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Innovation for the sake of innovation

24th Sep 2015
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I was once asked in an interview if I was an innovative person and if I could provide an example. I regaled them with a tale of a team building day at an old employer, the culmination of which was a plane launch. Each group was asked to build an aircraft from various bits of wood and screws. Across a hillside, the organisers had strung a huge piece of elastic, which would be used to launch the creations, with the furthest distance reached being declared the winner. Standard homemade plane rules, I think you’ll agree. 
Our team were second to last to launch and we watched all the other weak efforts crash with tiny distances achieved – a couple even went backwards. It struck me how similar the designs were, including our own. We had no competitive advantage, and therefore little hope of winning. When our turn arrived a couple of my eager colleagues bounded out to the start line like labradors chasing a ball. I asked them to wait for a moment. There weren’t a huge number of variables in this situation that we had influence over; the planes were similar, the launch pad was the same, and unless a sudden, incredibly localised tornado managed to pick up the model and whisk it over the hill, our chances of success were limited. 
But there was one variable the others hadn’t thought of – the elastic. I’d spotted it as soon as the event began. I walked up and wrapped the elastic around the peg holding it into the ground, increasing the tension dramatically. Our plane went twice as far as anyone else’s. 
It wasn’t that this act was particularly innovative in itself, but what it represented was the most appropriate solution to the problem.
Retail innovation is just like that. We work with a plethora of technologies and experience delight in showing them off to clients. Clients are dazzled by the lights and react like children in a sweet shop, uncertain which way to turn first. I get the feeling a lot of campaigns begin in a similar way. A client is shown a demo, loves it and buys it without thinking about what they’re going to do with it – a bit like Boris Johnson and his water cannons! However, just because we could design a giant cardboard dog, covered in NFC chips that barks whenever anyone walks near it, and monitors whether people smile when they pat its head, it doesn’t mean that we should. 
The technology that we work with – be that NFC, AR, VR, QR, BLE or a host of other acronyms – is simply a new method of communication. Granted, it may be able to provide metrics, or enable dynamic interaction, but it’s just a new way of talking to customers. What matters more is what you want to say. The secret is finding the right technology to add value to the campaign. It is very rare that the technology exists on its own and in isolation. 
Let’s take bluetooth beacons as an example. A wonderful piece of technology, but one that’s been in the market for a little while now and yet we’re still waiting for that killer execution. I believe all that will change now with Google throwing their weight behind it via the launch of Eddystone. Indeed, in the last few months there have been an increasing number of case studies showing promising results, with big hitters such as Coke and McDonalds getting involved. Once we understand where beacons can be used most appropriately you won’t be able to walk down a high street without your favourite brands sending you a tantalising offer, or information on their latest product launch. What’s critical though, is reaching this point of understanding so this piece of technology delivers true value for the brand.
Another example is the lowly QR code. Whenever they are brought up in conversation, clients usually dismiss them, claiming they don’t work.  Much of the time I’d tend to agree with this, but Tesco ran a great campaign to promote fireworks last year, which make me think otherwise.
The main issue with buying fireworks is the uncertainty around what they will look like when set off. You could do it once, but that would be accompanied by a lifetime ban from the retailer. To overcome this challenge, Tesco put QR codes on the shelves and tear off handouts. Each QR code led to a video of each firework, showing the customer exactly what it looked like in action, before they purchased the product. It was appropriate and it worked. There was a huge level of engagement and it was an innovative way to improve the customer experience. 
Technology tests fail for this very reason; right technology, wrong message. If you can get that combination right, your new campaign really will be considered exciting. More importantly, it will gain traction and be a huge success, bringing customers back again in the future. 
Actually, forget all that, I’m off to design a giant dog…

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