From idea to icon: what we can learn about innovation and marketing from these 101 stories
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The path to successful innovation, and the ups and downs of market engagement are well captured in the book by Giles Lury, From Ideas to Iconic Brands: Inspiring stories of 101 amazing brands that changed the world.
The book is described as a combination of a management book and storybook, divided into seven sections: innovation, origins, branding, identity, marketing, communication, and repositioning. The featured stories were picked because they were instructive, unique, and sometimes quirky.
Giles Lury is the executive chairman of marketing agency The Value Engineers. His other books include Iconic Innovations (see my book review here, and author interview). This book was originally titled How Coca-Cola took over the world.
The material is spread across 336 pages, and makes for an informative and entertaining read. Each innovation is profiled in just two or three pages, but what they lack in depth they make up for in breadth and variety.
“Branding is an economic and social phenomenon. Brands are tools for value generation in business,” Giles begins. “Brands are also part of modern culture, reference in songs, books and films,” he adds.
An innovation can be novelty or improvement, he explains. “The origin of the word ‘innovation’ is Latin, but could derive from ‘innovare’ which means to alter/make better, or from ‘novare’ which means to make new,” Giles adds.
Here are my 14 clusters of takeaways from the book with respect to innovation paths and marketing strategy. See also my reviews of the related books Quirky, Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy, Frugal Innovation, The Creative Curve, The Prosperity Paradox, Cross-Industry Innovation, and No Shortcuts.
1. Solving problems
“A brand can be built on solving people’s problems,” Giles explains. Problems can be a source of opportunity, and innovators can solve problems faced by themselves or by others.
redBus was founded by Phanindra Sama to connect customers to bus seat inventory. He got the idea when he was unable to get a bus ticket from Bengaluru to Hyderabad during Diwali in 2005. He had to teach himself software, and sought mentorship from TiE Bangalore.
While many companies in the early 2000s focused on social networks and youth audiences, Reid Hoffman spotted an opportunity in solving networking problems for business professionals.was founded to focus on this space of trusted relationships in the business community. Features like LinkedIn Jobs helped differentiate from competitors like Monster, HotJobs, and CareerBuilder.
Herbert Johnson hit upon the idea of mixers when he saw over-worked bakers using nothing but iron spoons and brute force. The mixers were eventually rolled out to the mass market under the KitchenAid brand name. The company’s engineer Egmont Arens would go on to be described as an “industrial humaneer”; he also designed a meat slicer for the Hobart company.
The insurance funds industry traces some of its roots to two church ministers in Scotland in the mid-1700s. They calculated a formula of income contributions to an insurance fund, to alleviate the plight of widows when clergymen passed away.
Corona beer, sold in clear bottles (unlike dark bottles used by other brands), had to deal with the risk that too much exposure to light might alter the taste of the beer. It came up with putting a wedge of lime in the neck of the bottle to hide any possible ‘skunky’ taste. Inadvertently, this went on to become a drinking ritual and a differentiator.
When Karan Billimoria was a student at Cambridge University, he noticed that existing beers did not seem to go well with Indian food. He then developed the formula for Cobra beer as an accompaniment to Indian cuisine.
Sony Co-founder Masaru Ibuka favoured portable cassette players on his many plane trips. Early versions were too bulky, and the company eventually solved the problem by designing the Walkman. Other proposed names were Walky, Freestyle, and Soundabout.
2. Inspiration from near – and far
“Sometimes a good idea is sitting right in front of you,” Giles explains. The Piedmont region of Italy is full of hazelnuts, and baker Pietro Ferrero blended them with chocolate syrup to create the successful global brand Nutella.
The name and logo for Montblanc pens came from the peak of the same name, in the nearby Alps where the three founders launched the Simplo Filler Pen company. South African farmer and businessman Johan Steenkamp stumbled upon Central American peppers in his own garden, and marketed them as Peppadew sauce.
Anthony Pratt loved detective fiction, but was bored of his engineering job. His active imagination led him to create board games based on murder mystery – and thus was born the game Murder (with Clue and Detective as other later names).
David Ogilvy came up with an idea for CF Hathway’s quality shirts when he saw a photograph of an ambassador with an eye patch. He borrowed the concept for an ad campaign to convey messages that aristocratic men could have adventurous lives.
