Kill Your Innovation Lab, Accelerate Everything
Several months after murdering his wife, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen boarded a transatlantic steamer. The year was 1910, and as far as getaways went back then, Crippen’s plan to flee the jurisdiction and start a new life on another continent was an excellent one. What he didn’t count on, however, was a relatively new technology called wireless telegraphy that made communication possible between law enforcement and the ship’s captain. The events of the first real-time global manhunt, as well as the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention, are the subject of "Thunderstruck," an Erik Larson book that chronicles a moment in the early 20th century when technology, quite unexpectedly, compressed time and space, making our world forever smaller, faster and more connected.
That last part — an increasingly smaller, faster and more connected world — is something retail marketers must grapple with daily. Like Crippen, marketers plan for the future, but the world looks very different by the time they’re ready to execute. Plenty of marketers, for example, planned entirely new retail experiences on the premise that QR codes would change everything, but before that could happen, everything else changed.
Our world is constantly shifting, and for many retailers the seismic force behind that shift has a name: Amazon.com. After all, Amazon is big enough, rich enough and tech-savvy enough to disrupt everything from home entertainment to groceries. For any business with a brick-and-mortar presence, there's a competitive sentiment that something drastic needs to happen to shift the tide. And by shift, I mean this quarter, not next year.
But what can you do? Consumer behavior changes so fast and in unpredictable ways as new technologies and applications arrive leaving retailers concluding the only way to own the future is to invent it. Virtually every major retail brand has some “innovation lab” that's looking for the next best thing. Maybe some innovation labs will invent really cool experiences, but I wouldn’t wager on whatever might come out of those labs. The reason is simple: real innovation is predicated on compressing time and space — that’s what Marconi was after, and that’s what changed the outcome of the not-so-great Crippen getaway. In the end, innovation is always about acceleration.
However, accelerating your marketing operation is a tricky proposition in a fragmented world. Marketers aren’t thinking about one generation of consumers, they’re trying to engage with everyone from The Greatest Generation to Generation Z — and those cohorts exhibit very different types of consumer behavior. Regardless of age, each of today’s consumers has the ability to time-shift, space-shift and device-shift. With each new technology and corresponding consumer behavior, it becomes that much more difficult to understand who to focus on and what type of platform (social, advertising, CRM) to deploy. It’s a fluid world. Amazon, a business with the might of a continent, has the power to fight against, or more accurately, channel that fluidity. By comparison, the vast majority of retailers are small, which means they must go with the flow. The problem is a lot of those retailers aren’t doing that — they’re looking to their labs for a miracle.
A decade ago, when the world was bigger, slower and a lot less connected, we talked about “the big idea.” What a quaint notion that was that one brilliant idea could come out of left field and change everything. And yet, the big idea isn’t dead. In fact, the big idea of today’s retail innovation lab is to come up with the next big idea, one that’s most likely built around an “experience.” But in a world as fluid as the one we live in, why would anyone think that a big idea could be sticky for very long? Asked another way: How long will the next-gen retail experience last in the face of disruption?
Success today is about acceleration, optionality and adapting to changing market conditions. Inventing the retail experience for Generation Z isn’t nearly as important as committing to continuous learning about how each generation behaves relative to your brand and the technologies that are constantly shaping, disrupting and reshaping our world. Retail marketers must embrace technology, not for the coolest experience, but for things that offer you sustainable acceleration. If you can accelerate in the face of disruption, you can scale the core values of your brand. Or, as doctor Crippen did, you can escape on a slow boat to a new life … and hope the world hasn’t changed by the time you arrive.
Baker is a MediaPost “Email Insider” columnist and former “Email Insider” Summit Chairman and program director, and his works have also been published in iMedia Connection, Internet Retailer, Adweek, Direct Marketing News and ClickZ. Additionally, he has spoken at leading industry conferences including Adtech, OMMA, DMA, Shop.org and LeadsCon.