Inside Innovation at Diageo

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to work in innovation at one of the world’s largest companies? Our Inside Innovation series aims to do just that. This month we were lucky enough to hear from Diageo as part of the AQR’s brilliant Spark event.

Diageo’s Head of Innovation Planning, Emma Town, and European Innovation Planner, Andy Stubbings, were our speakers for the evening. Having both worked on large-scale innovation projects for brands such as Smirnoff, Captain Morgan’s and Roe & Co, they were able to share some of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

It turns out both Andy and Emma love a good saying so we’re sharing some of their most memorable as tips for innovation.

Get your game face on

There are no two ways about it. Innovation is hard. Not only do the vast majority of innovations never even make it to launch but according to Nielsen, only 24% of new products are still on sale 1 year after launch.

Because of this, you really have to be on top of your game to win. Simply put, if your product isn’t brilliant, it won’t succeed. Every single element of your product – from the execution of the concept to the marketing – needs to be strong. Just one weak link in the chain will cause the product to fail.

Companies like Diageo need to be consistently achieving the very best to be able to fight off the competition. Emma used a brilliant analogy, comparing this to Michael Phelps managing to win back his Olympic gold medal from Chad le Clos at the 2016 Olympics. You need to be on top of your game to win.

Don’t polish the proverbial

All too often, those involved in innovation projects can fall into the trap of trying to improve a bad idea. Emma’s advice? Don’t drink the Kool Aid. Keep an objective perspective from the very start and if you see a weak link or worse still, a weak product, call it out.

Granted, this can be really difficult to do, particularly when everyone around you is full of enthusiasm, having already bought into the idea. But as Emma put it, it’s sometimes kinder to kill the bird with the broken wing, than to plough on with an idea that just won’t fly when it gets to market.

Planners and external agencies have a critical role to play here. As relative outsiders to a project, we’re often able to see more clearly. So if you’re having doubts, tell your client. Don’t help them polish the proverbial.

Remember the Holy Trinity

So how do you avoid getting to this stage in the first place? One way is to ask the right questions at the very start of an innovation project, referred to by Emma as the Holy Trinity. These are:

  1. What’s in it for us as a company?
  2. What’s in it for the customer? In the case of Diageo, the retailers they sell to.
  3. Why should a consumer care?

The third is perhaps the most difficult question to answer, particularly in a developed market, where unmet needs are few and far between. But if you can answer these questions, and do so convincingly, a project has legs.

Be guided by consumer behaviour, not the discussion guide

Emma and Andy’s final tip was around innovation research. Andy made the point that many organisations spend too much time creating concepts that consumers don’t ever get to see when actually what we should be doing is getting concepts into consumers’ hands faster and testing in context. After all, what better place is there to conduct beverage research than in a pub?

He urged insight professionals to be guided by consumer behaviour rather than the discussion guide. The best way to conduct innovation research is to see what people actually do, rather than rely on asking them.

This is the first in our Inside Innovation Series. Keep an eye on the blog for our next post, looking at what we can learn about innovation at John Lewis from a recent event with the firm’s Innovation Manager, John Vary.