Travel and exposure to other cultures are a great source of inspiration as well. German toothpaste marketer Dietrich Mateschitz came across an energy drink called Krating Daeng on a trip to Thailand. Together with its developer, Chaleo Yoovidhya, he formed the successful drink company Red Bull.
Clarence Birdseye came up with a quick-freeze method for preserving fish after noticing how Inuit tribes in Labrador, Canada, froze fish between layers of ice.
3. Less can be better: constraints and focus
Narrowing focus, deliberately or due to constraints, can be effective in innovation. In the late 1990s, Steve Jobs turned around Apple’s fortunes by trimming its product lines into just four products (personal/professional desktop/laptop). “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he famously said.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), formed in 1961 in Switzerland, chose black and white as the colours of its first logo since it was cheaper to print than colour. The logo was based on the giant panda, and is now one of the most recognisable brands in the world.
4. Origin stories
The origin story of an innovation can contribute to the brand narrative, Giles explains. For example, French tennis player Rene Lacoste was not a fan of the earlier styles of white tennis clothes with trousers and a tie.
He switched to polo shirts, and embroidered the green crocodile logo on them (his nickname was ‘crocodile’). His personal brand thus became the business brand, and the T-shirts are worn for much more than just tennis.
Monkey Shoulder is the name of a triple malt whiskey. The name refers to a condition where too much work in shoveling barley would lead to the lead arm hanging down a bit, like a monkey.
The roaring lion in MGM pictures’ logo has actually been a series of lions over the decades. Some appeared in Tarzan movies and TV series. The lion has been sometimes been replaced by a meowing Tom in Tom and Jerry.
When shoe designer Christian Louboutin was once unhappy with the design of a shoe prototype, he grabbed an assistant’s nail polish and applied it to on the heel. The scarlet-soled shoes went on to become a big hit.
Lak-Hui Chemicals (pronounced ‘Lucky’) was a major Korean company in soaps, toothpaste and plastics. One of the directors also started the Goldstar company to work on radios. Lucky and Goldstar merged and expanded into electronics and consumer appliances. The merged firm, Lucky-Goldsar, was renamed ‘LG.’
5. Happy accidents
The creative journey also has unexpected twists and turns, and valuable ideas spring up in unlikely ways. The design for the Stabilo Boss highlighter came about when one of the designers smashed his latest clay prototype in a fit of frustration. The unusual trapezium shape that resulted actually caught his eye and became the final product design.
National Geographic magazine was initially published in black and white, with only articles and maps. One of the issues was 11 pages short, and editor Gilbert Grosvenor decided to fill it with photos of Tibet. This turned out to be a hit, and changed the format of the magazine forever.
Diet sodas were not originally made for calorie-conscious consumers, but for diabetes patients. Russian immigrant Hyman Kirsch sold them in New York under the brand No-Cal. They became popular, however, with weight-watchers as well.
6. A higher cause
“The best brands give something back to their communities,” Giles affirms; ads can also spur social change. When childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, they made sure to always give back to the community by sponsoring festivals and launching a foundation to support community initiatives.
The King Khalid Foundation and Memac Ogilvy in Saudi Arabia ran an ad campaign against sexual abuse of women. It featured a burqa-clad woman with a blackened eye. “Some things can’t be covered,” the advertisement read. Legislation against abuse was later passed.
7. Cross-industry innovation
Some creative innovators have observed developments in one industry and applied them to others. Owen Finlay Maclaren invented the undercarriage for the Spitfire aircraft in World War II. He used techniques like design with aluminum rods and double-wheels of landing gear to come up with a better pram or buggy.
Jacob Youphes, a Russian immigrant in the US, created tougher pants from heavy-duty cotton (used for tents and horse blankets) along with copper rivets. He went on to patent this design for himself and for Levi Strauss.
Kimberly-Clark came up with highly absorbent ‘cellucotton’ to be used as bandages in World War I. After the war, the material was used in a new product line: Kotex disposable sanitary napkins.
Expertise from the worlds of cooking pans and jewellery came together in the design of Brillo steel wool pads. They were sold along with a cake of soap.
Innovation takes not just inspiration, but also perspiration and perseverance. “Not all successful brands become overnight sensations,” Giles cautions.
Nestle had to bring in an outsider to successfully position its Nespresso brand; it was repositioned from the restaurant and office market to households. The Nespresso Club was also formed for premium users.
When Sara Blakely launched Spanx, she demonstrated it herself to the buyer at Neiman Marcus. She even called people she knew to buy the product, and offered to reimburse them; she got her lucky break with endorsement from Oprah Winfrey.
