What has the World Cup taught us about innovation?

foam by A-C-K on FlickrThe World Cup. It’s up there with the Olympics as the biggest sporting extravaganza on the planet. And given it only happens once every four years, it’s a fantastic bellwether of how society, trends and technology have changed over that time: Chris Waddle’s Italia ’90 mullet killing 80s new-romanticism; Becks in his sarong in ’98 triggering a generation of metro-men and questionable behaviour like ‘skincare regimes’. And that’s just the England team.

We might have expected Brazil 2014 to be defined not by changing fashions, but as the ‘most digital’ World Cup ever. With the unfettered rise of the importance of technology on corporate and social agendas, driven by some of the world’s biggest companies, we’ve been led to believe everything is now ‘connected’, everything should be ‘smart’, and it’s the chief technology officers who will be guiding our futures.

The reality has been pretty far from this.

Yes, we’ve all been sharing our feelings about the football on Twitter and Facebook, but we were doing that in 2010 too. Where’s the breakthrough in wearables? Which teams have been 3D printing their water bottles? How many coaches have been using Google Glass to intelligently draw extra information from the game? All of these technologies, and many more besides, have been highly conspicuous by their absence. And it’s not that the demand would not be there; football is the best-funded sport in the world, and the desire to win by even the most marginal of gains permeates top teams.

So what does this mean? Well, it’s a great lesson in the difference between technology and innovation. Just because something has been made possible, a clever engineer or developer has created something new, doesn’t make it an innovation. Innovation should be driven by the problem it solves, rather than novelty. A point made brilliantly by this hilarious parody: Introducing The World’s First Crowd Sourced 3D-Printed QR Code Live Streamed Via Go Pro To A Smart Phone Or Tablet Device Drone Delivery Ticket System Project.

Of course there have been innovations at the 2014 World Cup. Two in particular will be remembered for tournaments to come.

The first is goal line technology. Following Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ that wasn’t given as the Germans dumped us out of South Africa 2010, there has been continuous petitioning of Fifa to apply technology used successfully in other sports to address one simple question – ‘did the ball cross the line?’ This is the first major tournament where the answer has been taken out of the hands of humans and given to a computer. And given this isn’t new technology, surely its implementation has been pain free and universally accepted? Well, for the armchair viewer there seemed to be 100% clarity when Benezema’s shot ricocheted off a post and the Honduran goalkeeper just over the line. For BBC commentator Jonathan Pierce, however, it was as if a controversy of Dan Brown proportions had been unleashed.

This tells us that however simple the application of technology to solve a problem might be, there will always be people who simply don’t get it. It’s a huge challenge for marketers to support tech that isn’t just going to solve a perceived problem, but will also be universally accepted by every stakeholder. Online banking, digital TV, contactless technology – all require enormous investment to ensure that the less tech-savvy are brought along for the ride.

The second important innovation at the World Cup comes from a different angle entirely. How to stop defenders encroaching within the 10-metre radius of an opposition free kick? Referees constantly having to pull players back, slowing down the game for spectators. But this time, the innovation hasn’t been delivered by micro-chips, it’s the ‘shaving foam’ sprayed at the feet of players and around the ball (the best a ref can get?) which has solved the issue altogether. Clear problem, simple, easy, low tech solution – great innovation.

The moral of the story? If you’re looking to innovate, don’t call the tech boys first. There’s probably a simple and accessible change that could have a more significant impact on your brand’s fortune.

Rob Sellers is director of GreyShopper London