As part of their ongoing efforts to help South African SMEs navigate the post-pandemic "Great Staggering" back into the new post-normal, post-lockdown world, Bronwyn Williams, partner at Flux Trends, interviewed Sylvester Chauke at the Alinea Innovation Master Class to find out South African businesses can use innovation to become more resilient and sustainable.
Sylvester Chauke is the founder and chief architect of DNA Brand Architects, South Africa’s PR agency of the year in 2018 and winner of the ICCO World’s Best PR campaign in 2019. He is a passionate advocate for creativity in leadership, as is evidenced by his work as a member of the Advisory Council for the World Economic Forum Global Shapers and as a board member of the SA State Theatre. Chauke is also the author of the best-selling book, Stand Against Bland. As such, he is the perfect person ask about how to turn creativity into sustained innovation.
How important is it for a brand to be seen as being innovative in this day and age?
Any brand wants to be relevant and every brand wants to make sure that they stay connected to the consumers by solving the consumer problems.
So when it comes to innovation, it's an important element of a brand management process - because without being able to know how to move and shift with your consumers, your brand will not be able to stay relevant.
However, that is not to say that it is about innovation for the sake of innovation - obviously it's the opposite. It is not just about being innovative, it is about ensuring that as we innovate, we innovate so that we can continue to give a good service or a good brand experience to customers.
Also, we tend to think innovation is about hardware and products and technology, and we forget the fact that innovation is also around ideas, and how we communicate - and around processes too.
What is your advice to brands, specifically when it comes to innovation in terms of brand reputation itself?
I think when it comes to brand reputation, it is about ensuring how your brand is showing up in the minds and hearts of consumers and in the market in a positive way.
In order for you to know whether your brand experience is positive, or negative, or if there's an issue, you need to ensure that there is a very strong sense of understanding of how the consumers are seeing and experiencing your brand.
It is important to keep your eyes and ears on the ground with regards to how the consumer is experiencing your brand and how your brand is solving a problem.
Many people believe that when it comes to brand reputation, it is always just about crises - when there is a crisis, then we, as the PR agency, come in and manage the brand and your reputation. This is a mistake; brand reputation is also about day-to-day operations of ensuring your brand is showing up. You need to put your finger on the pulse all the time.
Make sure you have a system and a process in place to get feedback of how your brand is being experienced.
When it comes to innovation around this space, it is always about how you get your message across to drive a positive sentiment for your brand.
In the olden days, you did that though a press conference. You called all the media in the country, you sat in front of them and you told them, whatever you needed to tell them. They asked you questions, and you addressed your reputation issues based on their inquiries. Nowadays, we know that it is not always the only way to solve a brand reputation problem.
You could innovate by having one-on-one sessions or “coffee dates” with your upset clients - and have a conversation with them in a different kind of way.
I think the way that we innovate in terms of brand reputation will be determined primarily by how we get real time, personal feedback on how the brand is being experienced.
In order for you to really stay ahead of managing that reputation, you can't wait for an annual customer survey report - you need to ensure that you know what your customers are thinking and feeling on a daily basis - even an hourly basis. This is critical, fundamental, and incredibly central to the brand management process.
So continuing on that thought, there is a potential danger of brands perhaps being too innovative with their communications strategies - or at least of being innovative in the wrong sorts of ways - by perhaps “jumping on the bandwagon" or attaching themselves to a particular cause; just because it seems to be fashionable. What advice do you have on how brands and businesses can be innovative and adaptive to changes in society, but without coming across as cynical?
This is a really important question. People think that by putting a logo on a mask and delivering the masks to all your customers is innovative. It is just not quite. It is not just about doing what everyone else is doing and thinking that is innovation.
That said, we also think that innovation is about coming up with something completely new and completely fresh, but business innovation could be about applying something that is already in existence somewhere else, but in a way that will make a huge change for your business.
It is about understanding that each and every business will be at a different innovation curve.
How Apple innovates is going to be very different to how KFC innovates, just based on the kind of businesses, they are in, the scale involved, and the technologies required.
I think the mistake that we make is that we see someone doing something, and then we do it, and then we call it innovation. But if it is not rooted in an area of improvement, your brand experience to the customer, or solving a problem that a customer has, then it really is irrelevant.
Ultimately, it is about being able to utilise that innovation in a way that makes sense to your brand or category. And, of course, ultimately to the benefit of the customer.
What advice would you give to a business that has been around for a while and is now trying to innovate their brand or change their positioning, but who are finding it difficult to bring their existing customers along for the journey - customers who already have an established perception of what their business and brand is, and how they do things. How would you advise brands to be sensitive and smart in terms managing that changing brand process to make sure they bring their older customers along with them even as they are trying to attract new ones?
For me, innovation is not a solo activity. Innovation is not something that can be done by one person or one segment of the business. Innovation is a collaboration.
I think there is a huge opportunity to get great feedback from the customers themselves - bring them in a room together and get the old users of a product to understand the new use of the product.
Consider how much time you have actually spent with your customers? Have you brought your products in front of them? Have you asked them: what they think about your current and proposed positioning? Have you asked them what transitions they would suggest instead?
Just asking your customers can give some incredible insights you can use for a more inclusive innovation strategy.
The best brands I know spend a lot of time with their consumers and getting their products in front of those customers. They have permanent panels where brands can engage with their consumer, ask them questions, try things in a live setting. And I think that is the perfect ingredient for brand innovation.
Innovation is not a solo project. It is a group project. And part of that is ensuring your customers are central to helping you to co-create this new innovation.
So, I would get it back in the room, I would have great conversations.
This interview was part of the Flux Trends Alinea Mini Masterclass Series dedicated to helping South African entrepreneurs and SMEs use trends as business insights to get back to work after the manifold challenges of 2020.