Sustainable innovation vs any old innovation

Sorry. This is another blog about innovation. But I promise not to mention Uber, AirBnb or Zipcar.

We need the disrupters to disrupt and move the world on. But we also need the large, incumbent brands to get on with the kind of innovation that will move us speedily into a cleaner, healthier more equitable world.

Some brands are doing this with gusto. Adapting their innovation processes to use sustainability problems as design briefs for innovative solutions. Take the reams of plastic and other waste swirling around in our oceans. It’s one very specific problem that several brands are addressing: Adidas have launched a prototype shoe with an upper made entirely from yarns and filaments from ocean salvaged plastic;

Interface, the global carpet manufacturer, runs Net-works, “An inclusive business model that collects discarded fishing nets from coastal communities and recycles them into carpet tile”;

California based Bureo Skateboards manufacture “The Minnow”, the first skateboard deck made from recycled marine debris;

and household goods manufacturer Method use a blend of recovered ocean plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic to package up their hand-wash.

At the other end of the spectrum we have a flow of seemingly meaningless innovation that doesn’t even appear to be solving a significant consumer problem, let alone anything broader. If we look at a particular segment of the consumer’s day – from getting up to breakfast, here’s what we find that is heralded as innovation: A drink version of Weetabix with 20g (5 teaspoons) of sugar in it; Colgate’s new £12 ‘whitening pen’ that cleverly stores itself inside your toothbrush; and in Neilson’s latest report on ‘Breakthrough Innovation’, their chosen winners include a frozen sausage, egg and cheese sandwich from Kellogg’s; Mountain Dew’s Kickstart, a carbonated drink made with 5 percent juice, vitamins, caffeine and corn syrup, that promises to ‘kickstart your day’; and a line of haircare from L’Oreal that aims to “democratize beautiful hair”.

Some might say there is absolutely no purpose behind the above innovations. Others might breath a sigh of relief that someone is finally democratizing beautiful hair. But I doubt that any of them will genuinely change someone’s life or a category for the better, or improve the health and wellbeing of communities that are already struggling with obesity, or drastically reduce the amount of packaging, carbon or water required in the supply chain. Or any of the hundreds and thousands of genuine societal, environmental and cultural needs that are yet to be met.

So what is keeping brands from genuine breakthrough, purpose-led innovation? I would argue that it’s mostly in the process and starts with a run-of-the-mill brief. If brands keep using the same old innovation processes and issuing the same old briefs, they will continue to produce the same old stuff: a new shampoo lid, a tweaked formulation, a different shaped teabag… But is this incremental activity laddering up to a strategic, future-proofed direction? One that will outperform potential challenger brands, keep consumers loyal and play a part in developing a resource efficient future? Probably not.

So how can brands successfully innovate with more confidence and purpose?

Consider the long-term

Spend some time with your team exploring 10-15 years from now and consider:

  • what expectations and needs future consumers might have

  • how the market and business models might have changed

  • what role your brand could play in people’s lives

Define a vision for your brand

Ignore the pressures and constraints of today and go to town reimagining your brand. How could it meet the broader needs of society and the environment as well as those of the consumer? What kind of business model could it have? What will it take for your brand to continue to be successful and admired?

Innovate today with your eye on tomorrow

Bring your long-term vision and what you learnt about the future into your current innovation process. Use it to guide and inspire innovation today.

Ten years ago few marketers considered sustainable innovation. But times change and world leading companies are building it into the fibres of their brands. Millennials want to work and consume with purpose and 78% are strongly influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding if they wanted to work there. The buy-stuff chuck-stuff model is now competing with eBay, the collaborative economy and a desire to participate. It feels like it’s only a matter of time until a tweak to packaging or a new flavour won’t be enough to capture hearts and minds.

As Anna Wintour once said, “It’s always about timing. If it’s too soon, no one understands. If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten.”

Which brands do you think we will have forgotten about by 2030?

This blog was originally posted by Caffeine

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