Syl Saller: why true innovators must behave like entrepreneurs

A belief in your ability to make a difference is crucial to leave an indelible mark on your businesses.

Syl Saller

Most people believe innovation should be the most exciting, strategic and energising thing a company does. But for many companies that’s just not the case. A McKinsey study reveals that senior executives are generally disappointed by innovation results, with 64 per cent saying they have no confidence in their decisions, and 94 per cent thinking that success has nothing to do with process or organisation.

But what do people do when they want to innovate better in their businesses? More often than not, they change processes and organisation. Put ‘innovation’ into Amazon and you are faced with 147,000 books to choose from. So let me try to simplify the debate about what defines innovation and offer four ideas about what I think is critical.

First, you need absolute determination to achieve a bold vision. A vision that inspires others to come with you – because innovation is almost always a total company effort.

Second, hold high standards for the work. In my business, we encourage people to go for a 10/10, and know that means sometimes you’ll get a 3/10. That’s OK. Don’t play it safe and hit safe sixes. Business needs magic – it may be hard to perform, but magic is what it takes.

Third, understanding what achieving that vision means to you personally and for the business; what’s really at stake here? Whatever you do must be business-critical, otherwise your new idea will never see the light of day.

And finally, you need a belief in your ability to make a significant difference. Most people think change is someone else’s job, but I can assure you no matter what level you are in the company, you are more powerful than you know.

Big businesses can often be the most difficult places to innovate. People get stuck in boardrooms having endless debates about positioning, brand architecture and investment levels. So it’s useful to look at how entrepreneurs innovate for inspiration. One of our brands is Johnnie Walker and its founder John Walker was a master innovator.

Back when John himself was a grocer in the 1820s, he was obsessed with creating a great product. He blended tea, coffee and even cheese in search of the right flavour. Walker had the luck of location in Scotland with peaty malts on his doorstep and found his perfect blend. But for his son Alexander, that wasn’t enough. He wanted to go global so he commissioned Glasgow ship captains to take it around the world. Johnnie Walker was in 120 countries before Coca-Cola left America.

Now, if Alexander were innovating today as part of a big corporate, he’d be faced with a plethora of research techniques, huge design agency fees and endless internal meetings.

Alexander took a different approach, more like the one today’s great entrepreneurs would take. He focused on solving a business problem – breakages on ships – so he put the whisky in a square bottle. He also angled the label at 24 degrees to get the brand name bigger and asked Tom Brown, the superstar illustrator of his day, to draw a cartoon of a striding man on a napkin – and an international symbol of progress was born.

Years later, the ad agency BBH expressed this in one idea: “Keep Walking”. So simple. The striding man. Progress.

The Walker brand was created without using semiotic analysis, positioning studies or focus groups. These are useful tools but they can get in the way of vision and creating a stunning product.

The Walker brand was created without using semiotic analysis, positioning studies or focus groups. These are useful tools but they can get in the way of vision and creating a stunning product

Just five years ago, the accepted wisdom within Diageo was that we couldn’t innovate on Walker. We were stuck. We relied on data, boardroom meetings and brand architecture theory rather than having flair and entrepreneurial spirit. We had lost our heart. So we asked ourselves: What would John and Alexander do?

We knew they would have been experimental and we’ve followed their lead. We innovated through what we thought was the ceiling on the Walker brand – Johnnie Walker Blue – and created the King George V and John Walker editions, with almost no analysis or research.

Our experiments emboldened us. The Asia team created the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai, a place made from very traditional materials but inside there is technology that allows you to blend your own whisky.

For the Diamond Jubilee, Diageo created a special whisky where the profits go to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust. All whiskies used are from 1952, and we commissioned 60 master craftsman to work together to create the complete the product, which have been sold for £100,000 each. Would we have innovated like this as the result of research and process? I doubt it.

Why were we so hesitant to innovate with the Johnnie Walker brand? Could we really have taken down a brand that has been around for almost 200 years just by innovating? When you strip it back, a lot of the risk was in our heads – fear of looking stupid when we were recommending playing with the company’s crown jewels. And when you recognise that the worst that can happen is that people say no, you get a lot braver.

People rarely get fired for taking big chances. They get fired for not taking them. They get fired for not doing what it takes to generate real growth and trying to analyse their way to certainty when there is none.

We can all have vision. It doesn’t have to be grand or complex, it just has to be something we think can generate real growth. We can use our conviction to ignite the passion of others.
And we can all be determined. Not “what can I do for this fiscal or the next promotion”, but to create momentum that makes an indelible mark on our businesses.

Syl Saller is global innovation director at Diageo. Syl expanded on some of these themes in her presentation at Marketing Week Live on June 27.



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