Interbrand CEO Explains What ‘Innovation’ and ‘Disruption’ Really Mean

5 questions for Beth Viner, Interbrand chief executive.

Brands–we hear about them all the time. Some of us even create them.

But what are the keys to making a “brand” succeed and defining that entity in the eyes of the public? How can we help connect that brand to its customers and even allow for a little “disruption?”

We recently spoke to Beth Viner to cut through the buzzwords and learn more. Beth is the CEO of Interbrand, or “the world’s leading brand management consultancy.”

1. What does “innovation” really mean?

Its an incredibly overused word that doesn’t hold a lot of weight; when I hear it, I think “placeholder.”

Innovation is really all about what you do to respond to consumers, to meet/adapt to their modern-day needs/behaviors, and to stay aware of what’s happening in the market around you.

“Brand” itself is less a static set of assets than a dynamic ethos that holds them all together. To a modern consumer, for example, Amazon is not one service with many different parts–it is everything from Kindle to TV to same-day delivery.

[The biggest risk is] tunnel vision; brands tend to miss big shifts in consumer behaviors.

But those things are going to happen, and if you aren’t outside looking for those needs then you deserve to get “disrupted.”

2. On that point, how do you interpret the current buzzword “disruption?”

Any time there are major changes in markets and/or consumer behaviors, there will be people who are able to spot them and–thanks to intuition, knowledge, and a hell of a lot of luck–create organizations that meet the consumer’s new needs.

In the case of Uber, taxi services had no insights into what their customers needed. Therefore they deserved to be “disrupted.”

Lots of people now believe they came up with the idea of a crowdsourced car service. But it came from a place in the market of observation.

No one owns those observations or insights–but they create agility by forcing people to look outside [themselves]. Organizations that get too comfortable, are super distant from customers or have outright disdain for customers will lose in the market.

3. What’s the key to getting closer to customers?Beth Viner

“Research” often fails by telling you what’s happening without saying what it means.

You don’t just spot behavioral patterns by talking to one person, and EVERYONE in your organization should be talking to customers all the time.

People who are naturally curious about the world and genuinely like people should have a level of responsibility for bringing those customers’ insights back.

Empathy for your customers is a great first step and pattern-spotting is the next step. If we took care of those two, we’d solve a lot of problems.

4. What about the new focus on consumer data?

When using data, you have to figure out what question you’re answering and how it is relevant to customers.

Imagine you’re a credit card company with reams of transactional data that tells you how much a given customer spends on shoes and food. That’s just a readout versus “warm data,” which says, “Hey, we notice that you like these three kinds of restaurants. Check these others out!”

You come across this often in discussions of Nest: presenting customers with data that encourages them to change their behavior and try something new.

5. We often hear talk of “humanizing” brands. What’s your take?

We are often told about the value of consistency.

But a brand that allows baristas to offer you a free drink is displaying a coherent strategy as opposed to consistency (which means things always roll out exactly the same). Consistency allowed brands to achieve scale in the past, but now we know that consumers are looking for that next degree of connection.

This is less about marketing and comms and more about pushing the brand to the closest points where your organization “bumps up” against customers. It could happen on social media or it could be at the local shop where you actually buy your coffee.

Starbucks, for example, does a great job of empowering employees on a local level and making them the “face” of the brand.

We could say it’s a coffee company, but it’s really a services company.

The key is to trust the people at the edges of your business to make decisions. It’s scary–but that’s where the real power lies.