Brand-led Innovation

November 18, 2014

Digital is having a profound impact on business strategy, branding and customer experience. It’s clear that organizations need to take a fresh look at how to embrace the shift. But how to innovate successfully in this highly connected environment requires more focus than ever before.

Over the past two years, I have been steeped in a broad-based management program at Harvard Business School that focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship. The experience has left a permanent imprint on my thinking about how to drive success in a rapidly changing business landscape. The primary theme is focused on making choices. The argument, achieving strategic and executional clarity requires many tradeoffs. In the works of Michael Porter and Earl Sasser, the takeaway can be summarized in one thought. ‘Business strategy’ is about choosing what you won’t do and ‘service excellence’ is about choosing what you won’t do well. It took me a bit of time to grapple with that one, but once I wrapped my head around the idea, it’s a powerful way of thinking. And, let’s face it, making choices is the toughest part of business.

So, how do leaders build better business strategies and deliver powerful customer experiences? I believe the answer is brand-led innovation.

For our firm, brand embodies key elements of business strategy, especially the articulation of competitive advantage. Every business has a strategy, whether planned or unplanned, that which at its core is a set of attributes and activities that you have decided to pursue to create distinctive value in the market. If you understand what those activities are, you have made the first step to understanding how to achieve differentiation with your brand. If you understand why customers choose you and how they think of you, you have made the second step to building and managing brand perceptions around your competitive advantage. Unfortunately, and all too often, companies are unclear about their business strategy, their brand, and how to deliver a great customer experience to the right customer. Usually, no one has stopped to look at the big picture and to do the hard job of making choices.

A central theme of innovation is how to incrementally improve or create new products or services, business processes or new employee behaviors. Increasingly, innovations come through new ways of connecting and communicating with customers using digital and related technologies. For example, something as simple as a mobile app for travelers is using a suite of digital and technology elements to redefine the customer experience. This can have a big impact on the bottom line or fall flat due to a lack of alignment to your strategy and brand.

If the innovation does not create value for the customer, it will surely be a miss. Again, more often than not, companies pursue innovations for the sake of chasing a fad, and as a result are having a hard time finding the return on those investments. The outcomes don’t produce as much value as possible because the innovations are not intrinsically or extrinsically aligned.

Enter brand-led innovation. Leaders can create strategic clarity and enhance value by creating alignment with a comprehensive branding program. Brands help people see what a company stands for, their unique capabilities and how they deliver value to customers. Most importantly, an organization gains a better understanding of what customers want, need and value through the branding process. Developing and managing a brand requires companies to look at their business strategy, study their competition and dive deep into the needs of customers. That journey ultimately involves making choices that inform strategy, defines the brand, identifies opportunities for real innovations, and drives value creation. Powerful stuff.

Organizations that are crystal clear about their strategy, their brand and their customer have the basis to ignite growth.

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