Customers want “more of the same – only different”. However, here’s the dilemma: if your offerings no longer have the wow factor, those customers will walk away. But innovate yourself into oblivion, and you’ll take away the very reasons why they came to you in the first place.

BlackBerry’s position in 2009 seemed almost unassailable. Having just been listed by Fortune as the world’s fastest growing company, it could boast a product range beloved of everyone who mattered – from US presidents, down to the global business community.

Who cared if the iPhone had sold a million units in three months? Or that its users were getting very much into the idea of a virtual keyboard, full web browser, rapidly growing app store and a host of other goodies? Solidity, watertight security and a faithful following were going to carry BlackBerry through.

As the Wall Street Journal revealed, the company had a distinctly ostrich-like attitude to the smartphone revolution. In their way of thinking, the iPhone was little more than a consumer toy – and certainly nothing to seriously challenge the reputation and market position of everyone’s favourite business device.

Customers had other ideas, sales plummeted, and by 2012 commentators were telling BlackBerry what they ought to be doing: admit that you missed the boat, come up with some new ideas – and stop trying to dine out on past successes.

So what did BlackBerry do? It could certainly talk the talk: the “BlackBerry Just Works” ad campaign was launched in 2012, stressing its core values: “Community, Experience, Choice”. It had the pillars in place; it simply couldn’t find a way to build on them.

Thomas Sutton has written recently of the dangers of companies “policing their brands into stagnancy”. Blockbuster and Polaroid are two examples; innovative firms who at one time were totally in tune with what their customer wanted. Both faced disruptors – and both had enough time, resources and potential to adapt. But of course, they didn’t; instead of offering “more of the same – only different”, they meandered.

Relying solely on your track record and offering “same old, same old” doesn’t serve your customers. It does nothing for your reputation. It leads to fatal stagnation.

How to confuse your customers with each product launch

No-one could ever accuse Samsung of not releasing enough products – nowhere more so than with the company’s ‘Galaxy’ range of phones. The original Galaxy ‘S’ model was a real gamechanger, showing the world what a truly great Android mobile could and should look like. This was premium stuff.

The ‘S’ nomenclature has carried on at the top-end (we’re now on the ‘S7’). But what about the Galaxy brand? What does it stand for? The company’s habit of slapping the Galaxy branding on such a vast catalogue of products makes it hard to tell. A galaxy phone can be world-beating in terms of spec. It can be ‘reassuringly expensive’. It can be cheap and cheerful. It can have a curved edge. It can be big or small; a joy to use, or distinctly average. It all depends on which particular product you’re looking at.

With Apple, you know what’s coming. The things you care about (attention to detail, beautiful design, a joy to use) – they’ll be there at the launch. But when Apple is at the top of its game, there will also be something different; something that takes you unawares and reminds you just how much you love the company. It’s the same, but different.

Galaxy as a brand simply doesn’t have this blend of constancy and innovation. If it’s true that Apple has followers whereas Samsung merely has customers, this is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why.

Too much innovation: when it’s time to think inside the box

Kids are fickle – as LEGO was well aware when facing a mid-nineties sales slump. A combination of rising fixed costs and increased competition driven by Chinese producers, meant that it was a case of “innovate or die” for the Danish giant.

An interview with Wharton professor David Robertson describes how LEGO embarked on a full-on innovation binge at this time. Some of the concepts (Star Wars and Harry Potter tie-ins, for instance) were successful. Others, less so. The number of new product lines tripled, “but sales didn’t go anywhere”.

There was the ‘Explore’ line aimed at toddlers – along with the Action Man clone ‘Jack Stone’ – both of which failed to capture the imagination. Most ruinously for the company, there was also ‘Galidor’, an action figure concept which involved “the full spectrum of innovation”, including integrated electronics, its own video game, Happy Meal tie-ins and – a new departure for LEGO – its own TV show! LEGO had produced it in-house “and didn’t really know how to do that”. It was, according to Robertson, “stunningly bad” – to the extent that “Nobody who ever acted in it acted in anything again”.

“Not very lego-y” is how Robertson described these new products. They were certainly “different” – but they just weren’t “the same”. This was a company that aimed to create the builders of the future. It’s hard to do that with a new range of toys that could be snapped together in 10 minutes. Kids were getting bored and parents were getting annoyed. The new flashy LEGO just wasn’t LEGO anymore.

The interesting coda to this story is in how LEGO fixed the problem. Thinking outside the box hadn’t worked. It still needed to innovate, but this time it achieved it by going “back to the brick”.

The company took a hard look at its core offerings, “the police stations and the fire trucks and the other things that not only were what their fans wanted, but were also pretty profitable for them”. It was through adding to these ranges, bringing them bang up to date, presenting them in a new light that LEGO became LEGO again; the same but different. It was then that the fans returned to the brand.

Walking the tightrope: three lessons from three businesses

LEGO almost lost its footing when walking the tightrope between constancy and innovation – but managed to bring itself back from the brink. Here are three lessons from other companies who have consistently managed to strike the right balance.

#1 Be clear on what you stand for

Nike’s mantra, ‘Just Do It’ has been in place for over 15 years. This is more than a marketing slogan; it’s also an encapsulation of the company’s mission: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete”*. *If you have a body, you are an athlete (this asterisked clarification having been added by the company’s co-founder Bill Bowerman).

“A brand is something that has a clear-cut identity… which a company creates by sending out a clear, consistent message over a period of years.” – Phil Knight, Nike

Nike’s range is tweaked and refreshed constantly, but the decisions on how to innovate and evolve are informed by this very clear mission. This year’s range might look very different to last year’s – but they are still quintessentially Nike. Compare this to its rival, Reebok. Is Reebok ‘street’? Is it ‘heritage’? It’s hard to tell – not least because that particular company has changed its slogan 14 times since 1987.

#2 Let the product reinforce, rather than disguise who you are

Tastes change and businesses need to respond to this without becoming gimmicky or alienating their core audience. Take Absolut vodka; as the company has expanded, it has always been clear on what it stands for: a heritage to be proud of, attention to detail, a willingness to embrace contemporary style and a commitment to creativity.

So when the company launched its Absolut Unique campaign (millions of bottles with one-of-a-kind designs), this wasn’t a gimmick that disguised the brand’s identity; it was, according to the company’s Bjorn Von Marten “a summary of what Absolut is all about”.

#3 The most innovative companies are those with the strongest identities

Staying the same in terms of values and identity doesn’t have to be a barrier to innovation. Take the cosmetics company, Lush: a business with a very definite vision of what it stands for and what it’s trying to achieve. A commitment to ethical buying, handmade products, minimal packaging, campaigns against animal testing: these are all hallmarks of the brand.

So does this mean that the company is somehow hamstrung in how it can innovate? Far from it: this incredibly strong sense of purpose provides a foundation that guides the company on what to roll out next.

Once you are clear on who you are, it becomes possible to put together your very own roadmap on how to innovate the right way; on how to stay the same – but different.