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By accident today I ended up in a theoretical discussion on innovation. A hundred years ago tanneries used to trademark their strong selling leathers, and twenty or thirty years ago, the top tanners supported their most innovative products with heavy branding and promotion. “Heavy” in leather industry terms, anyway.
We see this less today perhaps because of the closer involvement of our best tanners with their major customers. This has meant that a lot of their leather development has been the result of these dyadic relationships, often supported by one or other of the leather chemical suppliers. Such products do not get sold to other customers, so we do not see the leathers being promoted by name in trade journals or at trade shows, so it is hard to judge quite how innovative our industry really is today.
Yet the fact that innovation is hidden is not the worry that comes to mind in this scenario. Rather, it is the fact that it is well recognised that innovations that happen at the interface between two adjacent companies in the supply chain tends to become incremental in nature over time rather than fundamentally exciting. The great leathers that we saw from companies such as PrimeAsia, Salz Leather and Pittards in the 20th century were typical. They impacted the world market and stayed top of mind with buyers for years, sometimes decades. These leathers were deeply thought through and developed in ways that made them work widely in the market, yet they were difficult to copy, giving the tanneries time and space in the market to push them forward and more than recover the development costs.
Incremental improvements are important but do not drive the industry forward in the same way and are much more easily matched by competitors. A company defining innovation as one of its core competences will not succeed with a policy based on semi private, co-creative incremental jumps.
As noted here just a few weeks ago, innovation involves product, process and service. It used to be a concern that the process and service side were misunderstood but today there is no doubt that it is fundamental and far reaching product development that we need. Leather is not a material that should try and live by the endless production of the “classics”.
Dr Mike Redwood
December 13, 2018
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