What the best innovators do

Product of the Year CEO Mike Nolan points out the common denominator.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 15 Nov 2019

There can be a tendency to see invention and innovation as one and the same. 

Inventions are new technologies that change the world - the satellite, the motorcar, television, the plough. Innovation can be world-changing too, if it’s transforming business models or offering novel services on the back of new technology - think Uber (GPS) or Facebook (the internet). 

Most innovation is much more incremental though, building or improving on past forms or ideas that touch our daily lives in a much more frequent and personal ways. The key, therefore, to successful incremental innovation is making sure that those small changes are the right ones.

If anyone knows what good innovation looks like then surely Mike Nolan does. Through his role as CEO of consumer product award Product of the Year, he sees thousands of FMCG products voted for by 10,000 consumers on their level of innovation.

It started as simply a business opportunity for Nolan, who noticed that the lucrative Produit de l'Année in France was just that - in France. Sensing its potential, he left his job in advertising in 2004 and acquired the rights to the awards, which now operate in 40 countries globally.

He shares his perspective on good innovation with Management Today.

What do the best innovators do?

"The companies that innovate well are good at getting ideas to the shop floor. They tend to have more empowerment at lower levels and a clear vision from the top. The best innovators also tend to be more decisive. 

"Innovation is tough. It’s often the management of risk internally within the company that allows it to happen. That can be a real challenge."

What do you mean by the management of risk?

"The most successful companies allow brand managers or assistant brand managers to own a little bit more and have a little bit more discretion to take risk.

"Sometimes it’s harder to innovate in big companies where there are so many more levels and reporting systems and the status quo is more resistant to change, compared to a small start-up.

"That is sometimes overstated - P&G, Unilever, Danone and others all do an excellent job at bringing products to the market - but it is still very hard for an individual brand manager to overcome the tall poppy syndrome, trying to push and get ideas through." 

So it’s easier for smaller, challenger brands? 

"I think their position is different, they are the challenger and by definition that means there is usually a clear vision of what they want to achieve. In some senses the innovation is already built into the product. It’s what they do with their second generation innovation that really matters. 

"Take FeverTree when it was starting out 10 years ago. There was a very clear vision to redefine a tonic water market which was totally dominated by Schweppes. They’ve continued to build and bring new products to market."

Looking globally, does product innovation differ depending on the country you’re selling to?

"The insights are generally the same from country to country, but what’s interesting is that the delivery method will change.

"The idea that kids want to go to school in clean white shirts is pretty global - whether you’re in Mumbai, Sydney, Paris or London that’s what mums want. But the delivery against that insight might be very different.

"In the US for example, you may sell washing detergent in 50 kilogramme boxes, whereas in Mumbai, where there is traditionally a much bigger spread of income and wealth, the innovation might be that you sell it in smaller sachets that people can buy every day or every other day.

"It would be remiss of me to paint countries like India as places where nobody has any money to buy things, as that is simply not the case. There are just two distinct markets that reflect the more extreme differences between socio-economic groups."

Are you noticing any prominent global trends?

"There has been a definite push towards eco and green products obviously, but perhaps one that is less talked about and that we have noticed around the world is the disruption of the linear day.

"We’ve seen it in breakfast cereals for example. Brands used to be focused on the family sitting around the breakfast table together where milk is poured into a bowl. Then it moved towards breakfast bars and then it moved to breakfast drinks. 

"We believe that it’s tied up with the fact that people don’t live their lives or structure their day in the same ways as they may have done before. We had a really interesting product that won in America, a lavender ice cream called Dreamfood that helps you sleep. They noticed that people were working later, and therefore going to bed later, but still wanted to eat ice cream before they went to sleep. 

"The point is that the standard day of waking up at 7am, having a shower, eating your breakfast, and getting on the train to go to work is breaking down as the world has become more digital and particularly as people want to become more flexible. 

"I’m no futurist but I can only see that flexibility increasing as people push for more work-life balance, and with that disruption to the linear day comes huge opportunities not just for FMCG brands but for digital, transport and workspace too."

Image credit: Product of the Year

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