Alfred Mosher Butts lost his job as an architect during the years of the Great Depression, in 1933. He devised a board game called Lexico, renamed later as Scrabble by James Brunot. But it took years before it was picked up by Macy’s, and later became a phenomenal success.
9. Name and identity
Brand naming and brand design are a delightful mix of the rational and the strange, Giles explains. “The best designs do more than just identify a brand – they signify meaning,” he adds. This extends to logos, icons, imagery, and colour.
“Some of the best brand names are associative,” Giles shows. William Lyons chose the Jaguar name for motorcycle sidecars, and later for cars. Customers can also suggest brand names, as in the case of London Pride (name of a perennial flower) for a new ale by Fuller’s Brewery.
Emil Jellinek, who became a successful promoter of Daimler’s cars, eventually got the company to use his daughter’s name as the trade name – her name was Mercedes. The green giant logo on cans of corn and peas became so popular that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company changed its own name to Green Giant Co.
Proposed by copywriter Frances Gerety, the tagline of diamond giant De Beers, ‘A Diamond is Forever,’ was regarded by Advertising Age (in 1999) as the ‘slogan of the century’. The diamond has now become the precious gemstone of choice, and the slogan even lent itself to the title of a James Bond movie.
Jean-Pierre Peugeot had a long line of businesses in clocks, sewing machines, wheels, bicycles, pepper grinders, and cars. The family chose the lion as a symbol of durability, aggressiveness and speed of its products.
10. Marketing and branding
Creating a product is one success element, but effectively branding and marketing it is another; and not all innovators have both skills. Henry Ford found early success with making and marketing cars in only one colour (black), but was outflanked later by General Motor’s Alfred Sloan, who came up with five brands for distinct market segments.
Brownie Wise popularised TupperWare by throwing home parties, and not just promotions in department stores. This would also end up promoting women entrepreneurship.
Charles Haskell Revson promoted his nail enamel product (Revlon) by polishing his own nails to demonstrate the colour. One of his renowned quotes is: “In the factory we make cosmetics, in the drugstore we sell hope.”
Celebrity branding was effective for perfume brand Chanel. Marilyn Monroe reportedly said she wore “Nothing but Chanel No.5 and a smile” when she went to bed.
Converse sneakers benefitted immensely by signing on basketball star Chuck Taylor for celebrity endorsement. He also helped with design ideas such as a patch to protect the ankle, onto which a star logo was attached.
ASOS (As Seen On Screen) set celebrity fashion trends by capitalising on the demand for products featured in films and TV programmes. Hunter capitalised on royal family endorsement for its boots, and from those who went ‘glamping.’
Brand extensions can be a useful business strategy and add value, as seen by Andre and Edouard Michelin’s Traveller’s Guide and Michelin Star ratings for restaurants (one star: worth stopping; two stars: worth a detour; three stars: worth a special journey).
Another good example is The Guinness Book of World Records, which had its roots when High Beaver, MD of Guinness Breweries, got into a debate about which was the fastest game bird. Giles provocatively explains: “Could Guinness, which was available and drunk in places where so many of these arguments occurred, become the provider of definitive answers?”
Clarence Crane came up with Peppermint LifeSavers as a way to expand his chocolate business beyond the summer months. He went on to add a number of other flavours, and convinced store owners to display the product next to cash registers as well as use it as coin change.
11. Product design and packaging
Quality is only part of the story of a good product; so is design and packaging. “Packaging can be your silent salesman,” Giles emphasises. Thomas Lipton pioneered innovative retailing and promotional techniques to make tea universally accessible; this included selling tea leaves in tea bags.
Dutch chocolate company Tony’s Chocolonely designed its chocolate bars in unequal segments, instead of the usual uniform pattern. The design reflects the map outlines of West Africa’s cocoa-producing nations, thus adding a story element to the product as well.
Finnish confectioner Karl Otto Fazer decided to wrap one of his new chocolates in blue wrapper, reflecting the country’s flag colours as well as feelings of peace. He even patented his shade of blue. Fazer Blue became an iconic chocolate brand in Finland.
Tiffany Blue also became a trademarked colour by jewellery giant Tiffany & Company. It apparently was the favourite shade of Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife.
