brite ideas at the intersection of brands, innovation, and technology

Leading thinkers and practitioners gathered last month at Columbia Business School’s Center for Global Brand Leadership BRITE ’11 conference. It was billed as a forum “to discuss emerging trends in marketing, technology, society, and culture and how these trends can transform the ways that companies build and sustain great brands.”

I found the perspectives on innovation the most interesting:

Innovation in business

Luke Williams from frog design spoke about how disruptive innovation gives birth to new business ideas. Disruptive innovation differs from simple novelty byrevolutionizing the very way we think. It involves breaking from seeing things as they are to see what they could possibly become.

The process of disruptive innovation starts with a positive cliché, then inverts, reverses, or denies it to produce a new idea. Cliches are the widespread beliefs that govern the way people think about and do business in a particular space – for example: soda is inexpensive, it tastes sweet, and the most common advertising approach is aspirational lifestyle. Inverting, reversing, and denying involves challenging these cliches – what if a soda is expensive, tastes terrible, and its advertising is about performance not happiness. The resulting idea? Red Bull!

Little Miss Mismatched is another product of disruptive innovation. It’s a company that sells mismatched pairs of socks, an idea which denies the accessory business cliché that says socks must be sold in matched pairs. They’ve grown into a big business by appealing to teenage girls, with whom being different resonates more than sameness.

Disruptive innovation is about being really different in a meaningful way.

Innovation in product

Two speakers shared perspectives on product innovation.

Sheena Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, Columbia Business School, challenged participants with evidence that marketers are overwhelming consumers with too much choice. Multiple studies have shown that, when faced with too many choices, consumers will make a poorer choice, derive less satisfaction from their choice, and may actually delay or discontinue their purchase.

This means that effective innovation isn’t about offering more varieties for consumers to choose from. Instead, products should be developed to fit Miller’s “Magical Number.” Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller published research back in the 1950’s showing that the human’s span of absolute judgment and immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information we can receive, process, and remember. So seven ± 2 is the optimal number of choices.

Furthermore, to facilitate adoption of innovations, options should be categorized the way a novice sees them, instead of assuming that consumers are experts who understand the nuances between options. For example, organize a wine selection by optimal food pairings to appeal to novices and help them make a good choice, because organizing it by region of France speaks only to the expert.

On a different track, Steve Rubel, SVP Director of Insights, Edelman Digital, focused on innovation in technology products. He identified developer engagement as a key trend.

Innovation across all platforms is becoming extremely important as devices and operating systems continue to propagate and software becomes the value driver in technology. Whereas the iOS for iPhone software used to be the dominant platform, Windows Phone and Android phones are now evening out the market distribution. And software developers have the power to drive innovation widely.

As such, technology companies need to make their assets available to all developers and cultivate a rich developer network. Marketers, Rubel said, “typically don’t try to court developers, but that’s all about to change.”  Technology innovation is becoming less about what you build yourself and more about how you facilitate others to build for you.

Innovation in advertising planning

The role of advertising and the way it’s developed is changing. Different speakers emphasized different aspects of the transformation.

Antonio Lucio, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Visa Inc., described the tenets of his company’s advertising planning:

  1. Think about the audience first not the media – seek to understand customers’ paths to transaction and identify the most influential places.
  2. Be guided by social principles – embrace the new reality: sharing is the new giving, participation is the new consumption, and recommendations are the new advertising.
  3. Activate with paid, owned, and shared media – instead of deploying an episodic campaign-driven media plan, aim for an “always on” one.

These tenets have led Visa to an innovative advertising approach — they plan the media first, then the creative. Mike Steib, Director of Video Ads at Google, encouraged others to adopt this non-traditional approach, saying “The role of the advertising creative team is to design a message and user experience for the new technological frontier.”

According to Russell Weiner, CMO, Domino’s Pizza, the advertising innovation at his company has involved not only the radical authenticity of telling the story behind their “new and inspired products,” but also the way they’ve employed PR and social media to extend their promotional efforts.

Weiner described his company’s two media plans. There’s the traditional media plan deploying broadcast media, and there’s the “free” plan which uses PR and social networking to extend reach, frequency, and engagement. Google’s Steib reinforced this approach as well, explaining that online video enables “advertising to take on a social life.”

Edelman’s Insight Director Rubel also talked about the new relationship between advertising and PR. Invoking the image of a satellite rocket, he described advertising as the big thrusters that get a brand or message out into orbit. PR then takes over providing a command center, delivering an ongoing perspective, and enabling companies to maneuver easily. Using this model, companies approach advertising planning very differently.

As I reflect on all that I learned from the conference, I realize that BRITE isn’t just a clever acronym for the conference topics: brands, innovation, and technology. It’s also an acrostic of sorts which shows that innovation is what connects brands to technology. And the conference is a source for some bright ideas for brands!

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