The challenge of Innovation for the legacy super-brands

 by Manoj Kothari

It is an oxymoron. Legacy drives permanence, while innovation talks of change. It almost mandates a top-down style of management, usually handed down through the family.  I am not talking of family based enterprises of certain scale. They have their acute eyes on the market under the sharp gauge of the grand entrepreneur, overseeing the drift and explorations of the new generation. I am pointing to the monolith brands, whose empire spans the world, people live and swear by these brands. It is a big puzzle for these brands. It is not easy to layout a formula for innovation in such cases.

Look at some cases where large consumer brand sat on the equity they had, happily ignoring the changes society was undergoing. Kodak the legendary brand once controlled close to 80% of the global market of photo-films in the pre-digital photography era. And did you know that Kodak, in it own R&D labs, had invented the digital camera. When the engineering team brought the invention to the management, they just had a quick look and put it aside. An invention like this was going to disrupt the empire they were cozily sitting on. What they ignored, others lapped up. And we all have seen what happened later. Kodak got wiped up.

Another case in point is Nokia. A global giant in the mobile phone industry, a star of Finland’s innovation spirit and an example case of user-friendly design – once ruled the market when feature phones was the only option. And here comes the touch-screen and a deadly disruption of open-source Android. I have seen the detailed analysis and pointers on the internet written by ex-Nokia guys addressed to their that time CEO, Stephen Elop on why he should adopt Android and give up the solo reliance on Microsoft Windows OS for phones. But probably company was in the awe of its own brand. And went down literally to dust.

Once an Indian CEO, owner of an automotive brands told that first you make a brand, then the brand makes you. Later you have no control on what the brand should do. Brand creates its own energy. So in the case of large-legacy brands, this energy takes the shape of a ‘matrix’. Anyone entering a company with talent and a free-thinking mind has to think – whether he is ‘in’ the matrix or not. The ‘matrix’ absorbs all the new ideas that spring-up, because those ideas tend to shake the very establishment by questioning.

Now this is a real situation that is coming up because of a MYTH of PERMANENCE. Well, there is a great new acumen required to decipher, which part of the brand should really be permanent. Brand’s promise can be permanent but the medium, the vehicle to deliver the promise MUST change with the changes in the technology and the society. Just look at the way the phrase ‘gentleman’ changed over the decades. Today’s gentleman is not stiff-collared any more. Today the ‘gentleman’ is not shy of entering the kitchen and taking care of the kids. These values and meanings are dependent on the broad changes in the society. And the brand has to innovate to match-up to these changes and innovate on the product. Of-course, it can not compromise on the ongoing revenue lines suddenly, but it surely can experiment on the sidelines. Little experiments in specific geographies is a great way to build the CHANGE MUSCLE. However, it is not that such experiments are not done in these organizations. The real reasons, after interacting with such a team of global leaders in an innovation workshop that I conducted, are somewhere else.

Here is a pathway, as I think, to innovation for such organizations:

1.    BUILD A DEEP-LISTENING CAPABILITY: And it must start right at the top. The organization has been made to hear the top-down voices for long and now it is a time to change. It is like a patriarchal family where the family head is not used to listen to the kids. Today, consumers are millennials and the gen-z. They read things differently. In order that the front-end team listens to the voices from the consumers, it is utmost important that the top team, listens to the voices within first. And it is not easy. That is where framework like Design Thinking provide a structured approach rather than reducing it to a philosophy.

2.    TAP THE INTERNAL INNOVATIONS: As I said, every organization has pockets of intra-preneurs who have been a bit of ‘delinquent’ of the ‘matrix’.  But they have been doing interesting stuff, which never caught the eye of the top team. One needs to identify, incubate and recognize these teams and individuals. This itself is the strongest message across the organization.

3.    MAP THE SOCIAL TRENDS, EVERY YEAR FOR NEXT FIVE YEARS: Organizations need to read ahead of the times. And the reading must not be just the regulatory, political and market forces which everyone does but build a crack-team which stays put on reading the social-megatrends region by region and globally at a glance as well. This is not a tactical exercise. Like an yearly budget, this must become a strategic read. It means that the board-room discussion must get a little flavor of sociology and cultural-anthropology apart from the analytical discussion.

4.    INNOVATION IS NOT A BINARY EVENT: It is a continuous process. Chancing upon the winner formula is a painful mosaic, stitched with several tiny but carefully observed experiments. Someone is keenly watching and improvising upon the last step to land in a situation where non-linear growth starts showing up. Small innovations like ‘repurposing’ or ‘substitution’ may sound like almost a no-brainer in the math of a large brand. However, they are just part of the elaborate mosaic of developing the attitude for innovation.

5.    CO-CREATION AS A UNIVERSAL MANTRA: Be it a pan-continents HR strategy or cross-regional marketing campaign or a new product development, adopting ‘co-creation’ as an essential step would provide a gradual transition to better ‘listening’. Co-creation workshops, under an able mentor, can make people contribute their ideas and opinions without fear, as these workshops are crafted for gamified interactions. And only in the fear-free, natural environment, the real talent and insights can shape-up.

6.    DOCUMENT AND CURATE THE LITTLE SUCCESS AS WELL AS FAILURES: We celebrate success in the parties and slam the failure through oblivion. However, in order that the brand and the organization become a learning organization and an AGILE organization, success and the failures both must be documented and discussed. Usually outsiders write case-studies which have their own warped view of the situation. I am of the strong belief that such brands must create a Chief Curation Officer for brands internal stories of innovation. Experiential learning requires an immersive material to be available in multiple formats for the team to mull-over and learn within the company.

It is hard, no doubt to institutionalize innovation where permanence meets the change. There is no formula. But the no action is a sure death. All it needs is a careful and continuous listening combined with curated experiments. No doors are made to remain closed forever, if someone really knocks.