Incubating Innovation

17 May 2010|Added Value

Competition and first to market advantage creates enormous pressure for businesses and brands to constantly be one step ahead of each other.  Innovation can play a starring role.  But while getting a flash of inspiration in the shower is great, most innovation involves a rigorous process of managing and harnessing creative thinking.  This process needs to allow for the fusion of logic and magic.

Innovation is a tricky thing.  So how can businesses foster innovation and make it work harder for their brands?

Here are 10 ideas for incubating an innovation culture for future growth.

1. The journey, not the destination
View innovation as an integral part of the brand’s journey into the future.  Brands should take a longer term view of innovation, building up an ‘episodic’ innovation journey with a carefully planned sequence of news to take to the market, rather than only looking at one innovation in isolation at a time. Businesses that engineer themselves to a long term innovation strategy are more adept at keeping their brand fresh and relevant.

Thinking of innovation in these terms also creates momentum in a business.  Quick, low risk wins keep brand teams motivated and also keep the innovation pipeline open for larger, less frequent blue-sky ideas.  KFC, for example, does this well with a steady stream of new products like Sprinkle Pops and Twister.

2. Keep to the core
Only pursue ideas that support your brand’s core equity.  It seems obvious, but many innovations fail because they don’t lock on to and develop the core brand’s vision.

3. Be innovation hunters
Be innovation hungry and externally focused.  Being too inwardly focused can cloud your vision of how your brand can evolve into the future.

Inspiration for your next big idea could come from just about anywhere; adjacent categories, trend hunting, consumer insight, new media channels, cultural tracking, creative work-shopping…..

Nike, for example, runs what it calls the “Innovation Kitchen”; a place within the business to cook up ideas and exchange free flow ideas and information.  Nike also encourages unconventional sources of insight, taking their design team to the Zoo or using artists to inspire and spark ideas that are just as much about feet, sport and footwear as they are about health and wellness and every day living.

4. Use your insight partners
Consumer insight has evolved to meet innovation needs.  Observational, ethnographic and semiotic tools take research out of the focus group and into the world of real people living real lives.  Watching people interact with your brand, from communication to purchase to consumption can unlock more avenues for innovation than you could imagine.

5. And use your supply partners
By extension, your other suppliers can also be a fantastic source of inspiration.  Packaging, communications, logistics and retail partners can all offer insight into cutting edge developments in their respective worlds, all of which could be your next competitive advantage.  Not including them early in the process limits the possibilities.

6. Build an innovation factory
Foster an innovation culture.  For a lot of businesses, this means not seeing the marketing department as the sole custodians of innovation.  Give your people free range to generate ideas that will push the company forward, whether through procurement cost saving or how to hold more productive meetings.

Toyota, for example, has an “Oobeya”, or big office, where engineers, designers and marketers meet together to brainstorm and share ideas and where everything is open for discussion. Companies like Apple and Google employ and mix people from different academic, cultural and departmental backgrounds to promote a richer environment for idea incubation.

The behaviour of top management can also influence the innovation chain.  Senior executives that encourage a free thinking culture generally create businesses that are more nimble. Steve Jobs, Chief Executive at Apple, says he’d “rather be a pirate than join the Navy”, immediately indicating his challenger approach.

7. Sometimes simple is spectacular
Some of the best innovation ideas are often the simplest.  Think of disposable pepper grinders or Toilet Duck’s under-the-rim design.  Innovation doesn’t have to mean more complicated or complex.  Think of the ubiquitous iPod.  It was not actually innovative as a new technology, but it was innovative in its simplicity and ease of use.  A good rule of thumb is to test every idea for its capacity to genuinely simplify life.

8. Crystal clear concepts
Be crystal clear in your concept development. One of the biggest barriers to turning great ideas into fully fledged winners is in articulating them in the first instance to consumers to get their response and secondly to the people who will design, promote and communicate them.

For many businesses, the challenge is in creating consumer friendly concepts and not being led astray by the semantics of insights, benefits and reasons to believe or being tempted to throw in the kitchen sink too.  Swift, agile concepts in simple consumer language is all that is needed.

9. Feel the love
Innovate with emotions in mind.  Innovation teams often focus tightly on product and functionality.  But humans are emotional creatures and choose brands based on how they think those brands will make them feel: sexy, smart, relaxed, powerful.  Any innovation needs to reinforce the emotional marker your brand stands for. And if you’ve discovered the desired feeling, you can steal inspiration and ideas from other categories that deliver the feeling.

If you’re all about clever, technological wizardry and your new gadget or accessory makes consumers feel slightly thick because they can’t work it out, you might have a disconnect.  Innovations that answer emotional needs and drive a deeper emotional connection with consumers have a better chance at success.

10. Innovate for the future
Short-termism has seen a lot of brands choose unsustainable business models, sourcing streams and manufacturing.  Innovation with long term sustainability in mind can help brands turn the tide of their past behaviour.  Equally, looking at a brand’s sustainability issues can also offer a wealth of stimulation and inspiration for innovation ideas. Sustainable innovation can literally be the saving of many brands and categories in a world where resource is under threat.

Written by Alison Tucker, Added Value South Africa

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