Brands need a start-up state of mind, says John Lewis' Craig Inglis

Working with start-ups and embracing a culture of innovation can reveal a new approach to problem-solving, writes Marketing's Power 100 2014 'leading creator' Craig Inglis, marketing director at John Lewis.

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Our lives are complex. Just think about how much technology you 'need' every day. I'm almost embarrassed to reveal how many smart devices my five-strong family has in its possession, but a quick count reveals that there are on average 3.4 per person.

As crazy as that seems, each one feels like a compulsory need to the owner, whether it's for gaming, school, work, communicating with friends or just making travel a bit more manageable. The point is that in a relatively short space of time, technology has permeated many parts of our lives and that's only likely to grow.

Easy to say, not easy to do

That means that brands must embrace technological change at a faster pace than ever before, or they risk simply becoming irrelevant to their customers' lives. Of course, that's easy to say, but not necessarily easy to do. When a step change happens that transforms how people live their lives, it's usually too late for those brands that didn't embrace that change way before it reached anything like critical mass.

To stay ahead of the game, it's not just about what you do, it's how you do it. Brands must have an in-built restlessness, a state of mind that drives them to embrace the new, different, untested and downright risky. And as the people closest to the customer, marketers take a hefty share of the responsibility to ensure that heads are firmly out of the sand and a culture of innovation is thriving within their business.

Avoid inertia

But how to create that restlessness? John Lewis was 150 years old last year. Without a doubt, it's an amazing achievement to stay relevant for that long. Its founder, John Spedan Lewis, was a radical entrepreneur, a man who was prepared to stand apart and do things differently. So you could argue that innovation is part of the business' DNA. But I don't really believe that's been the key to driving new ideas. Rather, we've avoided inertia by never really being happy to settle for what we've achieved. We celebrate our successes, but do so with a clear nod to the fact that it could have been better. Or that someone else is about to be. There's always more to do and always a better way of doing it.

Creating a culture that thrives on innovation and creativity isn't easy, though. The key is to try lots of different things. To really test and learn. One of the ways we've done that at John Lewis is to embrace the tech start-up community.

Marketers owe it to their brands to embrace new tech, to find the right ways for their business to ensure innovation and change are the norm.

We had a long history of working with fledgling businesses – small producers, young designers and the like – but much less so in the tech world.

Recognising the importance of technology to our omnichannel retailing future, last year we created JLAB, our first technology incubator.

Rapid development

The purpose was to work with start-ups to identify and develop technology innovations that could provide us with a strategic advantage for the future. Five were selected from hundreds of applicants and over the summer we gave them some money, a selection of mentors and the space to rapidly develop their ideas.

The winner, a micro-location business called Localz, was announced in September, and we are now working with it to identify how we can enhance our customers' experiences. We're really excited about that but the real benefit to us has been the way that process itself has fed our own desire to drive change.

As one of the mentors, I learned at least as much as the help I was able to give. The JLAB companies were truly at the cutting-edge of their fields, but often without the basic resources we take for granted within more established businesses. This creates a mindset, pace and approach to problem-solving that will stay with us all for a very long time.

We haven't stopped there, though. There is a plethora of work going on across our business to encourage innovation. There are innovation competitions with real money and time for the winners to develop their ideas.

Innovation 'black belts'

We could not have created the groundbreaking amplification of our Christmas marketing campaign without working in this new, high-paced way with the likes of Microsoft, Google and Samsung

There's a small army of highly trained innovation 'Black Belts' leading their colleagues to work in different, more effective ways. We run business-wide hackathons, where every one of our Partners focuses entirely on generating new ideas. And we're teaming up with all sorts of other businesses to innovate together. Indeed, we could not have created the groundbreaking amplification of our Christmas marketing campaign without working in this new, high-paced way with the likes of Microsoft, Google and Samsung.

So marketers owe it to their brands to embrace new technology, to find the right ways for their business to ensure innovation and change are the norm – and to ensure that they remain relevant to their customers' lives.

At John Lewis, we call it 'Never standing still'. Symbolically, that was the mantra for our 150th year celebrations. It is our responsibility to the 90,000 Partners who own our business to create the innovative culture that ensures it will still be thriving 150 years from now. If we do it well, that will be our legacy. What will yours be?

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