Avik Chattopadhyay: Pioneer or Provider – which is a bigger brand?

11 Mar,2021

Avik ChattopadhyayBy Avik Chattopadhyay


Remember the company that invented the smartphone?

Motorola? Apple?

It was IBM with the “Simon” in 1994.


Who invented the steam engine?

James Watt, of course.

Sorry, it was Thomas Newcomen in 1712. James Watt improved upon it in 1775.


Which was the first MP3 player in the world?

Must be Sony, no? It was the Apple iPod, right?

It was the “MPMan” in 1998 by a South Korean company called Sae Han Information Systems!


Who created the first modern electric vehicle concept?

This has to be Tesla.

Hold on, it could be Nissan. Or Toyota?

Surprise!! It was GM with the “Impact” in 1990 finally going into production as the “EV1” in 1996.


Who invented commercial streaming?

Simple…Netflix. No silly, it was Napster, no?

Sorry, but it was a company called StarWorks in 1992.


So, which brand do we end up associating a product or service with, the “pioneer” or the “provider”? By provider I mean the brand that takes someone else’s idea or invention, improves upon it to make it available to millions of people across the world.


I am reminded of one of the world’s most prolific inventors and innovators, Thomas Alva Edison. He has close to 1,100 patents in his name, a record impossible to surpass. Interestingly, most of them were for improvements he did on someone else’s invention, either as an improvement in design or performance, or a product extension or simply a process improvement!


“I start where the last man left off,” he once proudly said.

He took a lead battery used in early electric cars [yes, they preceded the gasoline ones in the 1890s] and created an alkaline one.

He took Graham Bell’s telephone and added the carbon telephone transmitter to improve its performance. And also created the phonograph out of it.

Though he did not invent the light bulb, he improved on it and gave the modern incandescent bulb its eternal design and shape.

He took a still camera and created the kinetograph [early movie camera] and kinetoscope [early peephole movie viewer].


Brand “Edison” is not necessarily the inventor but the improver. And that is what makes him such an enduring brand even today.


The same is true of the brands most of us would have mentioned against the five questions I started with.


There are very few brands who have invented something and have continued with the same core product or solution till date. One may take the example of Mercedes-Benz. Interestingly, French engineer Amelee Bollee’s “La Mancelle” was the first ‘motor car’ to be productionised into 50 working units in 1878, a full six years before the Benz Patent Motorwagen got its patent #37435 on January 10, 1886! Just that he could not patent his ‘invention’.


Pharma and software companies may be exceptions, having developed unique molecules and formulations that have manifested themselves in medicines and programmes in use even today.


Brands that “provide” are the ones we remember better for we experience the inventions and innovations through their offerings. A feasible, usable and sharable solution is what builds an enduring relationship, not necessarily the mere invention or idea.


Some of the world’s biggest brands have been the best providers.

Toyota and Unilever are great examples.


Apart from the famed Toyota Production System designed by Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda, the company is not typically known for ground-breaking inventions in the automotive world. What they have perfected is a process [TPS] as a precursor of lean manufacturing, basically taking an existing manufacturing system and improving upon it. And the spirit of ‘kaizen’ or continuous improvement makes it evolve for eternity. Toyota is never the first in a market or in a segment. They have perfected the art and science of watching, studying, absorbing and understanding before taking a step, be it a new product or a new market. Not that they have succeeded every time [like the failure of the Etios in India] but when you have a success rate of even 50% in the automobile industry, you are “Toyota San”!


The same applies to Unilever. They have always known to be cautious players, almost to the point of being seen sometimes as conversative. They take their time to enter a consumer segment but then they do, the rollout procedure is one of the most robust in the world, right from the shelf stickers in the shops to the reach to the remotest village. Their strength lies not in ‘new’ products but ‘better’ products delivered consistently over time.


And I will say the same about Apple. Sacrilegious, many might exclaim, but Apple is not a great inventor but a terrific ‘improver’. They take an existing benchmark product or software, turn it upside down, apply their intuitive customer insights and create a new benchmark. Hence, even if Sony came with an MP3 player before Apple did, the iPod set the new benchmark.


I am not against ‘inventor’ or ‘pioneer’ brands at all. They are crucial to the creation of ‘improver’ and ‘provider’ brands. It is almost like a unique unspoken relationship they create, one feeding into the other and the latter almost immortalising the former’s inventiveness. Just that in my personal opinion, inventor brands are not always the biggest in equity, steadfast in terms of longevity and invincible in terms of someone else coming and unsettling them.


Just that for me, it is better for a brand to be ‘best’ than be ‘first’!

But the jury is out…

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