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Thinking Small

Thinking Small.Thinking Big.

Conrad Persons

Co-founder, CEO

Mash Strategy Studio, a part of Kantar Consulting


What do you think the best innovation of 2017 was?

If you’re like the editors of Wired, the New York Times, or any number of marketers, you’ll probably go on to describe a new product. Or a cool new technology. Or perhaps a killer service or new molecule.

None of these responses is “wrong”, but they all highlight a bias that persists about what innovation is. We tend to think of it as the art and science of creating new stuff for people to experience or consume.

This is a problem.

The barrier for many brands to becoming more innovative is that they are thinking about it in too narrow a way. They are solving one type of problem (again and again), when there are myriad other problems, many of which cause consumers greater pain, and in being solved would create bigger gains.

Brands are thinking big (New launch! New range!) when sometimes, there is a beauty in thinking small.

Consumers perceive brands as innovative when they are surprised and delighted by what they do. Sometimes the source of this delight is in the product or service itself. But often, it is something else altogether.

  • Democratisation
  • Sometimes the greatest innovations are simply making an existing product radically cheaper. I’d argue that making a smart phone with facial recognition for £1,000 is far less impressive than making one for £50 without it.
  • As brands target “the next billion” consumers, cost will become a vital lever to pull. Technologies like additive manufacturing and 3D printing make it more possible than ever before to reduce prices.
  • British brands may find their next great wave of innovation could come from making existing products cheaper, or creating sustainably disposable versions of expensive goods.

  • Speed to Market
  • Fashion (from the mid-market to the runway) was completely changed not by new materials, new design, or a new creative direction – but by the ability of the supply chain to keep up with Instagram.
  • Moncler’s stated ambition is to be able to create a refreshed version of its signature puffer coat each month. It is the pace – as much as the products – that is defining what it means to be innovative for the brand.
  • In many fields – from food to fashion - brands that can create supply chains that can keep pace with social media will be those seen as the most innovative.

  • Thinking small takes on many forms. For a beauty brand, it might be creating the same experience, but using less water. For a direct-to-consumer retail brand, simplifying the returns process can be as revolutionary as reinventing a product.

When brands think too narrowly about innovation, they end up addressing too narrow a part of the customer experience. They end up not as innovative companies, but simply as a company that produces lots of new stuff.

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Imagine this. You’re the CEO of a company that sells dog food. You need to double your growth. But you can’t produce a single product or dog food-related service to do so.

In this case, thinking small is not enough.

The next generation of innovative British brands will need to embrace a new definition of brand stretch. They’ll need to be comfortable stretching freely from one business to another (e.g. Airbnb not only offers a platform for accommodation, but also curated travel experiences) – or playing in their “home” category, but with radically different business models (e.g. Cadillac’s on-demand subscription scheme).

It starts with taking a different start point to brand stretch. This space used to be about taking a brand’s equities, and seeing if those equities worked in other, close-in categories. Increasingly, it will be about stretching to “far-out” categories, in a process driven by purpose and platforms.

  • Mars Pet Care recently bought an upmarket chain of veterinary hospitals. At first, brand watchers scratched their heads. But then it seemed obvious – if a brand’s purpose is in delivering animals a healthier life, then what could make better business and brand sense?

  • If Uber had used traditional models of brand stretch, a consultant would have laughed the idea of food service out of the room. But because Uber’s platform and purpose are built entirely around the idea of mobility (of not just people, but also goods) – then Uber Eats is a natural extension of the brand, and makes business sense.

Increasingly, innovative brands won’t simply sell one thing – they’ll be an ecosystem of products and services all rallying around a big idea. The innovation will not be in the individual components, but in how they interact. Convergence of in-home technology is a hero example of how this movement will take place.

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Thinking Small. Thinking Big. In both cases, the things that define successful innovation change. It is less about pure creativity, and more about creative problem solving. It’s less reliant on products and services, and more about looking at the end-to-end experience. It is seeking out wins in unexpected places, not just harvesting the fruits of idea generation.

As ever, if British brands want to change, it will start with changing how they think.