The Napoleon Effect

Sometimes the most powerful products come in underwhelming packages.

Illustration by Remy Labesque

There is an overwhelming tendency among today’s businesses to think that we have to invent The Next Big Thing. (If innovation consultancies had a nickel for every client who wanted them to build the next iPhone...) This kind of tunnel vision has created a culture in which the success of our companies and leaders can only be measured by comparisons to Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg. Is this the best metric? Companies put massive pressure on themselves to climb to the apex of modern innovation and take on their most powerful rivals. The feeling is that doing anything less is a failure. Talk about high expectations.

In the innovation community we may have the ambition to take on the most iconic technology firms or the most fascinating Web 2.0 startups (and there may be market pressures to do that), but we don’t have to. In fact, some of the most powerful innovations aren’t iPhone killers. They’re simple ideas that solve the most basic of needs and have a very real and meaningful impact.

There are plenty of examples of simple innovations that have had tremendous influence on human culture: the wheel, the hammer, and the traffic light come to mind. These inventions aren’t as technically complex as a computer or a mobile phone, but we should be careful not to disparage their simplicity. Innovations like these have had significant, enduring influence on the way we live our lives.

If executives are worried that the bottom line can be bolstered only by the elaborate, ornate, or complex, the story of Benjamin Eisenstadt should put them at ease. In the 1940s, Eisenstadt decided that cleaning glass sugar dispensers was an annoying chore, and he endeavored to find a better way to dispense sugar altogether. Instead of redesigning the device, which is too often the reactionary response in the innovator’s workshop, he invented a game changer: the sugar packet. Brilliant in its simplicity, Eisenstadt’s product spawned a new sugar empire. While he failed to patent his idea with raw sugar, he succeeded with paper packets of an artificial sweetener he invented and called Sweet’N Low. Today 12 billion Sweet’N Low packets are consumed each year, or roughly two per every person on the planet. The American sweetener market is a $21 billion industry, and it owes some portion of its success to Eisenstadt’s sugar packet.

And sometimes innovation isn’t technically sophisticated at all, but rather a return to basics. In 2008, the beer industry made headlines when InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch for a whopping $52 billion. The art of brewing has been around for thousands of years. Today it’s big business. For years, mega-breweries have been innovating to cut costs. They save money by using adjuncts (i.e., rice instead of barley), preservatives, and advanced computer systems to streamline their process. Now, however, a few Davids are emerging among the Goliaths — craft breweries currently account for 6.2 percent of total U.S. brewing revenue.

By definition, the more than 1,400 craft breweries in the U.S. each produce fewer than 2 million barrels of beer per year. Many of these companies are innovative precisely because they eschew the “advancements” made by the mega-breweries. Instead, craft brewers focus on producing high-quality beer using age-old methods along with the best and freshest ingredients they can find. Their primary innovation was a return to basics with an emphasis on craft and quality. Craft breweries are now the fastest-growing segment of the beer industry, having seen 36 percent growth over the past three years. Consumers seem to be responding to the idea of simple processes with good ingredients. And that’s because they understand simple. Most iPhone users don’t care about capacitive touch screens or motion sensors, but they do understand the intuitive experience these technologies enable.

In the end, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to invent something earth-shattering or unseat a leading-edge product to be successful innovators.

If it’s your business to build an iPhone killer, or even a new sugar dispenser, don’t focus on making a slightly better version (you can bet that Apple didn’t create the iPhone to be a RAZR killer). Instead, find a simple way to do something different. It might not be as complicated as it seems.

David DeRemer is a senior strategist in frog’s New York studio.