It’s good to have goals.
In a recent conversation held on Clubhouse, we brought together a group of four innovators with experience working in pharmaceuticals, financial services, transportation, and luxury goods to talk about the challenges of internal and external communication. How do you make sure your colleagues, and people outside the organization, are aware of your initiative and what you’re trying to achieve?
Our goal for the hour-long conversation was to collect a set of seven tips related to internal brand-building, and seven related to external brand-building. We surpassed that. The tips appear below; to create a safe conversational environment, we promised our speakers that we wouldn’t attach their names or companies to this lightly-edited notes document. We have, however, included several concrete examples that were mentioned during the conversation and have been publicly-promoted.
Internal Branding Advice
- Be consistent. Branding and communication shouldn’t happen in waves. Get a consistent message out over time, instead of sporadically.
- Spend time clarifying and defining what innovation is in your company. Otherwise, it can be confusing for people, or people can feel threatened. “Is this a commentary on my lack of ability to innovate?” Some people ask. “My group used to be responsible for innovation and product development.” It’s natural for other executives to feel threatened. You don’t want to be put on a pedestal, or be seen as “haves” compared to the “have nots.” Democratize innovation; it shouldn’t be owned by one team — you’re emissaries.
- We don’t often think about innovation teams like a brand. Often, we think about them as a group. But all initiatives die unless you treat them like a brand. Think about it and treat it like a billion-dollar brand. The best brands are movements. How do you get people to belong? Badges and laptop stickers are kitschy, but some people like them. Think about how coins are used in the military. Never discount the value of tchotchkes. “People still have t-shirts from 10 years ago,” one speaker observed. Another said she’d made “labs” hoodies for all of the people who worked on projects that graduated from the lab into the business. Some companies have “Thinker” statues they give out, green dots on your ID badge, or placards you can put in your office that show how many ideas you’ve submitted or had implemented.
- There’s an art to internal communication. You want to create a sense of collaboration and inclusivity. Do a lot of listening. Figure out the story you want to tell, and tell it to get buy-in. You also want to be sure to thank everybody in the organization that has supported the work when you roll things out.
- People learn in different ways. Try to fire on all three cylinders: words, numbers, and objects. You need to create PowerPoints; do road shows; create objects or prototypes.
- Lean into your brand. The Cleveland Cavaliers run innovation challenges. Their mascot is Moondog. So he’ll come out and be a voice to encourage people to participate. Instead of doing March Madness for basketball, they’re doing it for ideas. MetLife used Linus as their brand for idea challenges for a while — he’s the most intellectual one in “Peanuts,” with the most interesting ideas to share.
- “We do road shows around work we’re producing, or startups we’re working with. Pre-COVID, we’d go to someone’s office and present the work we’re doing, and try to contextualize why it matters, and why it’s not threatening. Demonstrate to executives who will take time to listen to what you’re doing, and why it matters. If your organization is very balkanized, you need to try to understand what their needs are — problems they’re facing, pain points.”
- Ignore the executives, and work with people at the lower levels. They’ll be most influential from the bottom up. One speaker said, “The most success I’ve had is getting people excited at the lower levels of the organization, and that excitement travels up.”
- Get integrated into new employees’ onboarding process: “We get all recently-hired employees, many still working from home, to participate in webinars,” said one participant in the transportation industry. “We have a basic deck of 15 or 20 slides that introduce them to some of the trends that affect us; why we exist; how we work; and what they can participate in. We also aggressively promote our ability to come and sit in weekly team meetings. We can go participate and share what we’re working on, and here’s why it matters.”
- If you run a conference internally, it should feel prestigious and valuable — maybe it is not for everyone who wants to go.
- What if we took that same principle of swarming a freshman’s dorm room in college — having the whole sorority or fraternity show up? We created that experience for people who participated in something. In our offices at a major pharmaceutical company, we gathered a whole group of people involved in the program, and we’d show up in people’s offices, and one of the guys would bring a guitar and start playing Mariachi music. People loved it — but also would be a little embarrassed. It was like a flash mob, for people who submitted something or participated or did something above and beyond.
- We take our work and turn it into case studies, to talk about them in more of a storytelling-oriented way. I borrowed some case studies from the Fidelity Labs site.
- We run short webinars, things that don’t feel routine, for our employees. We focus on topics that feel timely and relevant, and they don’t happen every month. You have to be there live to participate.
- When we had an idea challenge, we got some ideas from the C-suite…but agreed in advance to put those ideas in 15th place. That counteracted the HIPPO idea — that the boss always has the best idea, which is very strong in the Middle East. [HIPPO is “highest paid person with an opinion.]
External Branding Advice
- “We just redesigned our external website,” one participant said. “What is our primary purpose? For us, it’s really about recruiting. We’re growing like crazy. If someone looks us up, we want them to get a quick sense of our values and mission, and see what open roles we have.”
- Part of the objective of external press in mainstream media is recruiting.
- Pre-pandemic, Mastercard Labs had a space in Manhattan to which it invited customers, prospective partners, writers, and others. Unlike many other labs spaces, they didn’t require NDAs. It would showcase things being built. Demos there could be “lit up” to focus on the future of B2B payments, or B2C, or sports, or restaurants.
- When a business launches out of the labs group, another participant shared, they set up their own website to interact with customers.
- Publications can showcase what an innovation group does, to customers, partners, and the broader business ecosystem. Bechtel has published a coffee table book showcasing its projects; Nike has published external reports on innovation and sustainability.
- AARP Innovation Labs created an app called First Look in advance of the Consumer Electronics Show in 2020 that used augmented reality to communicate what the lab works on. Anyone could download it. The goal was to portray the organization as working on projects that were different from the magazines and mailings that show up in members’ mailboxes.
- Some companies hold “reverse pitch” events, to share what challenges they are working on. This communicates to startups and inventors ways they can engage with you.
- Some companies publish their scenario planning. DHL has done this. By sharing content and output, they’re inviting a conversation that might not otherwise happen. Decathlon in France has just published the entire work of their innovation and foresight team. It’s all about attracting “third circle” relationships — friends of friends. You don’t want to just be interacting with partners and ideas that come from inside your industry.