Campaign Article: What Exactly is Brand-led Innovation?

I was invited to be one of the “thought leaders” that publishes work semi-regularly on Campaign USA. This post is my first piece, building upon some of themes covered in my recent DigiDay Agency Summit presentation. The original article can be found here.

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It’s unfortunate when a potentially valuable word reaches “buzzword” status, as is the case with “innovation.” (A quick Amazon check shows almost a thousand new books on the subject released in just the past 90 days.) Yet ironically — or perhaps as a direct result — few companies can agree on a definition.

Yet understanding what innovation is and how it works at large companies is important to those with brand expertise. Organizations clients turn to for brand oversight may also be uniquely qualified to help lead their innovation efforts. After all, a company’s brand is a key asset in innovation.

At Finch15 we define innovation as “the introduction of the relevant new.” This builds upon the simple, but too-broad-to-be-useful, Merriam-Webster definition. Working backwards, it provides a three-step process for corporate innovation:

  1. Concept something new (for your company)
  2. Ensure it’s relevant (Relevance varies by industry, by company … and over time)
  3. Introduce it (It isn’t innovation until it leaves the lab)

Each of these three steps is relevant when thinking about brand-led innovation. Creative organizations that deal in growing brands are culturally suited to concept new ideas. In fact, most companies engage agencies for this creativity, which can be hard within corporate walls.

To understand what role brand expertise plays in steps Two and Three, it’s helpful to view the landscape of innovation across the spectrums of risk vs. reward. Most innovation dollars are currently spent in vertical innovation (i.e., lower risk and lower reward), and things will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Vertical innovation is best defined as innovation that optimizes a company’s current offering. Investments in things like longer battery life, more miles per gallon, new flavors and customized production epitomize this form of innovation. It’s been around (and studied) for a long time. There’s a wonderful example from a company that’s been at the forefront of innovation for almost 200 years: GE. Just look at this “documentary” it released in 1955 about automation.

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On the other end of the spectrum is lateral innovation, which is best defined as innovation outside the current context of a company’s offering. The company isn’t just doing new things within the same space; it’s introducing completely new things in an effort to pursue a fast growing opportunity (i.e., higher risk but higher reward). Most lateral innovation involves new fields or new models within established fields.

GE — the same innovative powerhouse touting the automation age 70 years ago — is now working with crowdsourced invention platform Quirky to create networked appliances like the Aros Air Conditioner as we begin to live in “smart homes.” Although appliances are a key vertical for GE, the pursuit of a networked home is an investment in lateral innovation.

Lateral innovation requires venturing into the unknown. What better compass than its own brand can a big company like GE have as it heads into such uncharted waters? In other words, its brand helped determine what innovation was indeed relevant. The GE brand is already welcome in millions of homes. Not only that, GE has a number of incredibly important and relevant patents that it was willing to offer to the Quirky community for help with these networked products. Those are key assets that can help guide GE as it pursues “the relevant new.” Innovation that’s built upon partnership and that leverages brand equity among consumers? That sounds exactly like the type of effort a company would want its brand agents involved in.

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To truly capitalize on a brand as an innovation asset, though, a good partner should do more than guide its client on lateral innovation opportunities. It should also ensure the brand serves as a safety net as the client pursues these new ventures. It’s impossible to ensure a new business will be successful, but it’s certainly possible to ensure that if it fails, it will fail smartly.

If a company’s new product or service drives brand benefits for its core business, irrespective of its financial success, that’s a worthy form of insurance. Just look at the Nike Fuel Band. The business unit shut down last year, but it’s arguably the most successful, mainstream “marketing” effort Nike has ever had in evolving its brand from a “shoe” company to a “sports technology” company. That shift in brand perception gave Nike a soft landing, even when it didn’t successfully cross the chasm. The brand helped lower the risk of introduction for Nike in its innovation efforts.

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This emerging world of innovation is one in which marketers can play a key role in new offerings. That sounds like the days of yore so many agency management teams long for …

… and like the ultimate agency innovation.

Agencies as Innovation Partners

I recently spoke at the Digiday Agency Summit in Austin, TX. These slides represent a 10-minute talk on how ad agencies can evolve to become “innovation partners” for their clients, an ambition often mentioned, but rarely executed successfully by an industry in the midst of incredible change and experimentation. 

Webby Awards Interview about Talent & Meaningful Work

The Webby Awards run a pretty fantastic series of interviews as part of their Webby Connect Series. I was lucky enough to be selected for an interview, the transcript of which is below. You can see the original article here.

