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Event Recap: FUSE 2013

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The evolution of technology over the past decade has fundamentally redefined the relationship between companies, brands, retailers, and consumers. Devices like smartphones and tablets have made tools like social media and ecommerce increasingly integral parts of life. Today, shoppers are able to share their favourite brands with friends, compare prices, write product reviews, and learn about company sustainability efforts at any time and from anywhere. In this environment, creativity serves as a vital tool companies can use to help themselves stand out in a hyper-connected world.

Creative approaches to marketing and branding emerged as central focus areas at IIR’s 2013 FUSE conference held in Chicago on April 16-17, 2013. A series of insightful speakers explored the idea of creativity and how companies can foster it to the advantage of their brands. In many cases, companies may find that creativity is fundamentally opposed to the idea of “branding.” In addition, the process of creative design can be very different in small and large companies. For this reason, companies must examine their approach to creative innovation with regard to their relative size and position in the market.

Finding Creativity in a Branded World

Prominent potter and designer Jonathan Adler opened the conference with the provocative idea: He strongly dislikes the idea of a brand. Although he has developed his name into a highly successful design and lifestyle brand, Adler maintains his creativity by distancing himself from the corporate side of his business. Even in elements like the packaging of his home furnishings, Adler prefers designs that fit the style of a particular product over a homogenous package, color, or logo. As “branding” can often prove ruinous to creativity, companies must find a way to balance the necessary friction that exists between the creative and corporate needs of their products.

Author Magnus Lindkvist also explored some of the methods companies can use to create innovative new products. In this, Lindkvist stressed that brands must avoid simple buzzwords and go completely outside the box with fresh ideas. Through experimentation, failure-recycling, and patience, companies can develop the next game-changing innovation by going against the
grain. As people are hard-wired to be skeptical, they may be slow to adopt products that initially seem absurd. However, many transformative products often seem highly absurd before they change the world.  The challenge, therefore, is for companies to remain persistent with creative ideas that may not succeed immediately in a corporate world that demands immediate returns.

Creativity in Context: Small vs. Large Companies

Many speakers highlighted that the process of creative innovation is very different in large and small companies. Mike Indursky, for example, explained how his relatively small company, Bliss World, is able to compete with giants like Estee Lauder in the beauty and personal care market.  Small companies are relatively nimble, instinctive, resourceful, and can highlight the unique story or narrative behind their products. Companies like Dollar Shave Club Inc, Burt’s Bees Inc, and Method Products Inc have all found success against traditional giants in their respective markets by emphasizing unique selling points like value, convenience, natural ingredients, and environmental sustainability. Neil Grimmer also explained how his Plum Organics brand identified a gap in the baby food market and has been able to succeed by focusing on innovative pouch packaging and quality organic ingredients. Despite having a much smaller
resource pool than larger competitors, therefore, small companies are able to effectively compete in the market through creative ideas that transform traditional product concepts.

While small companies were featured in many examples of creative innovation at FUSE, other speakers showcased how creativity can be fostered in a larger company. Wendy Orner, for instance, shared an insightful example on how her team at Procter & Gamble developed a total refresh for the Mr. Clean surface care brand. Factors like a strong internal vision, an idea-driven concept that puts the brand first, and ongoing leadership support within the company’s  hierarchy were central to the success of this campaign. Shawn Gensch also explained how Target Corp has been constantly remolding its status as “an icon of affordable sheik.” Beginning in the late 1990s, Target shifted away from competing on price and instead branded itself as a destination for affordable style. This shift in focus was company-wide, and manifested itself in partnerships with fashion designers like Missoni, Luella, Proenza Schouler, Zac Posen, Rodarte, Isaac Mizrahi, and Jason Wu. These examples show that the organizational structures of larger companies do not necessarily limit their creative potential if the same vision is held by all members of a group. In this way, large companies can effectively work for creative change.

Creativity as the Way Forward

The FUSE conference, therefore, successfully highlighted creativity and creative design as the primary currencies of success in this new retail environment in which companies and consumers interact unlike ever before. Attendees obtained valuable insight on how companies both large and small can foster an environment that is conducive to creativity and innovation.

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