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How to come up with a breakthrough marketing idea

How to come up with a breakthrough marketing idea

By Joseph Gelman (pictured), Partner, and David Warren, Innovation Practice Leader, at Prophet, a strategic brand and marketing consultancy.

For years, companies have been equating performance with speed and “lean” thinking. They have invested in streamlining processes, reducing costs and applying stringent “Six Sigma-esque” criteria to kill ideas that don’t deliver ROI. What they do not do is explore the world of possibilities.

At Prophet we have developed a framework for creating ideas within a company, no matter what the economic forecast. This approach does not rely on heavy analytics or endless drafts of ideas. It is simple, conversational, and accessible.

Inspiration + Creativity = Innovation

There are three aspects to the innovation sessions:

i) An “aspire phase” which defines the objectives of the innovation process.
ii) An “inspire phase” which helps the company develop a great idea, product, or service by looking for non-traditional sources of inspiration.
iii) A “create phase” which during which we apply creative and critical thinking techniques that exploit the unknown potential that lies within the company s capabilities, resources, and intellectual property.

The innovation sessions should introduce a wide range of experience and expertise, even if most ideas end up in the bin. Generally speaking, three to five percent of ideas generated make it to the test and learn process.

Innovation Logistics

The search for inspiration requires participants to exit the “comfort zone” of their day-to-day roles. To do this it is important for leaders to empower people to take risks, collaborate across hierarchies and even laugh a little. In this context, it is necessary to consider some logistical aspects to support the innovation process.

Participants and participation

As a general rule, we like to have participants from diverse functional areas. It is important to find individuals who think differently, are “confusion tolerant,” and are familiar with the realities of the brand and how it relates to its customers. A mix of long term and new employees is usually a good formula.

Participants should feel that they can speak freely during the session and be freed from their day-to-day obligations. The use of mobile phones and PDAs is strictly forbidden.

The environment

Creative thinking requires a creative environment. Your desk is a terrible place to watch the world go by. If you want to change the conversation, start by changing the physical space. That is why we often identify inspiring locations. Recent examples include a modern furniture showroom in Madrid and a contemporary art museum in Moscow.

Feeling comfortable

Because innovation workshops are so different from a “normal” work day, some participants need time to get warmed up. Extroverts tend to dominate conversations, while more reserved individuals are happy to sit quietly. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that all participants feel fully integrated.

At the beginning of the session, it should be made clear that “work related” activities should be put on hold. While this creates a long day for participants, it also keeps their attention focused on creating ideas.

Divergence and convergence

Inspiration by design is a key element that should be thought out in advance of the innovation session via the use of divergent and convergent activities. The early part of the inspiration process is dominated by divergence-focused activities, as they aim to inspire rather than create.

As the days progresses, the activities and conversation become more focused around desired outcomes. Usually, 60–70% of an innovation session’s time is used in divergence.

Some of the exercises that we use in innovation sessions are described below.

Human Library

The origin of the Human Library experience has nothing to do with the business world. The city library in Malmo, Sweden, conducted a project in which visitors could talk to different people for 45-minutes in an experience designed to confront prejudice and promote understanding.

The selection of the human library subjects depends on the objectives of the innovation process, but some or our latest projects have included architects and interior designers for products that want to be more modern and marriage counsellors for developing more female propositions.

Forced Connection

This exercise has a high convergence component, as its objective is to apply “inspiration” to an everyday object. For example, a client wanted to develop products that were more appealing to the youth market. To achieve this, we picked fairly commoditised products and asked the group to develop 20 ideas to make those products more relevant for the desired younger segment.

Worst Idea

During a brainstorming session with executives for a top US toy producer, the team was trying to come up with the next line of products for a very famous doll. Executives were sceptical as they were convinced that “everything had been already created”.

To break the negative cycle, we asked the question, “What would be the worst idea for a line extension?”, to which one of the participants answered, “Make her a prostitute.”  The suggestion generated a conversation about creating new accessories around the Night time experience. 

Getting to the final ideas

As mentioned before, during the opening sections of the innovation session we conduct exercises that generate many ideas, with variable quality levels. Next, we search for “convergence” of all these ideas into 5–10 winning ones using a filtering exercise that selects the ideas worth developing further through the use of pre-defined frameworks that help to analyse and conceptualize these ideas in greater detail and depth.

The innovation methodology that we have described can be applied to both big and small companies, as the required level of investment is accessible. It has generated excellent results when a single session has been conducted to develop a concrete product for a very specific market need or in more complex situations where a number of workshops have been executed to fill a whole pipeline of new products.

This is, after all, the real application of innovation realised.

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