Greatest Good is an online community where experts in various fields volunteer their time and experience to startup-founders, business owners, or anyone who needs consulting. Greatest Good donates 100% of each advisor’s booking fee to the charity of his or her choice.

We connected with Saneel to discuss why you don’t need to work for a non-profit to have a career with meaning.

Tell us about your journey to founding Greatest Good: Your professional background was primarily in marketing and tech. What led you to enter the non-profit sector?

Having collected an eclectic mix of professional experience from creative direction to digital strategy to organizational management, I was frustrated I wasn’t able to use these skills to actively help support causes I cared about. They simply don’t need what it is I do on any typical day. Ironically, although my time was highly valued in the corporate world, that same amount of time was significantly less valuable in the eyes of bootstrapping non-profits.

This inefficiency of exchange in the volunteerism economy is something I realized many other professionals likely felt too. After conversations with many people I respect, I realized I wanted to make a platform to help convert that corporate time into something valuable to non-profits. A few months later, Greatest Good was born. Now, these Advisors donate their time via video chat to people or companies looking for their expert opinion. In exchange, those companies agree to donate money to the charity of the Advisor’s choice.

Greatest Good relies on “Advisors,” or thought leaders who are willing to donate their time and expertise in order to help individuals and businesses that could benefit from it. How do you get these “Advisors” to commit? Has that been difficult?

We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response from potential Advisors. So many professionals today have causes they actively care about and want to support in ways beyond writing checks. Now they can put their time to use by being the experts they already are in a way that supports their favorite charity.

I’ve even reached out to people I don’t know personally, but with whom I would definitely pay to video chat with. For example, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic is a writer, researcher, and thinker whose work I read and admire. I sent him an unsolicited email and got a reply within a few minutes. He’s now on the platform supporting a very cool non-profit called Youth Radio.

We’re finding that more and more professionals are eschewing corporate-ladder climbing in favor of pivoting into a “career with meaning.” Do you attribute this shift to anything in particular?

Well, there is certainly a shift toward professional empowerment. People across industries are finding ways to live the lifestyle they want by changing their relationships with employers and clients. A key part of these new lifestyles is finding meaning.

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean helping non-profits; meaning can come from anywhere. Technology has enabled that shift by allowing more and more people to be a professional without being an employee. As the rate of technological change continues to increase, I think you’ll see more people making lifestyle choices that fall outside the corporate ladder. Hopefully that will result in a lot more people finding fulfillment in their work.

In what ways is the Web making it easier for non-profit organizations like Greatest Good to exist?

Non-profits need money. It’s very hard working toward a cause while fundraising. The Web opens up fundraising in unprecedented ways: people serving as advocates via the social web (how many buckets of ice water have you seen being dumped on heads this week?); diverse payment tools reducing transaction costs for donations; and in our case, ubiquitous video chat technology opening up a completely new model for people to donate their time.

We’re a not-for-profit that’s not dedicated to a specific cause; instead our cause is maximizing an Advisor’s ability to support their cause. Being an agnostic platform is just one of the seemingly infinite new ways non-profits are benefiting from the Web.

Do you have any advice for professionals like yourself who are interested in launching a non-profit organization?

Ask for help. People are much more likely to say “yes” if they feel they’re contributing to something bigger. I can’t believe the all-star cast that agreed to help me launch Greatest Good.

And hey, if you want a non-profit thought leader’s perspective on it, there’s no better place to find one than greatestgood.org/advisors. :)

Innovation Saturation

I recently attended the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco. I was struck by the juxtaposition of “innovations” at the event, which just happened to coincide with a huge debate taking place mostly online on the heels of Jill Lepore’s now infamous New Yorker article on disruptive innovation. I wrote this article just after the event.

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In 2012, the Wall Street Journal found that company reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission used some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times, a 64% increase over five years prior. In 2013, Innovation Enterprise launched its inaugural Chief Innovation Officer Summit, a conference that this year alone will go on to launch four times in four cities. These are signs that innovation has gone mainstream and when that happens, the inevitable outcry of misappropriation ensues. In just the last two weeks, the New Yorker featured a scathing piece on disruptive innovation that even elicited a sharp response from the typically docile Clayton Christensen.

The number of arguments over “what is innovation” are rivaled in quantity only by the number of arguments of “what isn’t innovation.” In these exchanges, it’s perhaps most interesting seeing how the principles of innovation– change, creativity, openness– are being ignored by its strongest proponents as they attempt to define and police the term via rigidity, standards, and exclusivity. We at Finch15 are currently using “the introduction of the relevant new” as our working definition for innovation. We happen to apply it to lateral innovation via brand assets, but we’ve always considered what we do and how we define things as perpetually changing. Thus we rarely stop to argue over philosophy, but are always conscious of its impact.

