Why do so many brochures look alike? Why do identical promotional offers go though an industry like falling dominos? Why do so many advertising campaigns seem to have come out of a copy machine rather than someone's head? Rather than taking pride in developing a unique identity, many firms are content to be what kids call ``copy cats.''
With a lack of innovative thinking, is it any wonder why both consumer and business-to-business marketing ideas and materials appear to be what can be called ``modified duplicates?''
It's this absence of creative thinking that inhibits most companies from achieving greater sales success. What they need are ideas that make a company's products or services different from those of the competition.
Here are seven keys for stimulating new ideas in a business.
1) Keep pushing the envelope. As long as ``play it safe'' is a pall hanging over the company, nothing significant, new or different will occur. New ideas must be valued. Everything must be open to challenge for this to happen. One company told a marketing firm that it gave its customers excellent service. The customers disagreed when interviewed. The solution was a 100-percent ``you-don't-pay-if-we're-late'' guarantee.
It takes guts to get attention today. Weak, watered-down, insipid ``guarantees'' are a waste of time, revealing the company's lack of confidence in what it can do.
2) Think about the unthinkable. The recent recession wiped out thousands of sales-driven companies, firms that spent every day pushing a product. When the economy took a dive, they were out of business. They refused to think about the unthinkable-who will be our customers if the economy changes? Or the competition heats up? How will new technology affect us? This failure cost them their business lives.
3) Remain a confirmed contrarian. In the stock market, the contrarian takes the opposite of the popular view. If the prevailing opinion is in one direction, then the creative, innovative solution will come from the opposite pole. The goal is to go beyond the conventional wisdom.
Chrysler Corp. clearly was contrarian a decade ago with its incredibly popular minivan that rode like a car. Viewing vans as trucks in disguise, Ford and GM used truck platforms for their vehicles. The public wanted vans but not if they drove like a truck. Chrysler defied the leaders and won.
4) Always be a creative doubter. There's little innovative thinking without doubt. As an example, we looked carefully at the selling process and concluded that salespeople are often forced into spending an inordinate amount of time prospecting, which they do poorly.
This led us to the view that prospecting should be a management responsibility, while closing sales is a sales task, and the two should be functionally separated. All this may seem to be little more than common sense. If it is, then why do so many companies continue to push prospecting on to the shoulders of the sales force? Only by doubting a well-accepted, nearly universal practice were we able to develop a new concept.
5) Be daring. There's no place for timidity. Sure, it can be dangerous, but the dramatic changes in business indicate that today there's far more room for innovators. Even boards of directors are becoming more independent and are speaking their minds.
6) Ignore the detractors. Most good ideas die a quiet, uneventful death; they are simply put to sleep by their detractors-the ones who feel threatened by change.
It takes an extremely self-confident person to ignore those who call for the politically correct approach in business. To move beyond the glitz and to get underneath all the exaggerated claims to find the innovative solutions requires considerable inner strength. But without it, past problems will be repeated.
7) It's smart to speak up today. There are very practical reasons for questioning candor. Personal integrity aside, it's simply good business. When no one expresses a new, contrary or different view, nothing happens.
The easiest sale is the one where the customers tell you exactly what they want. But what appears to be the best sale can also be the worst one. If it's clear that what the customer wants won't solve the problem, keeping silent may get you a sale but cause you to lose the customer.
The times have changed and so has business. Speaking up is not only smart, it's essential for personal survival and that of a company because both jobs and businesses depend on the innovative thinking that comes with the courage to be heard.
Staying ahead of the competition isn't easy and it's only going to get tougher. Studies show that most companies grow at the rate of inflation, a sure sign of stagnation and a lack of innovative thinking. To get ahead from now on means thinking smarter than the rest.
Mr. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass.