The word ‘innovation’ does get passed around a lot nowadays. From large businesses to startups and perhaps even consultants like myself.
If you take a moment to think about it, innovation is not as commonplace as we might assume it is.
If you had an almost infinite budget, and you created a cutting-edge product, that is innovation, but probably not a great one, at least in my book, unless it is easily affordable by a good section of its total user base.
What does that mean?
In my book, I take a few examples. One of a hand-built, limited-edition supercar. Perhaps only a hundred, or even just 7-8 of them ever built. Each one will come with an astronomical figure on the price-tag. High input costs, the best of components and skilled manpower, and a high sale price.
That is not a great example of a true innovation, because only a few people would benefit from it, and it is easy to add technology with a huge budget.
Contrarily, what if a similar amount was invested on an early-warning system for storms or earthquakes that could benefit millions? Now that would be a true innovation!
Another example I mention in my book, is of the USD 120,000 Ottobock Genium X3 knee. It is a state-of-the-art prosthetic foot, also referred to as ‘the Maserati of microprocessor prosthetics.’ Again, at that price, only a few differently abled would be able to afford it to improve their lives.
Then there is the BMVSS fitted Jaipur prosthetic foot, that retails at USD 30-45. It has benefitted over 1.55 million people worldwide since the late 1960s when it was invented.
True innovation does not happen on huge budgets and unlimited manpower and resources. True innovation happens with constraints. Not just monetary constraints, but others too. But that is also when you sometimes get products or services that the world never forgets. Products or services that truly change lives
If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.
And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.
The Tata Nano, cheapest car in the world today, is arguably one of the biggest milestones in the auto industry in recent times, the world over. A close friend of mine, Sheshank Reddy shared an article which talked about how Mr. Ratan Tata, in hindsight, felt the Nano should not have been positioned as ‘the cheapest car’. Another close friend, Pradeep Shetty, Sheshank and I have, over the years, spent numerous hours over numerous pitchers of beer, discussing the Nano. We looked at the brand, the car in isolation, in the Indian context, imagined it in foreign markets, and so on.
Sheshank is highly knowledgeable in areas of brands and branding, and he’d throw light on lesser known areas like the powerful impact that appropriate fonts can have on a brand, and so on. Less detailed conversations I have had with several random people over time, has helped me form a rough idea of people’s perception of the Nano.
A good friend, Viz, in his beloved Nano
Americans, for the longest time, has been obsessed with powerful cars. Even the average petite young woman would drive a car powerful enough to lug a mobile home behind it. Inexpensive fuel and lack of public transportation coupled with easy financing made the dream of powerful cars commonplace.
Indians, on the contrary, have given more importance to value, and show. Value includes getting satisfaction from haggling with the grocer for little nothings.
Now if you were planning on buying an SUV, I don’t think the Tata Safari Storme would have appeared in your top 5 options. And yet, this tough SUV that has seen well over a decade of sluggish growth, boasted of a 30% jump in sales after the brand was associated with the Indian version of 24 (TV series). That is about ‘show’. Justifying 30% jump, I guess the mindset was that if it was cool enough to be on the show, it’s cool enough to buy.
The Indian economy has been shaky these last two years, mostly compliments of a corrupt government that facilitated several scams. Many industries have kept aggressive growth on hold till there is a more positive and promising outlook. Fuel prices have soared in this period. Yet, despite fuel economy being a key factor in the Indian customers’ car buying decision, Nanos’ sales just trudged along, while SUV sales boasted 2-digit growth rates last year. Somehow, SUV sales seemed to defy common logic and correlations between cost/price and demand, among other things.
I believe the Nano is a masterpiece in many ways, and the team behind it deserves recognition and praise. Mr. Ratan Tata is wrong when he says that they made a mistake by calling it the ‘cheapest car’; because in my opinion, the problem isn’t so much with the car, as it was with our perception.
I read an interesting comment on a discussion board a few years ago. A fellow Indian justified the Nano’s failure saying buying a cheap car went against Indian status. A foreigner rubbished his comment. He said it was a funny view coming from the citizen of a country with a large, poor population. Where per capita income was unbelievably low. And yet, where we thought so highly of ourselves, that we found a great product beneath us to buy. The foreigner thought highly of the Nano, and given a chance, said he’d be thrilled to buy a few of them for his family.
I was listening to Mr. D. R. Mehta speak at a recent awards event. He is founder of BMVSS, famous for the Jaipur foot. He spoke about a visit to the United States, where American politicians were asked to name 3 brands from India that they knew of. They could only think of two, the Jaipur foot, and the Nano. That is the impact the Nano has had, everywhere but at home.
Most car ads in newspapers highlight fuel-efficiency, even if they don’t mention many other key specifications. Even some of the more premium car ads. And everyone’s talking about how affordable and how easily financed, different vehicles are. That said, simply branding the Nano as ‘affordable’, would have been like winking in the dark, crying in the rain, or some such amusing phrase signifying pointlessness. The Nano dream, dreamt by Ratan Tata, was TO BUILD THE CHEAPEST CAR. That takes daring. That takes passion. And that takes commitment. Everyone’s making ‘affordable’, and ‘more economical’ and ‘faster’. But how many companies chase seemingly impossible dreams like ‘most economical’, or ‘the fastest’?
The Tatas did, to make a car accessible to a much larger population. And for everyone who has complaints against the Nano, and those who feel the Nano failed, I am reminded of the famous passage by Roosevelt. The man in the arena.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
To conclude, I will definitely look forward to new variants and more technology in the Nanos of the future. And there was never a fault with the Nano. It was more of a lack of appreciation in the eyes of the average Indian. We clearly failed to recognize a masterpiece our country had created for the world.