Last week while so much of the innovation debate was taking place online, we just happened to be at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco. We were given the opportunity to listen to how big companies (with big brands) think about their innovation efforts. The din of the innovation bloguments and tweet storms were a perfect backdrop for such a conference.

In the case studies presented at the conference, innovation tended to manifest in two forms: via access to unique talent and via calculated attempts to shift company culture. Bluntly, some efforts sounded hollow or bolted on. Others pleasantly surprised us. Through it all, we maintained an open mind about what innovation is, staying true to what got us into the practice in the first place.

1. Access unique talent

So many companies epitomize the definition of “insanity” (often falsely attributed to Einstein): doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So when a company actually dares to try something new, it’s often an indication that they’re taking innovation seriously. After all, “old” has the benefit of inertia. One way of achieving something new is through new talent. Although there were those that spoke of fostering collaboration and innovative thinking among existing employees, many companies looked to the talent at startups as their key to success– even if that talent will never work directly for their company.

As a result, numerous companies have extended themselves to urban hubs and created their own incubators, accelerators, and labs that offer collaboration opportunities with startups (with some capital to sweeten the deal). WhileUnilever, Lowe’s and General Motors presented about such efforts, McDonald’s joined the long list of companies by announcing its own incubator effort online. These companies how have access to a new talent pool to solve problems and provide fresh perspectives.

Those that haven’t yet opened a stand-alone unit were accessing local start-up talent in their own cities via an event-driven approach that includes hackathons and other immersions for employees who would otherwise remain unexposed. We left particularly impressed by Carie Davis of Coca-Cola who seems to have genuinely impacted the culture at her company via her Startup Weekends. +

2. Shift the corporate culture

Time and again, innovation leaders discussed efforts to change the culture at their companies. Leading change inevitably strikes a tension between the desire to be shielded from the daily processes and the desire to create momentum that impacts the entire company. After all, does succeeding in a vacuum matter? This tension isn’t new (one could argue it’s at the heart of The Innovator’s Dilemma). Yet, there isn’t a clear solution for people in innovation roles at companies.

Nonetheless, there is an insight to be gleaned from so many innovation leaders having their jobs tied to cultural change: It may be the best indicator of how the rest of the C-suite defines success. Ultimately a large group of companies determined that changing the culture is inherent to innovation. Many of the innovation leaders we heard speak even framed their jobs as one that’s future-proofing their organizations in an increasingly chaotic environment.

Buzz(word) Off

The conference left us feeling cautiously optimistic about the role of innovation at big companies, even while the word itself continues its slide toward thebuzzword bingo square. It’s incredible to hear wildly successful companies see the value of “new” and go so far as to empower people– be it startups or internal employees– to serve as the peas below their corporate mattresses. It was especially refreshing to see so many finally realizing the value of their companies’ respective brands, which is generally the most under-utilized asset in innovation efforts. Companies decide what they want to get out of innovation efforts; their motivations and goals will vary. In other words, “new” and “relevant” are contextual. They aren’t universal or definitive. A company has a right to set that context, regardless of what others may think about it (and yes, of course we all have opinions).

If big companies are doing something new and getting the results they want, shouldn’t that be enough to call it “innovation”?

Forbes Interview about Greatest Good

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I recently launched a non-profit called Greatest Good. In a nutshell, it attempts to reinvent the way people raise money for the causes they care about. David Slocum of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership was kind enough to interview me for Forbes, the transcript of which can be found below. The original article is here.

I had a chance to speak recently with Saneel Radia, a 2009 EMBA graduate of The Berlin School of Creative Leadership, who has created “Greatest Good,” a non-profit platform where people donate their time to raise money for charitable causes. Based in New York, Saneel is the Founder of Finch15, a VivaKi-incubated innovation boutique that helps mature brands to concept, prototype and launch revenue-producing digital businesses. Prior to launching Finch15, Saneel ran the North American division of BBH Labs, the innovation unit of BBH, and, during his Berlin School days, was MD and “Alchemist” at Denuo, a Publicis Groupe Company focused on innovating digital services, media and technology.
David Slocum: Let’s start by asking you to explain Greatest Good.

