If you believe all the marketing you read, everyone – even my dog – is an innovator. Companies everywhere are oozing with innovative products, ideas, processes, methods, and technologies.

Only, they aren’t.

It’s easy to say you’re innovative, but if you haven’t got any innovations to back up your claim, you’re setting your prospects up for disappointment. That’s a bad way to start a relationship. I’ll admit that I’ve used the word “innovative” more than once in my marketing career. I may have even used it inappropriately a couple of times. It’s hard to resist falling into the trap. Everyone says it, right? And it’s fun to say – “innovative.” Rolls right off the tongue – go ahead, try it.

But, let’s get back on track here. Saying your innovative isn’t the same as actually beinginnovative.

Innovation: 1. The introduction of something new; 2. A new idea, method, or device: NOVELTY. (Merriam-Webster)

Before you go throwing the word around, think hard about whether you are, in fact, introducing something new to the market. Don’t just re-label the same-old, same-old and call it new. That’s cheating.

There are a number of movements on the march right now that are all about creating and prospering through true innovation. Seth Godin’s Linchpin is probably getting the most buzz. I haven’t yet read the book, but the excerpts I have read resonate loud and clear in the context of innovation:

“You don’t become indispensable merely because you are different. But the only way to become indispensable is to be different. That’s because if you’re the same, so are plenty of other people.”

“If all you can do is the task and you’re not in a league of your own at doing the task, you’re not indispensable.”

Though Godin’s book is about making individuals into indispensable “artists” – people who do “emotional work” that sets them apart from the competition – he could also be talking about brands. Competing in a me-too market where cost is the only differentiator is a painful and bloody experience that inevitably leads to massive price slashing. This is not where you want to be.

I also recently came across a book called Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS) by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mabourgne. In a similar vein, BOS encourages companies to stop competing in existing market spaces and, instead, create their own, uncontested market … through innovation – the real kind. The Web site for this book is chock full of tools and case studies that will get the wheels in your brain turning. Discovering your “sweet spot” – your Blue Ocean – requires a deep understanding of your prospects so that you can create a market that puts your brand in a category of its own, thereby eliminating the competition by making them irrelevant.

Business innovations should be communicated in a show-don’t-tell way. If I have to tell you it’s innovative, it’s probably just more of the same old crap packaged up in a new way. True innovation should make the prospect do a double-take and say, “Wow. I’ve never seen it done that way before,” and – hopefully – “I’ve got to get one of those.”

Truth is, there is no “easy” way to innovate. You have to take a hard look at your business, you have to get really nitty-gritty on understanding the playing field and your competition, and you have to get creative (become an artist) in how you think about what you’re doing. True innovation requires mastering an alchemy that combines keen business acumen with a passion for your work and a warrior spirit that isn’t afraid to step outside the norm. It may sound scary, but the upside is a wide open market where you are not one of many solutions fighting for customer dollars, but the only solution in a custom-created market that you dominate.

What do you say? Is your company truly innovative? What opportunities exist in your space to break out and become a Linchpin sailing on a Blue Ocean?