Brain Chatter: The Story Your Innovation Lab Needs to Tell

March 29, 2017 Shane Schick

This is going to sound like a joke, but in the late 90’s and early Aughts I would regularly receive press releases that declared, without irony, “XYZ Corp. Launches Web Site.”

Today, you could swap the words “web site” for “innovation lab.”

Just as it now seems ludicrous that a major business wouldn’t have a basic online presence, the idea of putting together a team and a place to pursue breakthrough ideas has quickly become so commonplace that it almost feels like conventional wisdom.

Earlier this month, for example, The Co-Operators announced it would be opening an innovation lab to create the next big thing in insurance. Hyderabad’s FlyDubai is doing the same thing to become an innovator in aviation. Retailers from Lululemon to Sears talked about their innovation labs a few weeks ago at Dx3.

Launching an innovation lab, it turns out, is now one of the least innovative things you can do.

As a journalist, I’ve probably been guilty of failing to follow up on some of these innovation lab stories. They’re actually a great way to get earned media because they hint at something special soon to come, without having to have something concrete. That’s probably why innovation was one of the planks in last week’s federal budget.

After the headlines get lost in the digital ether, though, there are real questions about whether innovation labs are just a corporate form of ivory tower, disconnected from what the business actually does. As more companies aim to position themselves as innovators, it might be time for marketers to think more deeply about what an innovation lab can give to your brand.

Not just your brand as an employer, where you’re trying to look as enticing and exciting as a startup.

Not just your brand as an industry player, which will get more love and attention from financial analysts than your competitors.

I’m talking about what having an innovation lab can mean to the brand promise you’re making to your customers. You know, the people who buy from you.

To customers, having an innovation lab is not in itself a big deal, especially now. Don’t feature the innovation labs in your TV ads. Leave your data scientists out of your online ads. Nobody cares.

What customers care about are the results of innovation. Are you able to offer something faster, cheaper, better thanks to your innovation lab? That’s the real story. (It also explains why Amazon, which behaves like one giant innovation lab, gets all the attention).

Customers may also care about efforts an innovation lab is making to address their problems, even if the lab hasn’t had the light bulb go off yet. It can make the brand look more focused on the customer experience. That can be a good story too.

In some sectors, particularly those like transportation and hotels which are almost universally described as disrupted, an innovation lab is also a brand promise that you’re turning a stodgy establishment company into something more agile and competitive.

For the most part, though, an innovation lab is not likely to become part of a company’s brand equity. They are more like an opening chapter in a larger story about business transformation. If you’ve opened an innovation lab or are about to, congratulations!

But guess what? We’re already anxious to turn the page and find out what happened next. 

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