Unlike startups who are usually just starting out in business, large companies tend to have trading histories and reputations to protect. Part of this reputational equity is captured in the company’s brand. At the same time, innovation involves experimenting with ideas and building minimal viable products. This tension between running innovation experiments and protecting the brand is an expression of the innovation paradox. How well this tension is resolved will determine a company’s ability to innovate successfully. Below are eight ways innovators can test ideas without hurting their company’s brand.
Deception can hurt a brand. If customers find out that they were unknowingly part of an innovation experiment, they may not be pleased. One way to deal with this is to tell customers that you are running a test upfront and ask them directly whether they are willing to help. Customers that participate in interviews, usability tests or concierge experiments often do so knowing what they are getting into.
Consent In Advance
Another solution is have a pool of customers that consent in advance to take part in future experiments. These customers can agree that you do not have to divulge to them details that are critical to the validity of the experiments. In exchange, you must guarantee customers that your experiments will not harm or embarrass them, and stick to your promise. This is similar to medical research. Participants consent to the be part of a medical trial with the understanding that they may be part of the group that unknowingly receives the placebo.
One way of gaining informed consent from customers, is by making it clear that the product is still in ‘beta’; and that you are actively looking for customer feedback. This is easiest for online products that can simply be labelled as ‘beta’ on the logo or landing page. Google’s GMail was in beta for over five years, becoming the subject of geeky internet jokes. However, in that time, they were able to comfortably test various features such as integrated chat, anti-spam technology, group chat and video chat.
In the early stages of the innovation journey, it is not recommended to target the mass market. If we make mistakes in the wider market, then our brand is in trouble. Rather, we should run experiments with early adopters. These individuals have the problem we are trying to solve, are aware of having that problem and are actively looking for a solution. These customers are more likely to be willing to help us by trying out our solutions and giving us feedback.
If we have an online product that is already getting used by customers, then we need to ensure that our experiments do not harm the customer experience. Creating an innovation sandbox can help with this challenge. We can create an area of the our website where we test new features by releasing them to only a few customers to begin with. If we see that the features are well received, we can then roll them out to the rest of our customers.
One sure way to test ideas without hurting the brand is to not use the brand at all. Going off-brand can save the company from the media fanfare that is often involved in new product launches. When we go off-brand, we can test our ideas and fail fast quietly. Also, people may show interest in a new product just because it is associated with our brand. Going off-brand allows an idea to be tested on its own merits (i.e. does anyone care about the product if it is not labelled as our product).
An Innovation Brand
Being associated with innovation can add equity to a brand. As such, one way to running innovation experiments is to create an innovation brand that is associated with the main company brand. Examples of this include Google X, Telefonica Labs and Intuit Labs. This makes clear to customers that any product with the innovation brand is still being tested. This lowers expectations, while increasing a company’s reputation for being innovative.
Debrief and Reward
After running experiments, you can increase your brand reputation by debriefing and rewarding customers. After each test, explain to customers why you are running the experiment, why you value their contribution and why you could not tell them everything at the begin. After that, ask if it is still okay for you to include their data in your analysis. In addition to this, give customers great rewards for being part of your experiment. These can include access to some of your products or services for free.
It is important to recognize that failed product launches can also harm a brand. So it is important to ensure that we are making stuff people want. This makes testing our ideas with customers an inevitable part of the innovation process. Following the guidelines above can help innovation teams run experiments without hurting the company brand.
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This article was first published at Forbes where I am regular contributor.