With both business and communications evolving faster than ever, and with companies increasingly relying on innovation to fuel growth and competitive advantage, talking about innovations is becoming more important—and trickier.
The famous flop of “New Coke” back in the 1980s reminds us what can happen when companies don’t properly introduce innovations (although in that case, the product itself might have had its flaws). What should today’s companies do to prepare markets for new products and services? And what role can public relations play? We checked in with two client-side professionals at companies focused on innovation, Starbucks’ VP of Global Communications, Jim Olson and Helen Brauner, Sr. Vice President, Marketing & Strategic Planning at Green Mountain Energy Company, a renewable energy provider.
Both Olson and Brauner emphasize the critical role public relations plays in educating customers and other stakeholders about the value of a new offering. Often customers don’t understand the need that a new product or service is designed to fill, even when that need has become quite pressing or important.
As Brauner recounts, when Green Mountain launched in Texas in 2001, “few people understood that the generation of electricity is the largest source of industrial air pollution in the US. We had to communicate this fact and then explain how our Pollution Free electricity product is a solution to the problem because it is produced from 100% renewable resources (like wind, sun, and water) that don’t emit pollution.”
Launching in New York several years later represented a different challenge: Educating New Yorkers who already understood the value of renewable energy about their ability to choose a different electricity provider if they wish.
As Olson reflects, marketers need to consider and convey “who will benefit from the innovation, how big of an impact will it have (e.g. what is the addressable market size in terms of number of potential customers or sales dollars) and how will the innovation make the world a better place – or what is the breakthrough?”
Starbucks recently put this thinking into play by educating consumers about its plans for innovating in the premium fresh juice space. The company used the announcement of its acquisition of Evolution Fresh last November as an opportunity to draw attention to the $3.4B cold-crafted juice category and how the unique High-Pressure-Processing (HPP) technology Starbucks was acquiring would retain more nutrients and flavor than commonly used heat pasteurization. Notes Olson: “This set the stage for last week’s debut of our first Evolution Fresh retail store and expanded availability of Evolution Fresh juice products in our stores and retail channels.”
Educating customers is not always as easy as it seems. Brauner stresses that companies must make sure they’re willing to invest the time and money required to get the message across. Preparing markets for innovation also requires unusual creativity, since companies are pushing the boundaries of what customers know and understand. “We use parallels, analogies and things that the public already understands so that they can relate a new product to something that they already have experienced. For example, in order to explain how pollution-free electricity works, we developed a graphic called the ‘bathtub analogy’ that works well for helping customers understand the use of renewable vs. nonrenewable energy sources.”
Olson cautions that companies must make sure that what they call an “innovation” really passes the muster. Public relations professionals safeguard ethics by bringing other executives, whose perspectives might be skewed, in touch with reality. “While a new flavor, style or product line extension may feel like an innovation to the people developing it, communicators have to be the truth tellers that ask the hard question – is this really a breakthrough? Will this really make the world a better place? Are we honestly the first company to do this? And how big is the impact this innovation really have?”
Brauner and Olson collectively offer several tips for companies seeking to make their new offering a breakout success:
- Humanize the innovation… by telling compelling stories.
- Bring Innovations to life…with pictures, video, etc. that depict peoples’ actual experience with it.
- Find Reputable Third Parties To Endorse Your Offering…so as to make it more credible.
- Be Patient…realizing that getting an innovation to “stick” can require a campaign spanning months, even years.
Have you helped market an innovation recently? What tips would you add? And how does social media factor in? We’d love to hear your opinion.