Saneel Radia: Greatest Good is a digital platform for people to donate their time to support the causes they care about. The intention is for thought leaders across industries to make themselves accessible to individuals and companies that could benefit from their perspective in a one-on-one discussion. The money from selling their time goes to the charity of their choice.

Slocum: What was the insight that led you to develop Greatest Good?

Radia: Working in the marketing and tech areas, in particular, I was repeatedly struck by issues that swirled around the value of time and the transfer of knowledge – you might say, around reconciling financial metrics and depth of expertise. When volunteering, there’s always a tension between donating time and money; contributors want to give their time, charities tend to prefer to receive money. This is because a professional’s time is often worth so much less outside of their native industry. This inefficient conversion of the volunteerism economy is what we’re trying to solve.

Greatest Good emerged as a way for experts to donate something more closely approximating the market value of their time. In turn, businesses could benefit from using the platform to find thought leaders, be inspired, get unstuck, and access new and sophisticated ideas.

Slocum: Can you say more about the model?

Radia: We’re starting with an invitation-only launch featuring 30 advisers whose expertise people can access and roughly 25 charitable organizations that will benefit. Each of the advisers has committed to monthly “office hours” to video chat with users at a rate of $250 per half hour. The users request a video chat with a specific adviser and submit their payment information. After a meeting has occurred, Greatest Good releases the money to the adviser’s selected charity. Overall, Greatest Good is not a cause in itself: it’s a tool for others to make connections while supporting charitable causes they care about.

Slocum: It’s such an exciting project. What’s your timeline beyond the April 2014 launch and the major challenges you see for growth?

Radia: Our plan is for each of the inaugural 30 advisers to invite other advisers of comparable stature in their respective industries. The goal is 40-60 more advisers to join the platform within around three months and for us to continue that cycle into the future until the process becomes self-operating. Our target is for the platform to be fully developed, self-propagating, and with a working pricing strategy, in 18 months. We realize such a process has to be monitored to sustain the quality, diversity and even the consistent pricing of the experience. Accordingly, an instructive parallel for us as we grow is the relationship between TED and TEDx; in the future, we need to ensure that what might be called “Greatest Good ‘X’” continues to deliver the high-level of expertise and full access to charitable organizations that we’re launching with.

Slocum: So diversity is important?

Radia: Diversity is at the core of the concept: diversity in terms of the businesses interested in accessing us, the backgrounds and experiences of the thought leaders and advisers who participate, and the charitable organizations that are on board. Initially, there’s an emphasis on marketing and technology because those are the areas of my own experience and the reach of my network, but we’re very mindful of that. We’re curious following our launch to learn more about the demand for different kinds of experience and expertise and plan to use that as the basis for our future diversification rather than any set plan.

Slocum: The team you’ve assembled is impressive. What else can you tell us about them?

Radia: It’s a group of incredibly talented and committed people. What’s most remarkable is that while they’re all super busy, whether as sought-after freelancers or full-timers at top agencies like BBH and TBWA Chiat Day, they all said ‘yes’ immediately when I approached them about participating. Working together now, with no profit motivation and few resources, has been inspiring. Their willingness to experiment and creatively build something together with little precedent to draw from is amazing to experience first-hand.

Slocum : How does Greatest Good fit into your own future plans?

Radia: I’ve never had a master plan for my future and typically don’t make plans for more than one year out from where I am. My ongoing aspiration is always “to put a dent in the universe” and the stones have just varied over time. As a result my career has touched media, games, creativity, and innovation. Now, Greatest Good provides a marvelous opportunity to build a platform, and a brand, for such positive change. It serves as a great balance to my “day job” running and growing Finch15.

Professor David Slocum is the Faculty Director of Executive MBA Program at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership and is on twitter @DavidSlocum.

Even in Failing, Nike Continues to Show It’s a Leader in Innovation

(Co-authored by Finch15 Lead Analyst Jess Tsia)

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One of the biggest announcements in innovation– and technology– this past week was news that Nike would be discontinuing the hardware side of its widely hyped FuelBand. The purpose of this post is not to hypothesize on why (A change in corporate strategy? A shift in the wearables marketplace? Some secret deal with Apple?); rather, we want to focus on how this is a case study in the way big companies innovate differently than small companies– and why that’s a good thing.

“Failing right” is a term more often associated with startups who are advised tofail early, fail fast, fail often. But for large companies, especially publicly traded ones, to fail right is something that can be more complex, and is therefore, rarely achieved.

It’s easy to say that downsizing the FuelBand business means Nike’s plan for it didn’t succeed. But the fact that this decision still leaves the company with a viable exit strategy (i.e., a focus on athletic and fitness software) points to how “success” can’t be so easily judged.

