Helen Edwards on Branding: Innovating for austerity

To succeed in straitened times, companies should look to countries such as India for inspiration.

The trouble with appending the word 'emergency' to last week's budget is that it gives the illusion of brevity. Emergencies are sudden events with swift effects and often violent conclusions, for good or bad.

A five-year grind toward economic stability is neither swift nor violent and may lead to no concrete conclusion, other than to presage more of the same.

Austerity is set to be our long-term companion - a way of life that will feel very different from the boom-bust cycle of recent decades, especially the boom bit.

What marketers can do about this will depend on variables such as sector - luxury goods is a very different kind of market from medical devices, and neither has much in common with a Mars bar. Here is a radical thought to consider, though: forget about deals, discounts and BOGOFs. Instead, raise your sights and focus on innovation.

What kind of innovation? Not the kind that leads to more bells and whistles, more complexity and a widening range of options. Incremental innovation might add value when times are good, but it won't cut it now.

What might is the kind that CK Prahalad lionised when he wrote The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. This was a study on how to innovate for big, but poor, populations in the developing world, who needed goods at vastly lower prices than global corporations could provide. It wasn't that the ingenuity was lacking - it was the mindset that couldn't handle the need to slash 80% and upwards off the cost of bringing goods and services to market.

Instead, local businesses took up the challenge, working on the disruptive innovation principle of 'intelligent de-featuring', to challenge the overpriced and over-engineered norms of imported goods. Tata Motors' $2000 car is an example, with its wind-down windows, 65-mph top speed, and plastic-and-adhesive alternative to welding.

In healthcare, Prahalad showed how another Indian business, Jaipur Foot, innovated prosthetics of equal quality to the US-based competitors but with more local relevance and an eye-watering price differential: $30 vs $7000.

We are all a lot closer to the bottom of the pyramid now, and while Wiltshire is hardly Uttar Pradesh, the time is ripe for innovation that cuts prices, not with a scalpel but a scythe. In consumer markets it is desirable; in business-to-business markets, especially those selling to government functions such as education, it will become a necessity.

This kind of innovation doesn't come naturally to organisations used to pursuing constant product and price upgrades. To achieve it, two radical mindset shifts will be needed.

The first is to overcome the fear of cannibalisation. It might be counter-intuitive to ask how you can innovate to halve the price of your most-profitable endeavours, but if you don't, others will. Prahalad forecast that those competitors would come from the developing world. Tata the UK's biggest-selling car? Don't bet against it.

The second mindset shift is to abandon the Western obsession with choice. A huge body of academic research shows that consumers are stressed out by option-overload. Eliminating variables within product offers is a dramatic way to reduce overall cost.

Business has produced too much, too expensively, with too many options, for too long. The future is high-volume, high-quality, fair-value, low-choice. Businesses that adapt will discover big markets and big rewards. Businesses that don't will discover the real meaning of 'emergency'.

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... CK PRAHALAD (1941-2010)

- CK Prahalad, who died in April, was one of the world's most dominant and successful management thinkers.

- As professor of strategy at the University of Michigan, Prahalad roamed the world, challenging managers to shake themselves free of their 'dominant logic'.

- In 1990, he and Gary Hamel published their seminal article, 'The core competence of the corporation', leading to a fundamental and lasting change in corporate approaches to strategy.

- Prahalad was born in Tamil Nadu, India. Extensive research in his homeland provided the basis for his multiaward-winning 2004 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, a treatise on innovating for the world's poorest populations.

- Prahalad's last column for Harvard Business Review, published in the month he died, urged managers to spend less time studying the best practice of competitors and more time focusing on 'next practices' - imagining the future and identifying the next big opportunities.

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