Thematic thinking means to apply a thematic logic to a given problem. Products and markets that appear to be rather unrelated in a traditional, taxonomic sense can possess a thematic similarity with the potential to open up important new business opportunities and innovation ideas.  

But what is this “thematic”? Thematic thinking is based on definitions of similarity originating from cognitive psychology. Two things are thematically related or similar if they are externally related via a theme. For example, shoe manufacturer Nike experienced considerable commercial success by integrating consumer electronics into their sports shoe strategy (e.g. Nike+, combining Apple’s iPod and a Nike jogging shoe; an Apple chip is put in the Nike shoe).

Many people enjoy listening to music while exercising. Yet, since the invention of the Walkman, it took decision makers more than a quarter of a century to realize that the jogging shoe and portable music industries, while dissimilar taxonomically speaking, are similar thematically, and that this similarity could hold commercial value.

Two things are thematically similar if they functionally interact in the same scenario or event, and this is exactly why jogging shoes and mp3 players offer a great fit, but in a thematic sense (for more details on the definition of thematic similarity check out our white paper in the research section). Following its launch in June 2006, Nike sold over 450,000 units of the hybrid product within the first three months, and an estimated 10 million units by April 2008. This strategy was so successful that Nike decided to make all its footwear iPod compatible by end 2008.

A comparison of thematic and taxonomic themes

We tend to seek for business opportunities that ‘fit’ with what we do (or aim to do). If we currently produce and market sports footwear and apparel, we are likely to seek opportunities in ‘neighboring’ areas such as casual footwear and fashion. We do so because we feel that this taxonomic similarity (casual and sports footwear share lots of features) helps us use many of our resources and skills already in place. While this makes sense, such a taxonomic similarity focus excludes us from identifying business opportunities in areas that are also related, but not in the traditional, taxonomic sense. This is where thematic thinking to see the full picture, not just the taxonomic part of it.

In a nutshell: Thematic thinking is based on similarity definition and perception. It helps to shed light on the blind spot of our taxonomically organized world and by doing that, guides the way to new business opportunities and innovation ideas.


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