders, serving B2B, B2B2C and B2C companies across the U.S. with branding and marketing strategies to accelerate growth. Email or phone Michael at 406-868-9179, or connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.