I’m gearing up to speak at SXSW in Austin on Friday, so my mind is racing. My talk is called “Drawing Board: Innovation Lessons from Cartooning”. I’m sharing the many ways that cartoonists come up with ideas and find ways to break through the clutter. I think these lessons can apply to any form of innovation.
Last week, I met a semi-retired cartoonist who once had his cartoon strip in 150 newspapers. I told him that I dreamed of someday cartooning full-time. He replied, “Are you kidding? How the hell could you do that nowadays?” I told him I certainly wouldn’t bank on the traditional route of newspaper syndicates.
Cartoonist Hugh Macleod gives this advice: “Your plan for getting your work out there has to be as original as the actual work, perhaps even more so. The work has to create a totally new market. There’s no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one.”
Hugh blazed a new trail where he gives his cartoons away for free but makes his living selling original art made possible because he gives his cartoons away for free. Illustrator Marc Johns is finding success here too.
Even legendary Matt Groening got his start by finding a new business model. Long before he created the Simpson’s, he created a provocative series called Life in Hell, which he sold in the book corner of a record store where he worked. The material was too edgy to go the traditional newspaper syndicate route next to Dagwood Bumstead. So, Matt went after alternative papers. No broad syndication options existed for alternative papers, so Matt started one. Today, Matt’s company, Acme Features Syndicate, syndicates Life in Hell in over 250 weekly alternative papers.
Cartoonists have to find new ways to go to market by necessity, but it’s important to question your go-to-market approach for any form of innovation. Most new products every year are launched the same well-worn way as everything else. New products land on the same over-crowded shelves “trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle”.
In 2002, I interviewed Richard Tait, co-founder of Cranium, one of the the fastest selling board games in history. I asked Richard what led to their success. He told me, “Starbucks”. Every other board game maker followed the traditional path of game expos and mass channels. Richard and Whit Alexander didn’t know a thing about board games when then started, so they missed the traditional retail buying windows. Running out of options, they naively pitched Howard Schultz about selling their game in their cafes, which had only had coffee merchandise before then.
This nontraditional launch gave Cranium an edge over every other game launched that year the traditional way. Sure, the game itself had to be brilliant to be successful. But, finding a completely new path to market was just as important to their success.
Businesses often treat their latest innovations like commodities the moment the product is out the door. They bring them to market the same-old tried-and-true way. They resort to the same price discount strategies to drive trial. They forget that being innovative doesn’t stop once the product ships.
If we don’t want our brands to become commodities, we shouldn’t treat our brands like commodities.