How do we protect our brands, when running innovation experiments?

innovation experiment

Our Director Brandon Chinn recently wrote his thoughts on LinkedIn about the designing thinking approach compared to engineering: 

If you peruse old issues of HBR, it’s clear the main growth strategy from about 1980-2005 was BRAND BRAND BRAND. The maxim marketers knew at their core was “build the brand and we will grow and weather all storms.”

That pressure to grow has remained (if not intensified), yet the en vogue growth strategy has shifted away from brand building, towards innovation. Branding alone’s ability to drive growth seems to have plateaued, so we’re all shifting gears to innovate. BUT innovation is a necessarily risky endeavor because you’re exploring uncharted territory. Your new ideas aren’t proven yet.  

A necessary step in any consumer facing innovation is to run experiments in the market, with consumers or end users participating, and ideally paying. It’s a crucial step in de-risking the innovation, allowing companies to test consumer response to an innovation, before investing in a nationwide launch. 

Testing small before launching big seems in itself to be a way to protect the brand, and yet I’ve been a part of a few innovation projects where we’re just about to launch an in-market-experiment, and just before we go live someone from brand halts the experiment. In all fairness, that’s probably part of their job and it should be! Brand equity and consumer trust is hard won and thus should be protected. So this begs asking: 

How do we innovate, test things in the market, run experiments, launch pilots and take RISK, while protecting our hard-won brand equity?

In an effort to share the lessons I’ve learned (the hard way), here are some strategies to protect your brand when running in-market-experiments for your innovations. 

1. Connect with your brand’s purpose
When I asked this question to the CMO of Bonobos, Micky Onvural, she answered that (paraphrasing) you should innovate in a way that connects to the purpose of your brand. In other words, if you brand touts being customer-centric, testing new innovations that deliver value to your customer is a brand building activity. 

One way to better your chances of delivering value to the end user with your innovation is to fold in a human-centered design or design thinking approach. This approach starts with developing a deep understanding of your customer and their unmet needs, pain points, etc. This empathy building foundation is later complemented by testing value propositions in the market. 

In other words, it’s all about finding new ways to delight your customer with new value. That’s good for the brand.

2. Let the guinea pigs know they’re guinea pigs
If it doesn’t drastically compromise your experiment or the data you’re chasing after, let your new customers know they’re part of a pilot, but frame it in an empowering way. They’re shaping the future of your company! Their feedback on their experience could go right to the c-suite. 

Telling your experiment participants that they’re part of an experiment is honest and authentic. A 2013 BCG study showed customers identified authenticity as one of the top qualities that would attract them to a brand[1]. And the Authentic Brand Index showed authentic brands get more share of high value customers[2]

Go ahead and let them know. Honesty is the best policy, for your brand too. 

3. Walk the walk
Pull up any company’s annual report. I’ll bet you $50.00 they say some form of the word ‘innovate’ in their letter to shareholders. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all mention “innovation” at least twice in the first page of their 10ks, but it’s not just tech companies. Proctor and Gamble mentions it by their second sentence. Everyone’s claiming it, so it’s high time we walk the walk. We should be in the practice of innovating and own that we’re experimenting. 

Many companies even fold ‘innovation’ into their brand promise. Nike is a fitting example here, sharing its mission statement, “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,”[3] So in this case experimenting, a necessary step in innovating, is actually part of brand realization or delivering on that promise. It’s brand accretive rather than brand dilutive. 

Check up on your own brand promise and attributes, if you spot something about innovation leverage this to make your case! 

4. Give PR, customer service, etc. a heads up
When a big brand runs a small experiment on a bold innovation it can catch attention. Have a communications plan at the ready should the cat get out of the bag. But tread lightly here! Sometimes letting Global Communications know what you’re up to can cause more trouble than it’s worth. You’ll have to decide if it’s better to ask for forgiveness or permission. Many companies have guidelines or ground rules for these types of experiments through an accelerator or incubator. If you’re not part of that group, then you might ask colleagues there for guidance. 

The same goes for customer service. Your experiment participants may call into customer service with questions, so give that team a heads up, with FAQ responses and call scripts in advance.

Another thing to note here, press may disguise themselves as experiment participants, so prepare responses with that in mind! 

5. Stay off brand
Sometimes it’s not only easier, but better to turn the brand ‘off’ and test without it. It can be harder to recruit participants or acquire new customers without the help of your brand, BUT you turn off the risk of a false positive. What’s a false positive? Well, in the early phases, or the ‘front end’ of innovation you’re constantly listening for demand signals. Any data that helps you ascertain, “does this add value to the customer? Are they excited by this? Would they pay for it? Would they tell their peers?” ...is gold! 

Sometimes you can get say-data here, (“yeah I’d buy this”), sometimes do-data (customer actually swipes a credit card), and sometimes it’s just a smile. Having a brand people love here can actually be a detriment as it creates noise in your data. That smile, promise to pay, or word of mouth referral might just be because it’s something new from a brand they love. Turning the brand ‘off’ or testing off brand helps you remove that noise and the risk of a false positive. 

6. What would you add? 
Every company is unique, but we’re all pursuing innovations. Do you have tips to share from your experiments? How’d you get the greenlight?

Sources:

[1]  The Economist

[2] Brand Alpha 

[3] Nike