A KFC franchisee once bought 500 cardboard buckets from a salesman but did not quite know how to use them effectively. Harman Sanders came up with the idea of using it as a bundle for a family meal.
Mega brand Hello Kitty was conceived by Shintaro Tsuji and Yuko Shimizu from Japan, who noticed that cute designs boosted sales of sandals. The design first featured on coin purses, and expanded from pre-teen girls to adult consumers across a range of accessories and products.
Coco-Cola’s iconic “contour” bottle was inspired by a picture of the gourd-shaped cocoa pod in Encyclopedia Brittanica. It has become the standard since 1920.
12. Customers and communities
“Brands can be built on consumer understanding,” Giles explains. For example, Diane von Furstenberg came up with a wrap design for fashion, which appealed to women as it was both sexy and practical. “We sell confidence” is the way she described her brand.
“The best brands build communities, not just customers,” Giles emphasises. When Jake Nickell launched Threadless, it was first a hobby, a fun thing to do with his designer friends. The idea came to him when he won a T-shirt design competition on Dreamless.org, and then decided to make a business out of community design competitions.
Ben Silbermann founded Pinterest to help users show their collection of links and images, and eventually plan projects. One of the customers organised the first Pinterest meetup, and eventually became the startup’s community manager.
Fan interest in the Blackwing 602 pencil was so high even after the product was discontinued, that it led another firm, Palomino to get the rights to re-introduce it. Legendary animator Chuck Jones reportedly said, “A pen is full of ink, this [Blackwing] is full of ideas.”
Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris launched the Chocolate Tasting Club as a subscription service to connect to chocolate lovers. They also launched Hotel Chocolat in Saint Lucia, a School of Chocolate in London, and a cookbook.
Dutch soup brand Unox spotted the community’s love for the New Year’s dive ritual at Scheveningen beach. It ran a sponsorship campaign with a free bowl of soup for all participants, and receives heavy media coverage.
Ryanair was initially seen as affordable and convenient but also mean and unsympathetic to fliers. It made customer service more friendly and accommodating, and the results showed in improved business performance.
In the age of social media, communication has to be two-way. “Consumers create their own branded content to such an extent that for some brands it is more than they put out themselves,” Giles observes.
13. Redesign and repositioning
In the face of competition and changing customer expectations, companies need to reinvent themselves and innovate with new products. Energy drink Lucozade, initially seen as something to consume when recovering from illness, repositioned itself as a drink for fit people and athletes.
In 2008-2009, Howard Schultz turned Starbucks around by shedding 800 “sterile, cookie-cutter” stores in the US. He brought back the spirit of “theatre and romance”, and resisted the practice of growth at all costs, which had watered down the experience.
Despite early internal resistance, Danish toymaker Lego eventually partnered with LucasFilm to come out with a licensed line of Lego Star Wars toys. “Co-branding and licensing can help give your brand a new lease of life,” Giles affirms.
Such efforts call for significant cultural change and internal restructuring. Banana Republic initially played up images of outdoor safari gear. Later, it repositioned itself for casual wear for the ‘urban jungle’. But the original founders left due to ‘cultural differences’ after acquisition by Gap.
Disney Animation adopted some of the creative principles of its acquired company, Pixar. These include internal screening of film projects to employees, who are free to give criticism.
A ‘story trust’ of 20 executives then assesses and acts on these criticisms. Some of these processes are inspired by Toyota, where any employee on the assembly line can stop production and suggest process improvements to fix problems.
14. Other paths: relationships, employees, regulations
Other issues touched upon in the book are employee roles, business relationships, and the regulatory environment. For example, Spedan Lewis formed the John Lewis Partnership and moved the UK stores towards full employee-ownership. Mark McCormack pioneered the business of connecting sports stars to brands and the media through his International Management Group (IMG) and TransWorld International.
Virgin Atlantic employees live the bold values of the company. One of the stewardesses once smeared some chocolate on her cheek to entice passengers to take the chocolate dessert served on the plane.
Craft beer brand Brewdog wanted to promote its stronger beers in smaller glasses. But a 300-year-old piece of legislation did not allow a two-thirds measure instead of a full pint. The law was finally changed through a petition and social media campaign.
The book ends with an eight-page list of ‘morals’ or tips from each of the 101 stories featured. In sum, the book offers useful insights for entrepreneurs and creative professionals from across the business spectrum.
The world will always be ripe terrain for innovators and marketers. Giles cites Richard Branson in this regard: “Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.”