So what did the company do right?

Nike structured a major innovation strategy with intelligently hedged technology bets.+

The company’s Nike+ platform supports a line of multiple devices and applications. Unlike the SportWatch GPS or the Nike+ Basketball offerings, the FuelBand is for everyday fitness motivation. In launching a product for the health-conscious individual who’s not a hardcore athlete, Nike is a pioneer in the wearable space. As a result, the company has been instrumental to bringing the Quantified-Self trend closer to the mainstream market (while, of course, getting the consumer’s foot in the door with its other Nike+ products).

The actual FuelBand, however, was never actually Nike’s strong suit, as evident by the many complaints about its inaccuracy. And brand clout alone wouldn’t have been enough to save the FuelBand if if it didn’t have a killer software to back it up.

Between its partnerships and internal development team, Nike has put an emphasis on software, which, as a result, has been ahead arguably of its wearable competitors (and has led to the opening of its Fuel Lab andAccelerator Program). The company’s commitment to perfecting its software is one reason, with the exception of the Nike+ Running app, the company has barely broken into the Android market: Quality first, scale second. Investing so much in software goes against the fail-fast mantra but it indicates where Nike saw its strength (software) vs. where it wanted to explore (hardware).

This becomes clearer when looking at the motivation behind why none of the Nike+ products speak to each other (Although NikeFuel is a “single, universal way to measure movement,” the FuelBand doesn’t recognize that we’re also exercising with our Nano to provide a summary of activity across all our Nike+ devices, each of which, by the way, has its own dedicated app.). In a world where consumers want it all at the proverbial one-stop shop, this can be frustrating. This strategy does, however, make a lot of sense from a testing perspective. With Nike+ as the core underlying platform, the company is able to test and perfect iterations of its software across multiple experiences, giving each device and app just enough customization to meet different market demands.

All together, the Nike+ platform of offerings seems like a huge undertaking– and risk– by Nike. But by keeping each experience in a pseudo-silo (strategically or not), Nike allows itself to both develop and shutter faster. And it does so without infringing on its other offerings. Nike’s bet on software allows it to structure innovation in a way that enables multiple hardware plays, each of which, at the very least, helps refine and enhance the software.

Startups simply can’t afford to deliver well on such a modular experience. It would likely hurt their consumer base and culturally, they would rather go all in and fail than place multiple bets at once.

Nike made sure its lateral innovation strategy always benefits the brand.

Nike departed from being a shoe and apparel company a long time ago. The company made a strategic decision to play at a higher level that would broaden its role in fitness and sports. It’s understandably difficult for anyone to launch a new line of business when failure is always a risk. But failure isn’t absolute, not when a company, even in failing, is able to add value to its core business. So the FuelBand wasn’t right for Nike. The product still helped launch the company into a whole new territory of sports technology that it’s poised to continue pursuing.

What made the FuelBand popular certainly wasn’t the hardware. As one writer put it, “My unit broke twice days after I got it, then had to be replaced three more times after that. It didn’t matter to me, I didn’t buy a performance device I bought into a concept.” And Nike alone was able to achieve this, he continues, because it appealed to “an audience that aspires to everything the Swoosh represents.”

With brand equity and sheer size behind it, Nike has shown that it’s able to do what many startups can’t and what many large companies seemingly don’t want to risk: use its existing assets– from its supply chains to customer bases– to make a substantial bet outside of its core competency and do so in a way that even failure has its benefits.

All this points to the value of having an innovation strategy. It’s easy for small companies to talk about innovation and failing the right way. For larger companies, adopting this strategy seems more difficult, but corporations have the resources, the experience, the expertise, the customers– luxuries most startups don’t have– to make smart bets. Nike shows that really innovative companies always leave themselves a few options that allow them to land softly– and that takes planning before lift off. Failing fast may not be always be an option, but failing right always is.

Innovation vs. Creativity

I had the incredible opportunity to serve as Jury Chair of the Latvian Art Director’s Club annual “AdWards” show. I not only fell in love with Latvian hospitality, but with the unique creative energy running through the city of Riga. I haven’t participated in many ad events lately as I’ve been moving away from that world and into product development, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hold a post previously held by people like Stefan Sagmeister and Michael Conrad.

You can see the presentation video here:

Adwards2014 lectures day. Saneel Radia lecture “What innovation means for creatives” (ENG) from LADC_Adwards on Vimeo.

Or you can simply flip through the slides on your own here: