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David A. Aaker

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Lessons from the Fosbury Flop

Posted: 09/30/11 04:05 PM ET

The key to real entrepreneurial success is to break the mold. Don't relay in incremental innovation but for substantial or even transformational innovation. Create offerings so innovative that they introduce "must haves" in the marketplace and define new categories or subcategories. If there is one empirical marketing truism that comes from a century of experience and research is that creating a "me too" offering or marketing programs is a recipe for failure. The winners find places of real differentiation. Most success stories such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Whole Foods Markets, and SoBe have gone a different way.

A barrier is that an offering or marketing programs with a totally new perspective might be dismissed out of hand. It will be rejected just as an organ transplant will be rejected by the body. An idea that has never been tried can fail to get a hearing to say nothing of a test. There can be a basic reluctance to step beyond the conventional way of doing things.

And that reminds me of a story I first heard while speaking at an innovation conference in Phoenix.

There was a high jumper good enough to be on the Oregon State track team who had an unusual style, he went over the bar backwards lading on his back. His unorthodox style became feasible because tracks had coincidentally changed the landing area from sand or sawdust to foam that was set three feet off the ground. The coaches recruited him with the promise of teaching him the conventional "straddle roll" way, but his progress declined to the point that he was not even on their traveling team. With his prospects so low, they gave up and let him jump his way. A few years later in 1968, as a senior, Dick Fosbury won not only the NCAA championship but an Olympic gold medal using his "Fosbury Flop." Within five years after that achievement, his novel method was the norm and the world record was advanced 5 percent. If he had listened to the experts, his coaches who were only interested furthering his career, he would never have even competed in the Olympic trials.

There were hundreds of promising tennis players, several I knew and played against, with games that were destroyed because they were forced by coaches to hit one-handed backhands because the theory of the day was that a two handed shot will not allow a person to cover the court adequately. The reach would be limited. But when Chis Evert and Jimmy Conners showed the power and consistency available with the two-handed backhand, everything changed. The two handed backhand became the norm and a one handed backhand is now the one that coaches actively discourage students from using.

So when a novel approach gets criticized because if does something very differently, remember the Fosbury Flop and the two-handed backhand. And look for enabling changes in the environment like the high jump landing area that creates a new context enabling change.

David Aaker is the Vice Chairman of Prophet and author of the brand blog davidaaker.com and the book Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant.