How to Innovate with an Utterly Derivative Product

I just finished the new novel by William Gibson, Zero History, which prompted me to go back to read his previous two books since the three are loosely connected. I know that these books have polarised his fans, with some hating them and other loving them. I’m in the latter camp – I think his explorations of how the future is already here even though not everyone can see it yet are fascinating.

The first book Gibson wrote that was set basically in the present is Pattern Recognition, which includes this great quote about Tommy Hilfiger:

(The brand is a) simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A dilute tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row … There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.

This seems like a pretty accurate assessment of the contributions of Hilfiger to fashion. There’s certainly not much innovation on display in these clothes.

So why have they been so successful?

The answer: business model innovation.

Hilfiger created a different meaning for boring, preppy upmarket clothes. Consider this from the wikipedia entry on Hip Hop Fashion*:

Tommy Hilfiger was one of the most prominent brand in 1990s sportswear… When Snoop Doggy Dogg wore a Hilfiger sweatshirt during an appearance on Saturday Night Live, it sold out of New York City stores the next day. Hilfiger’s popularity was due to its perceived waspiness, which made it seem exclusive and aspirational. Moreover, Hilfiger courted the new hip hop market: black models featured prominently in the company’s advertising campaigns, and rappers like Puffy and Coolio walked during its runways shows

Instead of going for the same market as Ralph Lauren et al., Hilfiger targeted a completely different group of people – rappers! Consequently, they had a different value proposition, and a radically different value network.

It’s a good lesson in the power of business model innovation. Even if your physical product is “a simulacra of simulacra of simulacra”, you can still find a market if you can develop a novel business model.

Fashion may seem like a trivial example, but remember what Seth Godin says:

What you need to understand is that you’re in the fashion business. Things go in and out of fashion. Accounting standards go in and out of fashion. What fashion is about is fads and ephemera and things that come and go because people talk about it. The Aeron chair from Herman Miller is a perfect example. They changed a chair to a fashion statement for white-collar executives.

Give your business model some thought. How can you innovate it? If you can answer that question, you have a chance of creating a new market.

*These details are mostly derived from: Wilbekin, Emil. “Great Aspirations: Hip Hop and Fashion Dress for Excess and Success.” The Vibe History of Hip Hop. Three Rivers Press 1999. Page 280.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “How to Innovate with an Utterly Derivative Product

  1. I really like all three of them myself. They’re not structured like conventional novels, and I think that’s a large part of why many people dislike them…

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