Innovative Branding – One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.
“One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea. It makes you think that after all, your favorite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded… Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it.” -Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics
What is innovation?
Most people associate innovation with a new idea, which is a fair assumption considering the Latin root of the word innovate is novus meaning new. However, a good number of dictionaries and exercised minds allude to a broader meaning including such concepts as change, origination, departure and revolution.
So what is innovative branding?
Innovative branding might sound a lot like rocket science, but it is the complete opposite. Rocket science is a vastly linear discipline while innovation and, innovative branding, is rooted in lateral thinking.
Innovation is based on new ideas, but ideas alone do not guarantee innovation. Ask yourself the question, where do these ideas come from? You guessed it, people. Successful innovation hinges on a team’s ability to conceive and execute an idea, making sure that what it produces is better, faster or cheaper, in a manner nearing superhuman perfection. The building of an innovative brand therefore starts with team. So get a team together that actually cares about innovation, a team that has both insight, and foresight to take innovation head-on. Innovation should become an essential to how a team operates; it must become your modus operandi.
Van Gogh once said, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” Sure he cut off his own ear, but his point was relevant … innovative brands are risk takers. And while you might be saying, ‘but all brands take risks to a certain degree’, innovative brands are playing a little closer to the edge than our average household soap brands. Innovative branding begins to move a brand out of the risk quadrant and into the unseen faith quadrant. Why faith? Because risk is usually calculated, based on tried and tested methodologies as well as research and case studies of previous attempts and failures. Innovative branding often has few or none of these elements to hold onto. What innovative brands are doing has seldom been attempted. Faith is having hope in the unknown and innovative brands are fueled by faith.
Let me use Puma as an example of innovative branding even though there are aspects (such as the jump from risk to faith) that they still need to work on. In 1993 Puma was near to bankruptcy, which forced the shareholders to take a risk in an attempt to save the company. Actually it was more like a leap into the unknown. Ever since Puma went public in 1986 they have had a number of CEOs, none of which were able to tackle the inherent problems the brand faced. The shareholders decided that Jochen Zeitz, the company’s 30 year old marketing director, was the man to take on the task.
What was the risk there you might say? After all, he was their marketing director. The risk laid in the fact that Zeitz only had two years previous career experience at Colgate Palmolive, hardly the impressive resume sported by most aspiring CEOs. Puma had reached the stage where they had to take the risk or crumble. Innovative branding does not always require such extreme conditions to flourish, but often it is these kinds of conditions that compel brands to take on the Goliath of innovation. Zeitz turned out to be the right choice for the brand and today Puma is in the throws of a renaissance.
The glue holding an innovative brand together is not the undertaking of a competitive strategy, but rather the adoption of a leading strategy that leaves all the other brands to fight over the crumbs left behind. This is an area in which Puma has displayed its prowess. So how did they develop a leading strategy?
Firstly Puma needed exposure. Zeitz approached Hollywood film companies, selling them a 12 percent stake in the company. This allowed Puma exposure in major Hollywood films, as well as popular sitcoms such as Will & Grace and Friends. While he was creating this publicity, Zeitz was building the infrastructure to back it up by regaining control over Puma’s distribution in the US and opening Puma stores located all round the US and even the world.
Madonna, on the eve of her Drowned World tour, walked into a Santa Monica Puma store and bought 16 pairs of designer trainers! Now that is a positive return on investment. From that point on, the brand skyrocketed. At this stage you might be thinking that many other brands have “allowed” celebrities to don their gear in return for publicity, but in my opinion no other brand has used this method to its full capacity to re-launch and reinvent themselves into a quintessential brand, that Puma is today.
Secondly, Puma needed to create a new category to dominate. Sure, sport was and still is part of their market, but they needed to find a new edge. Puma realized they were playing in a parity market – already dominated by Nike and Adidas. They could have invested all their time and money into building a competitive strategy but instead, they lead the way into another category – fashion.
Puma seemed to understand not only the market but also the consumer. But they did more than just understand their consumers – they educated them. Innovative brands know what we want before we even think about it. Puma caused consumers to rethink the functional sport shoe, which traditionally worked well with a pair of jeans. Consumers found themselves wanting more, they wanted style. It was time for the rebirth of cool for trainers and Puma were ready to reinvent the brand.
Innovative brands need to have the ability to reinvent themselves at any time. Why? In order to remain relevant to the market and stay ahead of competitors. Did their strategy work? Well, Nike still stands and stands strong. But at the moment so does Puma. Their aim wasn’t to fight Nike but simply to open up a new ballpark to play in.
Innovative brands need to make a statement, especially when you have everything to gain and nothing to loose – this was the case with Puma. As stated by Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjelle Nordstrom in their book Funky Business, “Not all people like the design of Helmut Lang’s clothes or Alessi’s kettles. It is better to be something for someone than nothing to everyone.” In the case of Puma, one of those “someone’s” turned out to be Madonna! Madonna didn’t just buy ordinary trainers, she bought Mostro designer trainers. That was just the start of their entry into a new fashion lead sport arena, as Puma is currently working with Gucci to design the Italian Soccer teams kit for Euro 2004.
Innovative brands make use of contact points and exploit them to the nth degree. All these contact points are relevant to each other and to the brand. Puma has managed to align its contact points to build a brand image that echoes cool. Puma has taken on unlikely projects such as working with MINI Cooper, sponsoring the Jamaican Olympic team as well as the Cameroon soccer team. Puma’s boutique stores are not museum sized concept stores. They are stores that represent every aspect of the brand. Most of the time the location of Puma stores are as subtle as the brands understated persona.
“ It’s a great entrée because we are a brand that wants to be discovered” – Jochen Zietz
Innovation is only innovation for as long as it remains new and relevant. Can Puma maintain its underground appeal when everyone is wearing their shoes? Time will tell.
Here is a recap of the elements that form part of innovative branding process.
• Make use of innovation centered teams;
• Are fueled by faith;
• Don’t make use of competitive strategies, they undertake leading strategies;
• Educate the consumer – going one step further than understanding them;
• Have the ability and readiness to reinvent themselves;
• Make a statement;
• Use all the brands contact points in a holistic and synergistic way.
Innovative brands constantly pursue and execute a new way of thinking. Innovation is organic and fluid. It is not linear. It is not black and white. However, the “colour” gray is made up of black and white, which represents innovation well. Innovative branding is made up of elements around us. Some of these elements are tried and tested until broken, others not. People are afraid of gray, simply because it cannot be defined as black or white. We must embrace the need for innovative branding if we are going to grow and sustain our brands as well as branding as a category.
“Innovation drives the growth of our brands. From small improvements to big ideas, innovation enables us to meet people’s needs and aspirations in ways that engage and delight them and build their relationship with our brands.” – Unilever
By Graham Sweet
Graham Sweet is one of the many brand strategists to come through the ranks of the Vega School. Coupled with his design background and the need for creative, constructive disruption he started metamere. The aim for metamere was simply to create a non-linear, constantly revolutionizing idea generator, more than just a brand consultancy or a design house.