The Innovation Imperative in an Age of Accelerating Marketing Change

Today’s blog post is by Susan Griffin, CMO.

Recently, a group of about 300 mostly client-side marketers gathered by the shores of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for the 25th annual Brandworks University, the brainchild of Marsha Lindsay, founder of LSB (Lindsay, Stone & Briggs).

Brandworks UniversityMany were multiple-repeat attendees and even speaker alumni who have come back for years. Is it a cult? A club? A new kind of continuing education? There was no certification, no paper competitions, no awards, but there was Latin homework, a falling Trojan Horse, stand-up comedy and lots of case studies on how marketing responds to disruptive innovation.

As a jaded veteran of the conference circuit, it is pretty impressive to see people who have traveled from all over, to assemble in – let’s face it – not the easiest place in the world to get to.

Even more so, participants were highly engaged and mostly stayed ’til the not-so-bitter end, to talk about marketing imperatives, and how you build great brands and create disruptively innovative products.

Of the non-client side folks, there were representatives of academia, and of major industry associations like the 4A’s and the IPA (the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising). And speakers included notables like Geoffrey Moore.

The speakers were universally entertaining and inspiring and the case studies resonated; the core message was that the velocity of change is increasing, and no one has an infallible crystal ball about the technology-enabled future and how it will impact marketing.

Crystal BallThe only thing we can bank on is that disruptions can alternatively be brand crushing and brand accelerating, and we need to make consumers feel something about our brands, because emotion and the truth of behavioural science is the one constant.

Test, learn and iterate was the mantra of many of the speakers. Check, got that. But what was compelling was the number of speakers who revealed the importance of really understanding consumers’ lives, trying things and not being afraid to fail.

Scott Anthony of Innosight spoke poignantly about failed barbershop kiosks in India and other experiments in innovation (that failed) and reminded us that “every idea for an innovation is partially right and partially wrong”. His experience underscored the reality that new ideas fail when we look at them in isolation or when we don’t think about what the behavioral sciences teach us about how consumers actually make decisions. He warned us further not to get paralyzed by the daunting rate at which new ideas fail, but rather to set up a culture within our organizations that celebrates the folks who at least try.

Erica Gruen, former CEO of Food Network talked about turning around a failed brand on life support, with very little money, but an “ah-ha” insight. She took the brand from being a Network for people who like to cook to a place for people who like to eat, because she realized the simple insight that “food is love” and it is at the core of all of life’s occasions. (Landing Emeril helped . . . BOOM! But that was only part of the story.)

Food Network

Steve Bock, CEO of Shinola, had the audience riveted with the story of a (crazy) vision to create a world-class watch company in America with a distinct personality and oh by the way . . . to help rebuild Detroit in the process. Anyone who hasn’t seen their brilliantly tongue-in-cheek advertising and branding campaigns (creative genius of New York-based Partner & Spade) needs to remember not to tell the Swiss that Geneva is now the Detroit of Switzerland, nor to tell Apple that Shinola’s watches are “smart enough not to even try to be phones”! Shinola’s product lines now include bikes, leather goods and journals. Everyone in the audience was secretly lusting for a visit to one of Shinola’s destination stores if only to inhale the scent of glee, in a big experiment clearly resonating with consumers’ emotions.


Toward the end of the conference, Leslie Berland, EVP of Digital Partnerships and Development, American Express, talked about the blistering pace at which digital is changing marketing at AMEX (members of the legal team now sit in the digital marketing group so approval from corporate compliance can take place in hours not weeks). The key driver for what American Express is doing in digital is not whiz-bang technology, but rather a razor sharp insight into customer behaviour and radical thinking around how to meet that head on.

Leslie shared a case study on digitally enabled customers using AMEX Member Rewards as payment. We all know how our eyes light up when we see our bank of “reward points” get fat, and how deflated we are when we try to redeem airplane tickets and hotel rooms for that once-a-year vacation using points . . . too damn hard! Through apps and other digital engagements, American Express is now enabling customers to pay for taxi rides and cups of coffee using Membership Rewards . . . so now customers are reminded of the value of member rewards, in many cases with one click, every single day! Technology driven?? OK, sure. INSIGHT DRIVEN??? Hell yay!

AMEX Rewards

LSB is already marketing next year’s BrandWorks University, which will again take place in Madison, from April 19-21, 2016. BrainJuicer will be there, and the Chief Juicer will be presenting along with some other distinguished keynoters. Too far ahead to plan? Oh come on . . . . the industry is already pondering what Marketing is going to look like in 2020! Put a note in your calendar, and I hope to see you there for some insight on what the Modern Marketer should be doing right now!


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