Innovation Metrics in Lingerie

By Scott Cohen |  July 18, 2013

What does it take to innovate in underwear, a business driven by style, brand, and, of course, comfort? DBApparel Group, based in the western suburbs of Paris, has been at it since the middle of the 20th century, manufacturing and marketing globally-recognized names like Playtex, Fila, Lovable, and Wonderbra.

Nicolas Petitjean is the company’s Chief Innovation Officer at DBApparel, one of the largest intimate apparel makers in the world. The privately-held company has about 7,500 employees in 20 countries. (It is owned by Sun European Partners, a buyout firm that acquired it in 2006.)

DBApparel emphasizes its rich history of innovation, including its Elbeo brand nylon stockings (1948), and its Dim brand seamless stockings (1953). But, according to Nicolas, a history of innovation doesn’t guarantee an innovative culture. Petitjean has been at the company since 2011; he reports to DBApparel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Fabio Luxi. We spoke with Petitjean in July 2013.

How did your position get created?

Well, I’m not the first to handle this Chief Innovation Officer position in the company. However, our prior Chief Innovation and Research Officer led a standalone organization. That group didn’t have direct linkage with our R&D and Marketing departments; our CEO recently decided to create a more adaptive and agile innovation organization that would be better connected to central marketing.

Can you describe your role, and how it fits into the organization?

I actually lead the innovation strategy and process for the group. We basically cut this into four different “stages”:

  • The first is “Understand.” This really means defining and outlining our long-term innovation strategy, and the research programs that will support that strategy.
  • The second is “Explore.” This involves building up the internal creative processes, and creating a powerful open innovation network to achieve our goals. Managing the IP strategy is part of this, too.
  • The third is “Prototype.” Here we’re talking about managing the innovation projects, keeping the innovations pipelines flowing, and executing from concept to prototype to product.
  • And the fourth is “Decide/Maximize.” This involves managing the innovation lifecycle, to ensure we create sustainable net sales growth based on innovation.

Do you mean you have financial objectives based on innovation?

Absolutely. Our top-line objective is to reach 35 percent of net sales generated through our innovation program.

How do you measure that? And what metrics do you use to gauge success?

We’ve actually put a lot of thought into this. We have targets for each of these, but among the metrics we track and aim to hit are targets for:

  1. Top line objective, which is the net sales generated with innovation
  2. Number of patents generated
  3. Number of innovators trained in the company
  4. Number of projects in the pipeline
  5. The percentage of projects per innovation category
  6. Score rate on success vs. failure of projects.

The latter metric, our internal “Score,” really pertains to whether the innovation “projects” become “products,” or not. But our metrics are clearly focused on creating valuable products, and the triggers that will yield those products: patents, more creative and productive innovators, viable projects, etc.

You’ve mentioned your innovation “group.” What does that look like?

I have five direct reports to handle the project management described in the “Explore” and “Prototype” stages mentioned previously. In addition, part of the Marketing and Design-Development teams have time dedicated to innovation. Of course, we also have on-demand resources we can rely on, as we have an “extra light” structure managing innovation.

“Extra light” … I like that. What does that mean for your budget?

Well, we have considerable autonomy, so our budget is really built by myself according to major needs for the company priorities. Those needs are driven by three key questions: First, what are the research programs that I need to support? Second, what are the innovation projects that need preliminary exploration stages with external partners? And third, how many lab certifications do I need to handle this year? By lab certifications, I’m really talking about testing for proof of benefits.

So tell us about a success that resulted from your innovation efforts?

Well, a recent one includes a just-launched suite of bras that integrate what we call “active textiles,” which is an innovative material that promotes microcirculation of the blood. It’s like a “micro massage.” We were originally using the technology for “slimming,” but realized that the material was actually enhancing the skin structure, and was providing benefits at the skin level. By analyzing the product through an innovator’s lens, we were able to identify the market opportunity, accelerate the development cycle, and get it to market in nine months. That’s what we call “adaptive innovation.”

That’s a nice success. But what about your biggest challenges?

I think we share the same challenges as most innovation organizations. First, we don’t have many dedicated resources to make things happen. This requires us to rely on third parties, which can be challenging when it comes to IP management or cost-efficiency ratios.

Second, despite decades of innovation in our field, we really don’t have what I’d call an “innovation culture.” I think that’s difficult to create, especially for older organizations, and our roots go back many many decades.

Third, there is a very fast pace of product renewal in the fashion industry. It moves as quickly as a Hollywood star at a televised event, so our industry is often chasing, instead of leading.

And finally, it’s always a challenge in our industry to find the right balance of technology, design, and “usability”, which will fit our consumers (literally!).

Any other lessons you can impart to our readers?Well, first, I’d recommend being creative about the way innovation occurs. Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean an army of R&D engineers. It comes from creativity throughout the company, and each organization is unique, so each company needs to figure out how best to access that creativity. Because it’s critical. In fact, sometimes I think I should change my job title to Chief Creative Innovation Officer!

Second, I’d say that the stronger your external network, the more adaptive and flexible your innovation process is. Don’t lock the doors and put on blinders. Find partners that you trust, who can open your eyes to possibilities you wouldn’t envision yourself.

And finally, I’d try to focus on culture and communication. Communication is everything, and we’ve found it to be more useful than “process.” So we’d advocate working hard to maximize communication.