Where I’m Going Next: Unlocking Innovation for Modern Brands

Though the digital revolution really began in the early 90’s, we’re just beginning to get our arms around what’s possible for brands and marketers. Meanwhile, the future of brands, of brand building, of marketing is being invented, right now, every day.

For instance, as I write this post, the digital marketing headlines center around the founders of Snapchat turning down an acquisition offer from Facebook, holding out for a better offer.

It should be noted, they have no revenue.

Snapchat didn’t exist three years ago (and, if you are reading this in 2017, Snapchat may not exist anymore). Yet, some observers agree they may be worth more than  the rumored $3 billion dollar Facebook  offer.

Has the business world gone crazy, or is it truly possible to invent, design and grow disruptive, innovative businesses that fast?

For those of you not living in the digital space, the pace of change may seem disorienting. But trust me, it will never be slower than it is right now.

Unlocking Innovation: The Next Phase of the Digital Transformation

I’ve been involved in the digital business in one way or another since 1995 when I was teaching classes on “What is the Internet” or “Understanding the World Wide Web”. I’ve done a lot of the jobs required to bring web and mobile experiences to life, from coding and designing to advertising and promoting. I’ve lived through a couple boom and bust cycles.

I’ve seen Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and whatever Web 3.0 was supposed to be. But, based on my experiences, I believe we’re in the early stages of the most important cycle for most businesses: Accelerated innovation through new products and services.

In today’s landscape, smart business leaders see the massive opportunity for innovative products and services that weren’t possible even 5 years ago.  Bold, modern marketers are recognizing that there’s never been a better time to build brands through useful, helpful services and content.

So, they are looking for ways to reinvent, to unlock new ways to grow.

In almost every category, I’m seeing examples that should appeal to the soul of modern marketers who recognize growth can come by re-examining all aspects of their business in light of the digital transformation hitting them: their business model, their go-to-market strategy, their consumer communication model, the products, services and content they offer and their brand, overall. Just a few examples of bold innovation I’m seeing.

  • GoPro has built an incredible business and brand in a space that should have been owned by Sony, without much paid advertising (marketing model innovation)

  • RedBull has become one of the largest providers of action sports programming (media model innovation)

  • SpecialK has built and delivered a diet plan around their cereal brand (brand building innovation)

  • DollarShaveClub.com is working on disrupting the men’s grooming accessories business through price, brand and distribution (business model innovation)

Brands Need a Different Kind of Partner to Spark Innovation

To unlock real transformational growth and innovation, smart marketers need partners that aren’t satisfied merely to work on this year’s campaign materials. As a matter of fact, I’m seeing some of the most exciting ideas happening when companies work with smaller, more experimental firms at the front of the change.

Fortunately for marketing leaders, there is a growing number of great firms out there. The marketing service companies that support the brands (i.e. the ad agencies, PR shops, design shops, management consultancies) are going through their own, difficult transformations, too.

As a result, new kinds of firms are emerging, focused on dreaming up new businesses, inventing whole new products or services, or planning out alternative marketing models; Firms that are purpose-built, designed from the ground up to be agile, fast, data driven and iterative.

The agency disruption is leading to the kind of collaborators who help marketers answer that age old strategic question, “what business are you really in?” and then bring those new ideas to life, in market, to drive growth.

These new model, smaller firms are alternatives to legacy agencies which are trying to compete on strengths (scale, global network, heavy investments in “creative”) that aren’t as valuable anymore. And, in many cases, the operating models and cost structures of legacy firms make it almost impossible to move quickly and to work with the best collaborators available across the globe.

An Amazing Time to Build Brands and Businesses

Disruptive innovation is hitting just about every industry. New collaborators arising to help marketers win in a changing landscape. Has there ever been a better time to be in business?

So, marketers, we have a choice: are we going to wait and watch and react when it hits your category? Or are we going to drive the change. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a driver.

My Next Phase: GoKart Labs

I’ve recently left one of America’s great brand building companies (General Mills) to join a company not many know yet. GoKart Labs (gokartlabs.com) is a small, stealthy company that builds real businesses and drives remarkable innovation. We build our own businesses (Sophia, Kinly, a couple in the pipeline). We build them with our partners (BringMeThenews.com). And, we will use our business building chops to grow yours.

Your ad agency can’t do what GoKart does.

We’re built to invent new products and services, help you find and grow your customer base or help you generate whole new business models. We’re designed for market acceleration, not conference room creative conversations. Then, we’ll help you design, develop and deliver the digital experiences that build your brands. And, finally, our growth hackers can help you find customers through the truly agile marketing we use to grow our businesses.

