Collaborative creativity: How to tap into customers to drive innovation

6th Mar 2015

In this age of transparency, where ‘conversation’ with customers is at the heart of the most effective communications campaigns, brands are increasingly being told to get closer to customers, and put them at the heart of business decision-making. But when it comes to innovation, can consumers really help with the process, or can they simply provide insight? 

I maintain that the answer is ‘yes’ - everyday consumer-led creativity does exist. Customers are already creating value and solving problems without any encouragement from commercial organisations.

One need look no further for proof than the thousands of consumer generated ‘life hacks’ being shared on social media every day. MIT economist and professor, Eric Von Hippel, has said that more than 40% of consumers are already modifying products to suit their own needs, and creating value that exceeds the total R&D spend of most brands. The challenge is that the ways brands are accustomed to working with consumers (focus groups or crowdsourcing) do not encourage the kind of creativity that leads to change.

If we look outside the narrow confines of traditional business, we start to find some of the answers. John Cleese, of Monty Python fame (notably one of the most innovative comedy groups of all time), says: “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

It’s helpful to think of creativity – and our ability to tap into it – as a mood and a process: we just need to work to enable it in others. If you feel instinctively that there’s more to be learned from your customers or prospects, to help drive innovation (and ultimately growth) in your business, consider these three guiding principles:

  1. Give them the tools they need to be creative

What consumers may lack in 'professional' creativity, they make up in authenticity. They may not articulate a product roadmap in the way your team would, but the concept will actually be based in something they want; not a flashy, superficial innovation for its own sake.

Consumers should not to be expected to get the exact articulation of a concept right, nor will they replace your ad agencies’ professional expertise and create your marketing campaign. Brands must create the right environment for creativity. Immerse consumers in the challenge and give them time to study their own behaviour, thoughts and feelings on a subject. This kind of table setting is called upskilling.

You wouldn’t hire a brand new member of your team – with no training, context or awareness of what the business is already doing – and expect them to help you innovate straight away. But historically, when brands have asked for consumers’ ideas, that is often how they’re treated.

The design process for Etihad’s new luxury A380 fleet is a great example of how to harness customer creativity. When Etihad wanted to build the world’s most luxurious aircraft, it tapped into the ideas of the target customer segment to build a plane that truly met their needs. Working with some of its high net worth passengers and the Etihad Design Consortium, the company was able to completely reinvent the customer experience − based on what the customers wanted. But it wasn’t a matter of just asking these consumers what they desired of their air travel experience.

Being told that you have a ‘blank slate’ to work with usually has the opposite effect of enabling creativity. Unrestricted briefs aren’t a particularly useful place to start. So in this case, in order to help stimulate ideas around the ideal seating experience, the team simply mapped out the exact dimensions of a first class seat with masking tape. Other than that single restriction, the customers who took part could create whatever experience they wanted with furniture and equipment on hand. They immediately started building upwards, creating high closed-off spaces, more akin to creating their own individual cabin. Many of the concepts created now exist in Etihad’s new cabins. Etihad’s CEO recently revealed that 80% of the ideas for their new fleet came directly from passengers. You could say that, by giving them the parameters within which to dream, consumer creativity took flight.

  1. Forget one night stands, build relationships

It may sound obvious, but getting to better ideas, deeper insights and more authentic perspectives requires a greater emphasis on building relationships with consumers.

When the Global Hotel Alliance (GHA), a consortium of luxury hotels, wanted to develop a new customer loyalty program,  it decided to co-create with customers and competitors‘ customers.  GHA CEO Christopher Hartley explained: “As a hotelier, it’s very easy to understand what people like or dislike when they’re in your hotel, but often you have no solid grasp of what influences their behaviour, decision-making and attitudes towards hotels before that.”

Working with customers revealed a real opportunity to disrupt the hotel loyalty market, not just to help independent brands survive in a challenging market and economy, but actually take on the major brands. Together with consumers, GHA co-created an award-winning global ‘Discovery’ loyalty program that rewards travellers through one-of-a-kind local experiences.

GHA’s relationships with customers opened GHA’s eyes to the opportunity at hand. Hartley noted: “If I’m honest, we didn’t come with that intention [of disrupting the industry], but it became clear that there was an opportunity to do that when we started talking to customers.” Customers revealed that points-based loyalty programmes didn’t engender any kind of actually loyalty – it was all about racking up points regardless of the brand. What really mattered were the amazing experiences customers would have at their destination. Those memories lasted longer than transactional discounts. Through these relationships, GHA’s ‘Discovery’ loyalty program was born bucking the trend of points based loyalty, and skipping straight to the discovery of local experiences that is fundamentally at the heart of travel.

The new programme has been acknowledged by experts globally as being one of the most innovative and successful programmes of its kind. They’ve attracted over five million customers and generated more than a billion dollars in revenue this year. GHA is currently growing by 100,000 new members a month, with 3,000 new members a day. People who use Discovery, which grew this year by 200%, are five times more likely to come back to their business, and stay in one of their other brands. Without authentic and creative relationships with its customers, GHA might never have ‘discovered’ a way to disrupt the travel marketplace so powerfully.

  1. Ask them to be unreasonable                      

A lot of apparently disruptive innovation seems obvious in hindsight. Uber. Spotify. Snapchat. They all upended the traditional way we approached getting cabs, listening to music and texting our friends. Often, once a company or sector has been established, it’s easy to conform to the ‘rules’ of that sector. When a customer demands you do it differently, businesses can point back to those rules and reject consumer demands, which can appear totally unreasonable. It might have seemed crazy for record companies or iTunes to offer a subscription-based music streaming service – surely it would eat away at their existing revenues? True. But that doesn’t stop a new player like Spotify doing it anyway and still eating away at iTunes’ revenues.

Innovation can often start with a seemingly unreasonable demand from a customer. Sometimes they are just plain unreasonable. However, within the demand, there’s often a nugget of opportunity. Examine it: if a customer is telling you something needs to work faster, ask yourself honestly if another brand, outside of your established competitor set, could come in and deliver that. If so, perhaps the rules of your sector aren’t quite so fixed.

Telecommunications giant EE wanted to be seen as a premium operator through incredible service. As such, they worked with a group of consumers to understand what they wanted from their mobile phone providers. One early consumer idea was based around solving the ‘oh crap’ moment – like dropping your phone in a beer – consumers wanted a vending machine on every street corner. They imagined it could spit out a clone of your phone in 20 minutes. The concept was called Clone Phone. On a literal level it’s an absurd idea, primed to bankrupt EE. But the principle was sound. Getting a replacement phone quickly, with all your data and content on it, was something consumers saw as worth paying for at a time when it normally took weeks get a new phone and when cloud storage was still fledgling.

In order to get to this type of ‘ridiculous’ idea you need to give consumers permission to be unreasonable.

Gradually, the vending machine concept morphed into a premium insurance proposition, in which EE would deliver a clone of your handset, replete with all its data and settings in 48 hours or less. Clone Phone generated 250,000 customers in the first six months, creating tens of millions of dollars in new revenue.

Consumers are a huge and largely untapped source of creativity and innovation. Give them the tools to exercise these skills, build relationships and let them be unreasonable. Who knows what they’ll come up with? (Your competitors certainly don’t.) 

Nick Coates is VP, consultancy director, at Promise Communispace.

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