One of the themes to which we return again and again in our work with clients is that in today’s world, easy access to previously unparalleled levels of information means that, in many cases, businesses end up asking the same sorts of questions of the same sorts of consumers – and getting the same sorts of answers. It’s a recipe for the generic: for blanding, not branding.
So I was interested to come across an article in Intelligent Life recently, arguing that the internet is now in danger of damaging that curious blend of fortunate accident and wisdom that we call ‘serendipity’.
From Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin when he noticed how mould in his petri dish had killed off the bacteria through to the vulcanised rubber used in tyres, microwaves, Scotchgard and even Coca-Cola, many of the world’s most important innovations have come about through the combination of accident, luck and – most importantly – the ability of their creators to recognise the potential in their mishaps and misdirections. It’s that ability to recognise and apply the learnings from one sphere to another that characterises serendipity, and that is in danger of being stifled by the internet, argues author Ian Lewis.
According to Lewis, the massive amount of content now available on the internet – and the concomitant rise of brands that can organise and present that content to us in an easily digestible format – is leading us to spend less and less time stumbling onto new sites, pathways and information that can sow the seeds of new innovations. As he puts it:
“The internet has become so good at meeting our desires that we spend less time discovering new ones. To update the Rolling Stones, you can always get what you want. But you may not get what you need.”
It’s a worrying thought for those of us who want to see brands that are genuinely different in the marketplace, and not a slow creep back to brands as just owners’ marks. Marketers have been accused of many evils over the past decades, but I believe they’re still a critical component in driving forward innovation in products and services, and in ensuring that businesses deliver more than simply what the consumer knows to ask for at that moment in time. Time and time again, I find myself returning to that hoary old quote attributed to Henry Ford:
“If I’d asked people what they’d wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.”
It’s our job as marketers to hear, interpret and move beyond our consumers’ words in research: to find the insight and apply it. Anything that helps us turn insights into innovation is a bonus – and that most definitely includes serendipity.
So here’s your challenge for the day: the next time you go onto the internet to look for something specific, spend five minutes looking at some of the less relevant results. Go to a site you’d never normally visit (but don’t pick one that’s going to get you into trouble with your IT department!) and spring off from there. You never know what you might find…