Now, as I buckle up for this next phase — both mine and the web’s — I couldn’t be more excited. I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned working with some of the best marketers and brands in the world.

I’m excited to learn from the many entrepreneurs and business leaders in and around GoKart Labs. And finally, I’m excited to be part of a crew of collaborators inventing new businesses, products and innovations. I’ve got my foot on the gas and I’m ready to drive.

All Commerce is E-Commerce

“Retail has become a blur. And the blurring is 100 percent driven by technology,” says Tige Savage, a partner at AOL founder Steve Case’s investment company, Revolution, which is investing in new online retail startups. “Are you at the store? Or is the store at you? And then there’s mobile, the store is in your pocket. The game is to satisfy demand wherever and whenever it is.”

Good article from the MIT Technology Review on the pervasiveness of technology in commerce. Part of a well timed focus this month on the growth of multi-channel commerce.

 

Contently: Not Content Marketing, but Brand Publishing

Really like this write up from Contently’s Sam Slaughter (@samslaughter215) at Adweek. Focused on the distinction between content marketing and brand publishing. 

When brands make the decision to use content (and really, social media’s already made that decision for them), they need to forget about being marketers and worry about being publishers.

But this is harder than it should be for brands because of this: 

Like publishers, brands need to make sure that each piece of content—Facebook update, tweet, sponsored story, Pinterest board and microsite—is valuable to their customers, and maps back to a greater narrative.

Ads and ad messages aren’t all that valuable in the day to day life of anyone. And, most brands have no clue what a “greater narrative” means when they’re just focused on selling soap or widgets right now. 

 

Brands *Should* Be Publishers

With so much discussion about “content marketing“, brands are learning that they need to think and act like publishers if they want to thrive in social media. But, while brands may aspire to be like RedBull (the most well know example of Brand as publisher), there are still some real questions about whether most brands will actually be able to do it. My answer is a definitive “yes”, brands can do it. More to the point, i think the best brands *have* to adopt the mindset of publishers to win in a socially connected consumer landscape. But, brands will have to get over philosophical, business and operational barriers if they want to do what great publishers do.

At the most basic, great publishers do the following:

  • Make useful stuff: Publishers deliver useful – interesting, helpful, inspiring, entertaining – material to people who can use it. Whether it’s a magazine or a radio show, a TV network or a website, the exchange between publisher and end user has to be based on a certain level of utility
  • Build an Audience: Publishers build a reachable audience – consistent, identifiable, unique, engaged – over time around that material.

Seems pretty straightforward. Why would this be hard for brands? First, most brands today don’t have the basic service orientation. It’s just a philosophical disconnect. Brands are inherently interruptive and self-centered (“Buy me!”). They are all about using annoying TV ads and banners to deliver their own message in order to drive short term results for themselves. In order to make the transition, and build an audience that cares, brands will have to adopt “service first, message later” as a core philosophy.

Great publishers see their audience as a core asset that can be translated into revenue opportunities. An active, engaged audience that’s growing takes investment, time, and careful support. That long-term business perspective runs counter to the short term urgency most companies bring to their brand building. Brands typically see advertising media as a painful expense to minimize in the short term. To fully adopt a publisher mindset, brands will need to embrace a long-term business orientation, and see the investment in audience building as a modern way to create a valuable business asset.

Operationally, the vast majority of brands will struggle with the content production process. But, it’s going to be even more important for brands to develop a consistent and unique editorial lens. Great publishing ventures need great editors, someone who can discern what’s great for the audience and pushes the editorial agenda. Brands will struggle with any message that isn’t pushing their campaign message or product features. When faced with a decision about whether to invest scarce resources into an article that’s useful vs. one that delivers their campaign message, 99% of marketers will go with the one that “sells” more. To truly deliver on “brand as publisher”, brands will have to put their audience needs before their own.

Brands can overcome these challenges and the potential upside is significant for those willing to work at it.   But what happens to brands that don’t adapt? They won’t evolve their spending mix and will remain reliant on paid adverting too long. They won’t adapt their brand, and instead of connecting with people on a higher emotional or aspirational level, they’ll simply blast out their features and benefits, losing relevance :15 at a time. They’ll miss the chance to build assets, and keep throwing money at ads. While it may require brands to work against their long grooved instincts, those that commit will end up with a built in audience, content that drives interaction and, eventually, a valuable marketing asset.