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“Business as Usual” Marketing Fails Another Innovative Product: Lithium Ion Batteries for Power Tools

“Business as Usual” Marketing Fails Another Innovative Product: Lithium Ion Batteries for Power Tools

We love to rate innovations as “success” or “failure”. Yet most innovation suffers a far more ignominious fate:  mediocrity. And that sums up the introduction of Lithium Ion (LI) Batteries for power tools.

Compared with their NiCAD predecessors, LI batteries offer outstanding buyer value for cordless tools.

First, there’s a power advantage which can be used one of two ways:

  • LI can be used to deliver more power in the same package.
  • LI can be used to deliver the same power in a lighter weight package.

Then there’s an incredible set of charging advantages:

  • LI batteries charge faster (a major issue for tool users).
  • LI can be re-charged at any time without building battery memory.
  • LI hold their charge well. After 1 year they usually retain 80% of the original charge.

All this adds up to tremendous advantages for power tool users. Yet they limped slowly onto the market. Even today, tool purchasers hesitate to pay a premium for LI based tools.

“Business as usual” marketing drives mediocrity. Too many marketers fail to recognize the critical importance of major communication when they introduce products. And I mean serious communication – not just shouting “It’s In-No-Va-Tive!!!!” like the bullhorn toting marketer in the photo.

Marketers also do a poor job of identifying products that need in-depth communication – like LI batteries did. It’s a world made more complicated because innovation has to fight for marketing dollars with the desperate needs of the existing products. All that leads to the most common answer –  “business as usual” (aka “lets just do what we always do”).

So these batteries hit the market in 2005 as a new SKU on the shelf listing LI as a new feature. The box, of course, has such limited space it was probably only a one line statement claiming something good for LI technology & a splash on the front. Nobody will “get it” in that situation.

Milwaukee Tool was the first to introduce these, so I’d guess they also worked with their pro distributors to take them to Friday beer time (when tool demo’s are common) and put them on the tool trucks (e.g. SnapOn) where the truck owner does some pitching.

Unfortunately, none of this gives a consistent way to introduce the market to a new technology. Yet since Milwaukee Tool was the first to introduce this innovation, my assumption is they felt their pro consumers would put in the hard work of figuring out that LI was a serious advantage.

Except it’s never a good idea to ask your buyers to do research when it’s your obligation to communicate – even if the buyers are pro’s.

A bad start has a long tail. Twelve years after their introduction, LI cordless power tools have never sold up to their potential.

Why? Ten years after the introduction of LI power tools, I listened to high end DIY consumers in focus groups be surprised that LI batteries have significant value for them. It’s sad. They wanted these batteries once they knew what they did.

We did find a few that had heard of LI for power tools. These had, at best, a partial view of their advantages – most with nothing more than a vague sense of “they’re supposed to be better”.

What should have happened? These tools are so much better than the alternatives that they should have sold at outrageous velocity. And they should have sold easily for higher prices (they have been premium priced for most of that time although replacement batteries have recently dropped significantly in price).

Except, creating that velocity would have required educating the market…with advertising. And not just any advertising – but advertising designed around innovative products that would have educated consumers about the value of LI technology in power tools.

Even more, those ads needed to run consistently and over a long period of time. Manufacturers needed to tell the story over, and over, and over.

Beyond the Box:  Ad Agencies are Part of the Business As Usual Problem. Most general ad agencies have a blind spot: Despite their title, they aren’t experts in a wide range of creative – they are experts at the very difficult task of brand advertising. Yet brand advertising is death for innovative products. As one of my clients put it “if innovation gets into the hands of our traditional agency, it fails.”

Why is this? Brand ads spend so much time developing personality elements to get connections to the brand that there’s no room left for the product. And, product oriented creative generally doesn’t win the big ad awards – so it’s often too mundane for any ambitious agency creative team. Even more importantly, communicating about innovation and innovative products requires a different skill set, different culture and different creative sensibility than brand advertising.

So at Milwaukee (then Sears, Bosch, and more), if LI powered tools were run by the agency they were given the usual treatment of “this year’s drill”. Even if the agency created advertising for the innovation, their ads would have been brand heavy and product ignorant.

The Innovation Bottom Line: When you make a truly innovative product, you should expect more from it. Innovation should build your brand, sell well immediately, and return excellent numbers on the bottom line.

But you also need to communicate your innovation – throwing it on the box, tossing out some Tweets, Facebook posts, and Amazon ads then using instore demo’s won’t make people aware of it. You must reach out and educate them – in this case, this product needed to be advertised.


Note on Other Missed Opportunity with Cordless (and Corded) Drills: This same “business as usual” treatment was given to variable speed triggers as well as clutches for driving screws. And, based on consumer research we’ve done, both of these innovations also delivered mediocre results. Today, long after they were introduced, they remain unknown or confusing to many drill owners.

Copyright 2018 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

Categories:   Hardware & Tools, Innovation, Uncategorized


  • Posted: July 12, 2018 00:48

    Disruption Fear Distracts from Innovation. The Innovator's Dilemma Re-visited. | Doug Garnett's Blog

    […] And yet, manufacturers missed their opportunity – starting with Milwaukee. They had to tell consumers what this exciting new innovation offered and they didn’t. Why? Investing in advertising would have meant (see Christensen’s Principles) that the innovation would deliver lower margin for the initial years while advertising built demand. Consumers had no innate sense of why they should care about LI technology. And, it turned out, none of the market players could overcome their internal structures to do that advertising. (You can read more of my analysis of the mediocrity of the returns here.) […]
  • Posted: November 1, 2018 00:04

    Failure is NOT a Goal for Innovators | Doug Garnett's Blog

    […] – most projects simply underperform if there’s smart work behind them. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how Lithium Ion batteries in power tools are just such a case. Our language must become far more sophisticated than this […]