Unilever’s view on the Innovation Leadership: An interview with Mr. Geoff Craig, ex. VP & GM, Brand Building, Unilever (currently Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Heart and Stroke Foundation). Mr. Craig argues that leadership is about having a vision for innovation and creating a framework for action around the vision to allow partners and employees to pioneer new ways of working.
What does it take to innovate? Unilever’s view on the Innovation Leadership.
The majority of executives make it to top positions by being very good operational managers: meeting sales objectives, improving products and services to keep up with competitors, supporting existing customers and acquiring new ones, and so on. Arcus’ multi-industry survey of senior executives found that of all the challenges companies face in this area, the biggest challenge is finding ways to create a “climate for innovation”. Management is about business results and processes. Leadership is about people. The key quality you need in good leadership is passion—the urgency to attack and solve the complex problems that all organizations face.
As Arcus research indicates that to do so, you need to be surrounded by highly talented people, and you need to find a way to transmit your passion to them, so they will buy into your vision of the future, perform at the highest possible levels, and come up with innovative solutions to the challenges of achieving the vision. No surprise, then, that the topic of innovation has been gaining ground as CEOs seek to incorporate concepts like “a culture of innovation” into their assessments of a company’s long-term value.
Arcus: What is the biggest challenge with innovation?
The big challenge is innovation is so much more global today, especially with product innovation, consumer research, and marketing concepts. Companies need to start with the view that they would be successful in the global market place. Product development is one of many avenues. In packaged goods, we are selling products. In Canada, we are not doing innovative product development other than feeding consumer information into the global corporation. Where we have been innovative is in the marketing space. The “Evolution” campaign for Dove is an example. It’s claimed to be the most viewed commercial in the history of television. There is an opportunity to be very innovative from a marketing perspective in communication and new media. You can take it to six Ps. That comes from persuasive ideas and commercialization of these ideas in the market place. In essence, from a best practice philosophy, it comes down to leadership.
Arcus: How do you define good leadership?
It starts with setting a vision. The vision at Unilever is to do something remarkable, to be remarkable. The fact is we have four awards for the best advertising worldwide. It’s reflective of the ambition to measure it. Vision is important. You need to unpack it a bit. Be a champion of bold brave ideas. And that is done in conjunction with pioneering and new ways of working and work that gets respected and travels around the world. It’s not good enough to be respected; the work must be scalable around the world. The nature of the global economy requires us to have scalable ideas and have an approach to sustain that resource.
For pioneering leadership, you need to define the expectation of the quality of work. Leadership is having a vision for innovation and creating a framework for action around the vision to allow partners and employees to pioneer new ways of working. The philosophy drives action. It’s reflective of the ambition of the work. It has to meet the criteria of being remarkable, being scalable, pioneering and needs to be based on a new way of working. The point of it is that it always comes back to leadership. You need to provide direction. It’s also about having the right ambition. You have to constantly benchmark against the rest of the world.
We are a deployment, go-to-market company here. From a marketing perspective, we have a strong track record in being innovative. For example, awards are a good measurement but you have to have the right benchmark from a Canadian perspective. We have won 11 awards in 15 categories. But the key measure is how are we doing globally? We need the right benchmarks. We need to know what we are monitoring. If you are gong to be innovative, you need to know what’s going on around the world. Benchmarking is important for recognition of performance but an important part of benchmarking is to do it on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have a curiosity and are not courageous it’s going to be hard to innovate.
Arcus: How has innovation been translated into tangible results?
The true measure is shareholder value. Success is about superior business results. The best example for me is the Dove “Evolution” campaign. It is a key contributor of success. You can measure it in brand health that ultimately translates into sales. Research shows the second most respected “social mission” brand after the Body Shop.
Arcus: Is there a context for innovation in relation to consumer expectations?
Ultimately, innovation is about affecting the human condition. It needs to be done effectively in context of a changing media landscape. Today, people will trade down if they don’t see value in some way, shape or form, well beyond the physical presence of the brand.
Arcus: Is the first step to create durable long term value?
The consumer’s definition of value is changing constantly. For example, value today is very different from 4 months ago. It’s a combination of price and quality measured in many different ways. In today’s economic times, just being the best isn’t enough. The price-quality value equation outweighs many other variables. The market share of brands can change dramatically in different market conditions.
Arcus: How important are product innovation centres? Importance of an innovation hub vs. making it ingrained in the corporate culture?
It’s important but there isn’t a prescribed way. Some organizations have nodes, they don’t have a hub. If you have innovation as a focus, it needs to start at the top. It has to involve an investment in resourceful people and technology. A lack of commitment leads to a lack of success. There is no generic template for doing it.
There are some guidelines. The success of Dove was driven by a consumer insight that resulted in a highly differentiated proposition based on cultural relevance in a global context. The cultural relevance on Dove was in context of how women defined “beautiful”. Second, an innovative and uncompromising approach to communication leads to innovative results. We focused on unconventional executions like a documentary, digital initiatives that are path breaking. Third, there needs to be a significant emphasis on consistency.
Arcus: What is the role of the CEO in innovation?
There needs to be some conviction at the top to innovative consistently, especially in difficult economic times. A long term view is critical for effective innovation strategies. It is difficult to measure ROI, especially in social media. The challenge comes down to innovation. An innovation idea that cannot be commercialised isn’t an innovation. Immediate revenue realization needs to be balanced with long term opportunities for growth. I believe that structure dictates outcome. In my previous role in product innovation in Canada, the tone was set at the top. Innovation is important to us. It’s enabled at the top and a prerequisite at the top. Then it’s the marketer’s job to make it happen.