A time and place for tactical innovation

I started my career working with technology companies having to deal with the constant change of Moores Law, so anything other than the long view would lead to failure.

A time and place for tactical innovation

I started my career working with technology companies having to deal with the constant change of Moores Law, so anything other than the long view would lead to failure. So I am in the camp that says innovation should be a long-term endeavour built around a future vision with a road map that keeps the business on the front foot, aligns investment and keeps ahead of the competition.

I brought that perspective to the FMCG industry where I found ‘fast moving’ certainly didn’t refer to product innovation with many products like After Eight unchanged since they were invented. After Eight was launched in 1962, the same year IBM brought out the first removable disk drive weighing 4.5 KG. After Eight is still fundamentally the same today, IBM is certainly not.

‘Fast moving’ could however have been referring to their innovation programmes. Not intent on fundamental changes to the core product but generating range extensions e.g. a profusion of new flavours and formats to appeal to the latest consumer trend, widening their appeal to a younger consumer without losing the core followers.  Innovation programmes call Sprints and Deep Dives abounded and if you couldn’t generate a hundred ideas in a day’s workshop sitting on beanbags and eating jelly babies you might as well get your coat. Most of the output didn’t get to market and those that did diluted the core and rarely made any money.  Disillusioned, I walked away from that world and focused on design for a good while.

Then the planet and technology started to bite back with the shift to the long-term needs of circularity and the influence of digitally connected products accelerating innovation. My way of working was back in fashion and we are now running far reaching innovation programmes once again.

Great! End of story – well not quite. Long term innovation follows brand ambition and macro trends or, as we call them, causal forces. It doesn’t cover the immediate needs driven by new markets, consumers or competition, or the need to generate new news to keep consumers interested. There is a need for a type of Tactical Innovation in addition to the long term version to address these specific challenges. It needs to work with a strong brand core, bringing values to life in a relevant way for different consumer perspectives. For example, we work with Nestlé in travel retail. This retail environment is uniquely different from everywhere else, so Nestlé needed to adapt their offers to suit accordingly. What we do through Tactical Innovation is strengthen, not weaken, the brand’s perception. We add relevant offers, but don’t dilute the core purpose.

Cyclical tactics

Tactical Innovation is quite different from the innovation sprints of old. It doesn’t happen in a rush, but it can happen rapidly. It needs careful analysis of consumer insight and retail and digital environments to marry up the brand to its new situation. It can be a one-off response to a specific challenge, but it’s better if it’s cyclical so that consumer engagement and resources can be managed over time. Like Sprints it will utilise existing assets wherever possible to maximise ROI and speed to market, but in addition it develops its own particular assets to support repeatable, multiple innovation platforms. For example, our work with Smarties in travel retail defined a unique proposition targeting mums and dads in the airport that built on the existing brand essence. We created a visual Smarties’ world suited to this environment to use as a unifying backdrop and theme to a unique range of toy innovations not seen in any other retail environment. Each year we refresh but maintain this continuity to build brand memory in this fast-paced environment. It uses many of the techniques we use in Future Visioning, in particular Scenario Development, to create and develop ideas through the eyes of the consumer but lives in the now and does not project forward.

Responsive tactics

New competition is a common challenge coming from left field. It can’t be planned for so needs a specific response. A few years back Unilever were caught on the hop when P&G launched an elegant, curved pack in the US market for their female deodorant brand Secrets. Overnight Unilever’s blocky design looked dated and unfeminine and something had to be done. We worked with them to turn a new innovative design around in record time and the result was a big success with increasing sales, stealing back share and driving trade up. The reason behind this success was total integration of the team from all facets of the business and championing of, and access to, senior stakeholders. Echo’s design capability was the glue holding this all together – aligning multiple brand DNAs, short listing technical options and building design concept cars for cross discipline assessment and decision making. Through a series of three summits (not ideation workshops of the past but ‘share and decide’ sessions) this efficient decision making radically shortened timescales and we gained design lock in 6 months (the usual was over two years). So Tactical Innovation can and should be rapid, but it is not innovation-lite, its full-fat and effective.

For Tactical Innovation to make a difference it needs a strong brand core to work with. We need to know what is sacrosanct and where we can play. We need to know how the brand should work at every consumer touchpoint, both physical and digital, as it is at these interfaces that much of this type of innovation will operate. So, we need to get the basics in place before we can operate tactically.

It is not a substitute for long-term innovation where the core offer develops to reflect changes in the macro trends, but it does support the long view keeping the consumer interested and brand relevant in a complex and rapidly changing world.

Nick Dormon
Nick Dormon

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