How to Maintain Your (Leading) Edge in Marketing Innovation

At SXSW a few years ago, Oreo delivered a buzzworthy installation that was typically Oreo: its Trending/Vending Machine was inventive, entertaining, smart.  By combining 3D printing with functionalities of a Twitter vending machine, the brand seized on two hot trends and created some real separation for itself…and gave attendees the chance to enjoy “personalized” Oreos.

Give me my bespoke Oreo and a glass of whole milk (not skim: it’s not the same experience!).  I’m in.   #eatthetweet, indeed.

What’s really fascinating is how this particular viral stunt illuminates just how quickly marketing trends move in this day and age.  The first “Tweet-powered” vending machine happened back in 2012.

I know, the Bronze Age of SMM.

The concept was shamelessly ripped off emulated and evolved by dozens upon dozens of other marketers since then, some of them adding webcams, goodwill overlays, social recruitment and virality tactics (“Retweet this or I won’t get my candy bar!”) and more.

The Twitter vending machine has jumped the shark in record time.  Or maybe we should call it WOMtime — where events are compressed into a time warp of buzz and instant digital adjudication by consumers and followers and trolls the world over.

That’s the racetrack we’re all on as marketers.   “Innovation” and “authenticity” are intertwined as never before in the minds of consumers used to instant digital stimulation and gratification.  Once you’ve leashed your brand or company or agency to the notion of delivering a constant stream of new ways to engage and activate, how do you maintain the pace?

There are a few proven practices we’ve observed that really make a difference in whether you’re ahead of the game, or lagging the pack:

  1. Do the hard work of “thought leadership” — there are plenty of would-be pundits and industry experts out there, many of them simply regurgitating the counsel or insights of others.  Real thought leadership means digging deep and looking forward, and offering up true value to your customers, your co-workers, your organizational culture.  It also means making it a mandate throughout the workplace, a constant challenge to not just company leads but managers and rank-and-file to be agile and adept in how they solve problems and look down the road.
  2. Give yourself breathing room or, better put, thinking room.  Whether an individual or an organization, it’s proven that we’re more effective, productive and innovative when we’re given an opportunity to sit back and process information.  The best solutions come from synergies, whether inside our own imaginations or between people, but those synergies need time and pauses in the daily grind to grow.  So give yourself a spare hour to investigate, contemplate, originate…and make sure people across your organization get the same benefit!
  3. Always look outside — outside your company, your category, outside of marketing and sales; observe how innovation and creativity function in other areas of life, like the arts, nature, history, technology.  There’s a brainstorming exercise I enjoy where I ask people to take a process, task or tradition from a totally unrelated field and try to apply it to their own challenge.  The more dissonant the pairing, the better from an innovation standpoint, because it forces us to go far afield to see how “birthing a calf” just might drive new ideas for “marketing a SUV.”   And yes, that was an actual example that delivered outstanding concepts.
  4. Diversify your contributors — of POVs and thinking, that is.  There’s an old episode of Nightline that explored how the global design leader IDEO brainstorms and refines product innovations: by bringing in “civilians” from different walks of life to site with the in-house experts.  That can apply to assembling a strictly internal team, too: the more varied and differentiated their backgrounds, the more likely you’ll get thinking that goes outside the cubicle.
  5. Cultivate and reward innovation just as you’d reward a top performer in sales or other areas of your enterprise.  It doesn’t even matter if the idea was intended for a customer or client, or if the client bought the idea: you need to foster the kind of thinking that makes your team inventive and flexible in how it attacks problems, and you can’t wait for your customers to drive that kind of culture.  It comes from within.
  6. Always be learning about related (and unrelated) fields of endeavor, about the next trend, the off-the-wall technology, about what your competition is up to.  Don’t ever let up on educating yourself and your team, especially in generalized ways — all that data contributes to the synthesis that leads to new thinking.
  7. Constantly overreach, because you can always refine an idea before you go to market, but it’s crucial to reach for the brass ring, the ever-elusive Big Idea, every chance you get.  In brainstorming, we like to claim here’s no such thing as a truly terrible idea, just inappropriate ones, but those can springboard into new ideas, too.  If you’re not taking risks and sticking your neck out, you’re removing the chance to discover.

If you’re not staying on the cusp of invention and innovation, especially in this ever-evolving marketplace, where creativity is now attacking from all sides, you’re tempting fate.

Years back, I pitched some great (or so we felt!) ideas to an automotive assistant brand manager who responded, “Those are terrific ideas, but I’d be risking failure to try them, and if we know a tried-and-true tactic will get me my usual lift, let’s just do that.  I get rotated into a new job every two years, so what’s in it for me to take a chance?”

No lie: the car brand he was working for?  Oldsmobile.  There’s a lesson there for all of us.

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