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Define what innovation means for your company or it won’t happen

By Jeff Tan, Innovation solutions officer

October 26, 2020 | 6 min read

Are your marketing innovation needs strategic, operational or tactical? Dentsu innovation solutions officer Jeff Tan shares the necessary framework for defining the needs of your company so that you can truly innovate.


Since the pandemic turned the world upside down, I’ve seen a sizable increase in the number of brand marketers demanding ’more innovation’ from their marketing efforts. However, the concept of marketing innovation is often undefined, undeveloped and (unsurprisingly) undelivered.

Brand marketers need to do three things when developing an innovation strategy: Define what marketing innovation means to your organization, develop a tight brief based on an understanding of your customer’s needs, and deliver effectively with the right framework and expectations in place.

In this piece I’ll take you through how to define marketing innovation that is relevant to your organization.

Name your current problem

Start by taking a step back and consider your broader marketing organization’s needs. Typically, we see common categories:

  • Are you looking to differentiate your brand in a crowded sea of competitors with a new solution?
  • Are you trying to do more with less and gain operational efficiency?
  • Are you looking for a tactical initiative to command attention and get your brand noticed?

If your response to this is ’all of the above,’ I’ll press you to pick one. What is your most urgent priority? Be focused.

Ask ‘why?’ again and again

Five Whys is a great technique to find out more information about a problem. Simply, ask why, then ask why again, and repeat until you can’t go further. As the father of a question-loving toddler I experience this daily!

Five Whys will help identify the root cause of the issue and understand the link between different causes of a problem. Consider an established alcohol brand with plateaued sales growth.

  1. Why is my alcohol brand struggling to grow? Because it’s so hard to differentiate in a crowded landscape.
  2. Why is it hard to differentiate? Because all our competitors have the same product features as us.
  3. Why are our products so indistinguishable? Because everyone seems to be catering to a long-established legacy audience.
  4. Why is the audience legacy? Because a newer generation has different tastes.
  5. Why do they have different tastes? Because they are trending to be more health conscious and have different lifestyles.

By asking why, it is possible to define a need for marketing innovation: use a strategic mindset to create a new solution for a new audience, in this case a health-conscious alcoholic beverage consumer.

Understand if your marketing innovation needs are strategic, operational or tactical

Strategic innovation is creating new solutions for new audiences. The alcoholic beverage example is a strategic innovation need. The discipline of design thinking focuses on identifying and solving for human need; in this case empathizing with the health-conscious athlete, perhaps uncovering that she likes the feeling of cracking open an ice cold can after a workout without undoing the benefits of exercise. An ideation sprint could uncover several potential solutions such as creating a new product line with lower or no alcohol.

Other examples of strategic innovation include cable TV channels launching new online streaming solutions targeting cord-cutters, or established restaurants creating ghost kitchens with new brands specifically to cater to delivery apps.

Operational innovation is doing more with less. You may be running a complex marketing organization across multiple geographies, market audiences, channels and campaigns. In this case Five Whys may reveal that your needs are to better manage operational efficiencies. This could involve initiatives such as utilizing a data management platform to better understand audiences. It could mean incorporating market mix modelling into planning and measurement programs. Or it could mean better integrating website data with paid media.

Tactical innovation focuses on building initiatives to command attention and get noticed. It can include initiatives that leverage new technology such as General Motors’ vision of reimagining the car buying experience by engaging at-home consumers in a one-to-one online and live personal shopping experience. Potential customers are met by a mobile-camera equipped Cadillac representative who is live within a virtual showroom. The representative tours the customer around the vehicle and answers questions.

Tactical innovation can also be thought of as incremental innovation within an existing channel such as out of home advertisers using smartphone signals to better understand the location of an audience to select billboard sites. Finally, it includes PR driving initiatives and brand tie ins, such as the HBO Game of Thrones tie-up with Oreo that included recreating Game of Thrones titles with Oreo cookies.

By first properly defining what marketing innovation means to your organization, we can get to the most crucial aspect of marketing innovation strategy: developing a tight brief. From there, delivering on marketing innovation requires the right implementation processes and expectations.

Jeff Tan is innovation solutions officer, Dentsu


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