One of the most prevalent questions business owners, marketers, and entrepreneurs agonize over is "How do I create a truly innovative product?"
Most think innovation is synonymous with invention—and that to move the needle, we need to come up with a shiny new product, market, or idea. But if we look back at some of the most innovative brands of recent decades—Zappos, Virgin, Cold Stone, Walt Disney, Hotmail, and more—we find that they actually didn't invent a thing.
Rather, they introduced a product that reinvented the established norms of their market, which created the excitement and buzz that would propel them to their present-day success.
Reinvention is about creating a new solution to a problem by matching existing technologies to current and emerging consumer behaviors. As I argue in my book Reinventing the Egg: To Win the Game Is to Change It, the goal is not to invent or to become a pioneer (which is what people tend to associate with innovation); the goal is to take advantage of an existing technology, move it one step further, and find a new and unique solution to a problem.
So how do the most successful brands leverage the art of reinvention?
Here are seven companies that saw opportunities to reinvent where others didn't—and catapulted their brands to success in the process.
1. Ferrero Group
Michele Ferrero, founder of the chocolate and confectionery mega-brand (and Nutella!) understood that every new product and every new thought has evolved from other ideas and experiments.
"Do you know why kids love Easter eggs so much? Because they have surprises inside.... So do you know what we do? Let's celebrate and give them Easter eggs every day," he is quoted as having said. Since the product launched in 1974, Ferrero has sold nearly 30 billion Kinder Surprise eggs worldwide.
That product line was born as a result of observing today's consumers and building on an existing idea—reinvention at its finest.
The online shoe retailer challenged the status quo by asking some questions: Why can't people buy shoes online? How can a company attract people to buy shoes online without having tried them on? What if the shoes don't fit?
Before Zappos, the online shoe industry didn't show promising signs of taking off. The problem was that companies were taking customer service for granted. So Zappos created unbelievable customer service. While other online retailers like ShoeBuy and OnlineShoes offered a thirty-day return policy, Zappos jumped into the market with a 365-day return program, offered free shipping on all returns, and even displayed a 1-800 number on every single page of its website. As a result, it generated huge press attention and positive customer word-of-mouth that spread like wildfire both online and offline.
In reinventing customer service, and so the shoe industry, Zappos became the No. 1 seller of shoes online.
Richard Branson didn't invent flying... but he did reinvent what it feels like to fly. From the start, he understood there was an opportunity to fix the broken consumer proposition from the traditional airline players by creating a customer-centric airline with an elevated flying experience.
Virgin Atlantic was the first to offer individual TV screens and a choice of channels to passengers in all classes—in 1991. And it has continued to reinvent customers' experiences in the industry.
4. Cold Stone
Cold Stone didn't invent ice cream, toppings, or really cold stones. Instead, it reinvented the preparation of a much-beloved product. No one offered the experience of creating and customizing ice cream the way that Cold Stone does—and it's been growing ever since it launched, boosting demand for a product that had frozen sales in the decade before Cold Stone's arrival.
5. Walt Disney
One of Walt Disney's early successes, and a key turning point in his career, was the animated short "Steamboat Willie." The cartoon had unique characters and a lighthearted story, but what really set his short apart was sound: No one had ever done a piece of animated work with such complex sound integration (called synchronized sound). This might sound technical, but in fact it was just a group of people banging on pots and using whistles, bells, and other instruments to record at the same time that the picture was running.
Walt didn't invent the cartoon industry. Walt didn't invent the concept of sound in film. What Walt did was take an existing technology—sound recording—and blend it with animation. He reinvented the modern cartoon, which became the first—and much beloved—pillar of his empire.
When two entrepreneurs, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, created their Web-based database startup, they had to work from their clients' office where the company firewall prevented them from accessing their email accounts. So, instead of inventing a new way to communicate, they reinvented email by creating Web-enabled email that could be accessed anonymously through any Web browser.
They launched the product on the 4th of July 1996. On New Year's Eve 1997, Microsoft acquired Hotmail for $400 million.
7. Domino's Pizza
It certainly didn't invent pizza, but it introduced a new place to consume it: people's home. Domino's was the first company that invested in creating a delivery platform, at scale, to serve customers at home, hence creating a new subcategory: home pizza delivery (now a $33 billion industry in the US).
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As those seven companies have shown, reinvention is not only about the product itself; anything surrounding the product can become a source of value to the consumer and therefore ripe for reinvention. For Zappos, it was reinventing customer service. For Domino's, it was reinventing where people could consume their product. For Virgin, it was reinventing the experience of flying.
So, the next time you're looking at the sky for that lightbulb moment, think instead about what you know about the products, established norms and customer touchpoints in your space. What can be reimagined? Start there...