Every town has a story or two to tell. I live in rural Northumberland, in the far North East of England, and where I live is notable for a couple of pretty cool reasons. Firstly there’s a sizable chunk of Hadrian’s Wall not far from the village pub. Secondly it’s just a short walk from my home to where Puffing Billy used to operate. Puffing Billy is the world’s oldest surviving locomotive, sitting proud in its current home in London’s Science Museum. George Stephenson, a local lad, inspired by Puffing Billy went on to build the world’s first intercity railway in 1830. He used steam locomotives to connect the cities of Manchester and Liverpool, revolutionizing transport and commerce, earning him the title of Father of the Railways.

What’s all this got to do with Marketing? Well Stephenson was an innovator – he didn’t invent the idea of steam locomotives, but he did take the idea and he implemented it to create value. And this is the essence of innovation.

You may still be asking yourself what this has to do with marketing. Nearly 200 years after the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened, innovation is still very much a hot topic. Furthermore, innovation is now very firmly within the remit of marketing leaders, as evidenced by Gartner’s 2015-2016 CMO Spend Survey (subscription required). This survey identified innovation as one of the top three areas of increased executive expectations for Marketing, with 40% of respondents placing it in the top three, and 17% of marketing leaders citing innovation as the single biggest area of increase in executive expectations of marketing.

Innovation is one of those concepts that’s often talked about, but infrequently defined. So, in the spirit of elucidation, here’s Gartner’s definition of innovation:

“The implementation of ideas that create business value.”

Let’s break this down into its component parts:

  • Idea. Something new to the group or enterprise—something not currently done or produced at the enterprise, including new ways of working.
  • Implementation. How the idea is carried out. This differs from creativity in that the emphasis is not solely on newness. Rather, it is on doing something productive with something new. Implementation is that which differentiates innovation from invention.
  • Value. Achieving a positive business outcome through the resolution of a problem or the creation of an opportunity.

Given marketing’s innovation mandate, it’s important that marketing leaders have a firm grasp on what innovation means, and how it applies specifically to their organization. All too often common misconceptions can impede the ability to deliver on the innovation mandate.

Consider the following:

Business as usual activity tagged as innovation

Just because something is new to you, that doesn’t make it new. The newness of an idea is a relative concept, and should be considered given your specific market conditions. You may have just invested in some shiny martech, but if it delivers capabilities expected from your peer group and your customers, it does not deliver innovation. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t invest in bringing your capabilities up to the expected levels, but be clear that this is what you are doing.

Not all innovation is transformation

The discussion around innovation often gravitates towards examples of large-scale, disruptive innovators like Uber. This is understandable – these are attractive, attention grabbing stories with clear, discrete and tangible benefits. But innovation comes in two forms:

  • Disruptive innovation: – delivering entirely new interaction models, experiences or technology
  • Optimization: – the act of improving the performance of existing products, programs, channels or tech

To build a truly innovative marketing organization, large-scale, disruptive programs must be balanced alongside an ongoing culture of optimization.

The value that innovation delivers can come in many forms

Some innovation definitions focus heavily on the financial value that programs and activities should deliver. But a myopic view of value can stifle innovation – of course, the long term goal of innovation will be to deliver profitability, but in the short-term, value can flow from a number of different areas:

  • Customer Value: – Delivering innovative products and experiences that are valuable to your customers
  • Employee Value: – Delivering innovative tools, processes and culture that increase productivity, engagement and collaboration as a mindset
  • Brand Value: – Creating incremental brand value by using innovation as a differentiator
  • Financial Value: – Using innovation to reduce waste and build efficiency across business processes
  • Stakeholder Value: – Innovation delivering value to the wider stakeholders of the business

Innovation isn’t just about tech

There’s a tendency to focus heavily on tech in discussions about innovation. This can lead to assumptions that innovation is only about tech – marketing leaders need to broaden the scope, building innovation programs that address all areas of their domain. Consider:

  • People: – Innovations in the ways of working in the marketing organization that drive continuous improvement and collaboration
  • Processes: – The processes and techniques that the marketing organization employs
  • Partners: – How the marketing organization collaborates with the wider stakeholders and 3rd parties
  • Providers/Suppliers: – The tools utilized by the marketing organization

Based on the above, how well understood is marketing innovation in your organization? If you’re on the hook for delivering innovation, you need to build a shared understanding of what it means, and how you will go about building a portfolio of programs and initiatives that deliver on your innovation mandate.

Given the earlier reference to locomotives, you must excuse this whistle-stop tour around the broad subject of marketing innovation. I’ll be drilling into innovation in more detail in upcoming research, so Gartner for Marketing subscribers, watch out for it coming down the line very soon.

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