Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Product innovation versus marketing strategy is a dilemma facing many brands as consumer environments become ever more competitive and consumers’ needs change daily. Do brands create products based on consumer insights and requirements, or should they be innovating beyond what their focus groups are telling them? Most brands are taking the middle road – a cross-functional approach that views marketing as a key player in ensuring innovation earns its keep.

In an article posted on marketingweek.com, Charlotte Rogers notes that the “innovate or die” approach many brands are taking is one way they try to stay ahead of fickle consumer demands. The importance of product innovation, however, depends on the structure and priorities of the company, as well as where marketing is positioned within the innovation journey.

Marketing’s role is central to ensuring that product development fits in with consumer demands – essentially within a strategy that is driven by consumer needs. However, innovation must also take place, which calls for the need to balance consumer insight with the ability to launch products that consumers don’t yet know they need, but which they’ll love once they have them.

KFC SA innovation director Suhayl Limbada supports this combined approach. “In my view, product innovation and marketing strategy must work in tandem. Innovation is not one more task a marketer needs to do – rather it is a way of thinking and an ongoing type of behaviour,” he says.

The big take-out

In a competitive environment where consumers are fickle and spoilt for choice, a combined approach using clever strategic marketing based on consumer insight, together with brave product innovation, will result in brands staying top of mind.

Great ideas, he says, can come from anywhere, which is why he is hesitant to compartmentalise innovation as one function or say that it comes before marketing “because this limits innovation in the first place”.

Marketers, he adds, need to understand their context and their world – being on the ground and truly feeling the reality of the people to whom they are marketing their products. “Ultimately, it’s about striking a fine balance between understanding and using insights as well as going with gut feeling and developing innovation that no focus group would have thought of,” he says.

Klyne Maharaj, head of brand at superbalist.com, points out that consumers are more astute than ever before, and no amount of clever marketing can compensate for an underwhelming user experience or product. “The market is simply too competitive, and information too readily available, for product to come second,” he says. 

In the past few years, Superbalist has introduced a number of international brands to the local marketplace, long before its competitors. “These were all product innovations – either of our platforms or the physical product we sell – and it's chiefly what's given us an advantage in the market,” he says.