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Retailer insight: Pentland Brands' culture of innovation

Chirag Patel, chief operating officer at Pentland Brands, explains how the business is driving smart working to stay relevant in today’s market.

The digital landscape has dramatically accelerated in recent years, and with it, the importance of innovation. What is now permeating brand offers all over the world is the consumer’s desire for convenience, which in turn has allowed technologies that enable personalisation and that solve common frustrations to progress faster than ever before. It is for this reason that businesses are approaching the market with a disruptive mindset.

Brands such as Allbirds, Gym Shark and Thursday Boot are just a few that have succeeded through single-minded propositions and targeted product offerings, achieving cult followings as a result.

The longer a brand has been around for, the more complicated it tends to become, with multiple audiences to serve that need bigger product ranges, ultimately making it harder to stay relevant. This leaves big and medium-sized businesses with a crucial need for a new leadership mindset which has the ability to see beyond the reasons for past success to stay relevant in today’s market.

It’s evident that a competitive advantage is marked by speed, agility and customer-centricity. An increasingly successful approach to driving innovation and meaningful change, whilst keeping up with advancing technological changes, is for big businesses to launch incubators and accelerators.

Allowing businesses to experiment with ideas before making significant financial or time-related commitments, this method is more flexible and less risky than a traditional mergers and acquisitions approach. Some well-known industry examples include Kering’s innovation platform Plug and Play, which identifies promising change-making start-ups and technologies in Greater China; as well as Adidas’s Brooklyn Creators Farm, a secret warehouse located in Greenpoint which acts as a space for idea generation that can then be taken and used in their studios worldwide.

At Pentland Brands, our ideas incubator programme, “Disruption Lab”, is a vital part of our company-wide drive to evolve through innovation and entrepreneurial efforts. It challenges groups of people from across the business to come up with new business ideas and propositions that solve a common customer problem.

While persuading people who are used to established processes to work in a different way comes with its own challenges, such as encouraging people not to be constricted by what is usually possible, our focus is on bringing people with diverse skill sets together – a typical group could include employees from finance and marketing to sales and planning. This is beneficial because a good idea can come from anywhere and having a mix of people work on all aspects means that everyone feels motivated and accountable for the whole proposition.

The process moves quickly from theory to live action examples, working on real challenges that are affecting the market. It is through this multi-disciplinary research and innovation programme that we are able to drive smart working to stay relevant in today’s marketplace.

A challenge posed by the programme is how to think through the mind of the consumer rather than the mind of the business. To combat this, we encourage employee teams to leave their day-to-day roles at the door when it comes to developing solutions and generating new ideas so that routine ways of thinking don’t overshadow potential solutions.

Once the proposition has been successfully pitched to the business, we look at the tools the team need, and where the challenges lie in making their business propositions a reality. Already from the programme we’ve launched a new women’s footwear brand 52 Degrees LDN as well as an AR powered app, “Mirror” for Speedo which allows users to virtually try on goggles for the perfect fit in real-time.

Whilst there have been successful outputs, the model isn’t without its challenges. As business plans progress, the need for a team with project-specific skills becomes more urgent. There’s also a need to balance day jobs with getting the most out of the programme, so we’re continuing to adapt and evolve with each learning.

In a world where we need to balance an enhanced customer experience with a differentiated proposition, our best chance to stay relevant is to think and learn in new ways. It’s about harnessing the power of innovation, while keeping people at the heart. It’s this that enables businesses not only to think outside the box, but to drive a culture of continuous performance.

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