Erik Roscam Abbing’s book ‘Brand Driven Innovation’ describes a new way of thinking about- and practising innovation, driven also by a unique view of the brand. Eric shares the story of how Brand Driven Innovation came into being and what it means for an organisation’s innovation practise.

Before I became an innovation consultant I was an industrial designer. For 10 years of my career, I worked as a practising product designer at various agencies including my own. During these 10 years I started discovering a clear pattern in what made certain companies more successful at product innovation than others. This pattern can be summarized in these three points:

  1. Companies that are successful innovators know what customers want. They have a very deep understanding of the lives of their customers, and the context in which their products are used.
  2. Companies that are successful innovators know what they’re good at and want to excel in. They have a very deep understanding of what they stand for and believe in as an organisation, and what their unique capabilities are.
  3. Companies that are successful innovators know how to combine these two. They have a knack for finding the sweet spot between what makes them unique and what their customer really values.

Now as a product designer, it was quite a challenge to discuss these things with my clients. Firstly I was usually hired by people with a rather product or technology driven agenda. They simply had other interests than to worry about customer contexts and company beliefs. And secondly more often than not discussing these issues was not part of the design brief. There was a product to be designed and that was that. The ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation was the client’s responsibility, not mine.

But in my curiosity and quest to improve my client’s innovation success, I looked for persons within my clients’ organisations, that I could discuss these matters with…..and ended up at the marketing department. I got myself involved in branding sessions where marketeers were discussing their brand’s identity and values and what made them unique. I heard them talking about user insights and what role their brand played in customer’s lives. And they talked about how their brand could be made more meaningful within the context of the customer’s life.

….if branding is about finding the match between who you are as a company and what your customer really values, it is the perfect basis for successful innovation.”

These people were discussing the exact three points that I discovered to be vital to successful innovation. And they called it branding! I discovered right then and there, that if branding is about finding the match between who you are as a company and what your customer really values, it is the perfect basis for successful innovation.

Click to enlarge

Branding is about finding the match between who you are as a company and what your customer really values.

I also discovered right then and there that I was a daydreamer that didn’t understand yet how companies work. The insights I picked up from the branding meetings never made it to the R&D and product development people. As a matter of fact they hardly left the room. They were taken straight to the marketing communications people, to merely function as a basis for the latest ad campaign. And the R&D and development people kept on initiating product development projects on the basis of yet more features and incrementally better technology, with the main objective to keep up with the competitive field.

It was then that I started my personal quest to discover how branding could and should in fact drive innovation. I left my product design agency to my business partner and started consulting in what I aptly baptised ‘brand driven innovation’, a four stage working method and a way of thinking about growth and value for organisations and their customers.

Click to enlarge

The four stages of brand driven innovation.

Stage 1 of Brand Driven Innovation: Human centred branding’.  This is about releasing the brand from the marketing communication department into the entire organisation. We do this by connecting the brand to the people whose task it is to develop new products and services, by relating it to their daily lives and jobs. And we do this by connecting the brand firmly to those people who are the organisation’s most valuable asset: its current and future customers, by connecting it to their daily lives and aspirations. In building this human centred brand we involve engineers, product developers, designers, marketeers, sales people, researchers and customers. And we involve them through the entire brand building process.

This way of building a brand ensures understanding and support throughout the organisation, and it connects the organisations capabilities and vision to the customer’s needs and aspirations.

Think of how a company like Innocent has a brand that is understood and lived by all their employees, and that is highly valued by their customers.

Click to enlarge

Building a human centred brand involves connecting the internal organisation with the outside world and to connect the marketing function with the innovation function.

This stage involves crafting an innovation strategy that uses the promise of the brand as a springboard.

Stage 2 of Brand Driven Innovation: Innovation strategy. This stage involves crafting an innovation strategy that uses the promise of the brand as a springboard. In this stage, the question to answer is simply: ‘what can we do to fulfil our brand’s promise’. Or, in other words, ‘how can we deploy our capabilities and resources as best we can, in order to develop new products and services, that delight our customers in every stage of their relationship with us?’.

A brand driven Innovation Strategy is different from a customer centred innovation strategy in that it relies very heavily on the organisation’s vision and understanding of its own capabilities. Only when this vision and understanding are in place can an organisation begin to create genuine value for its customers, based on true insights in their needs. Think of how a company like IKEA uses its core capability (logistics) to innovate in retail concepts, services and warehousing, while delivering value to customers around the theme of ‘making design accessible to all’.

Stage 3 of of Brand Driven Innovation: Design Strategy. Design is essential in using your brand as a platform for sustainable growth. It helps to turn strategy into tangible experiences. To bridge the gap between idea and reality, vision and value. But design is not a magic wand you can simply wave at a product or service to make it more attractive. Design is a strategic process and needs to be managed accordingly.

When an organisation has discovered its unique capabilities and has understood how these can be transformed into value for its customers, multi-disciplinary strategic design will help to put this understanding into practise. Think of how a company like BMW uses strategic design in its products, services, on- and offline communications, to convey their vision of ‘Freude am Fahren’, and make innovations in driving ergonomics, hydrogen powered cars, electric cars, and drive-by-wire a true pleasure to experience.

Stage 4 of Brand Driven Innovation: Touch point orchestration. Touch points are points of contact between the customer and the organisation. Every time the customer encounters a brand touch point, the organisation has an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with that customer. This stage focuses on managing these opportunities.

The challenge of the touch point orchestration stage lies in understanding the customer journey: what are the stages and experiences a customer goes through when she interacts with your product or service? What happens before the actual usage and what happens after? Touch point orchestration offers a framework to manage your brand’s touch points in such a way that maximum value is co-created between the organization and the customer, throughout the entire customer journey.

Think of how a company like Virgin Atlantic orchestrates every stage in their new ‘upper class’ experience, from booking the flight, getting to the airport, checking in, waiting for the flight, boarding to lounging in the airplane’s luxury seats.

Thus, Brand Driven Innovation is an integrated branding, innovation and design strategy that helps companies grow in a way that fits their vision and values, and delivers real and lasting value to their customers. It helps organisations to create products and services that are authentic as well as relevant.

By Erik Roscam Abbing

About the author:

Erik Roscam Abbing (Seattle, US, 1969) is a consultant and teacher in design management, with a strong focus on bringing together the disciplines of branding, innovation and design. Having studied Industrial Design Engineering at the Technological University of Delft and Design Management at Inholland/Nijenrode, both in the Netherlands, Erik has worked as a practicing product designer for 10 years before founding his consultancy Zilver innovation in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Erik consults for a variety of international clients in the product and service industries. Erik is also a part time teacher at the school of Industrial Design at the Technological University of Delft, the Netherlands where he develops and teaches classes related to strategic design, design thinking and branding.