CMO Council: New products for a new era

Strategy's advisory board explores what's in the product innovation pipeline as brands balance pre- and post-pandemic realities.

CMO Council_Innovation

This is the final segment of a two-part roundtable discussion on innovation with strategy CMO Council members Antoinette Benoit, CMO at McDonald’s Canada; Andrea Hunt, EVP & CMO at Arterra Wines; Jon Mamela, EVP and CMO at Tourism Toronto; and Jackie Poriadjian-Asch, a Supreme Cannabis board member and the former CMO at Ecobee.

Last week, they tackled how senior marketers’ innovation mandates are changing. This week, they consider what’s in the innovation pipeline and how to foster creative thinking in a work-from-home environment. The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen some organizations focus on their core product lines and rationalize certain SKUs. Others have innovated to meet new consumer needs. What impact will this have had on innovation pipelines for the balance of the year?

Arterra Wines’ Andrea Hunt: It’ll depend on your network, your method of distribution, the choices that you decide to make. It’ll look very different than it would have looked pre-pandemic. Innovation and creation of value is a lifeblood, so I don’t think it’ll cease; it won’t mean a complete retreat to the traditional or the core lineups, because the need for new is always going to be there. But hopefully it will take a more conscious shape.

Jackie Poriadjian-Asch: Whatever’s going to happen in the next couple of quarters is largely baked, because it takes so long to bring a product to market. [Similar to] the content side with movie studios, where we’ll feel the impact in maybe two years down the line, where things would have gone into pre-production or early production now. [For the next little while] you may see things come to market – because frankly, the businesses put every dollar into that product – but whether it becomes a success or is something we need in this context is a big question mark.

McDonald’s Antoinette Benoit: Consumers want familiar stuff. They are curious, but we see in our research that they want to go back to what they know well. They don’t want to take risks. It’s already a bit complex to get out of the house and go buy something, so what you’re going to choose has to be simple. And it’s hard to say how long that’s going to last, because we [could] have smaller waves of COVID. Everybody is thinking, ‘You don’t want to plan too much for what will be happening in three months, because that’s fall and the flu and COVID could come back with it,’ so I think consumers are going to be very cautious.

Tourism Toronto’s Jon Mamela: We see that in travel, too. Where you were going to travel used to be a bucket list. Now we’re seeing people wanting to return to the places they know, things they have done, even if it’s repetitive. It’s a big shift in travel across all strata of income. It’s interesting to see that familiarity creeping back into travel.

Before the pandemic, a lot of product and packaging innovation focused on sustainability. But many consumers began prioritizing safety over sustainability during the outbreak. Are those new habits here to stay? 

Benoit: Hopefully not. Let’s be optimistic that after a few months, it’s going to resume again, and we’ll go back to paying more attention to the planet. I don’t think brands should think that we’re going to go backwards. Brands should be part of the ones to keep going forward. My feeling is that some of the consumers who didn’t believe in climate change before still don’t believe in it. But some believe it even more now. Brands need to be smart and good citizens and create trust. So I really hope [we will] not go backwards.

Jackie Poriadjian-Asch: I agree. Consumers always want better-made things. There’s a certain degree of consciousness that’s been raised over the last several years around paying more attention to that stuff, and you just can’t walk that back. But the challenge has been, oftentimes, who’s gonna pay for that? Are consumers, when faced with the decision of paying $3 for something or $10 for something, willing to pay up for that better-made, sustainable product? With the economy the way it is and less disposable income, it’s going to lead to harder choices. So it’s about the innovation of bringing down the cost in order to provide better goods and not have that markup. But the cost is going to be an important part of how we further that.

For employers, there are potentially many benefits to the work-from-home model, such as greater productivity. However, some have found that innovation doesn’t happen as effectively unless people are together in the same space. How are you fostering a culture of innovation and creativity in the era of Zoom?  

Mamela: We’ve moved right into it quite well. Unfortunately, given the circumstances of the industry that I’m in, we’ve had to make some considerable temporary layoffs. So we have individuals, including myself, stepping into avenues and places that we probably haven’t tackled individually or as fulsomely [for some time], which is broadening our understanding of the business. Also, in terms of those who get assigned work that we might say is more innovative and forward-thinking, from redesigning and evolving our future content hub, our publishing capabilities, our martech, voice search – we’re stepping into it [and not] so much checking-in. You get to the point where you need to manage burn rate and burnout. It’s a different way to work, and you’re probably putting in a lot more hours than you ever did before.

Hunt: It has been very productive, and when we think about innovation as creating value, it requires creativity. That’s been the hardest thing to try and preserve. You have to be much more deliberate, because you don’t have those collisions in the hall, you don’t have the physical stimulus of the environment, change of pace, things that you see on your way to the office or on your way home. So we’ve had to be much more deliberate. [Listening to] podcasts and putting those external best-in-class examples in full view of the team – rallying that has been an important lever.

Another thing is people find themselves with a little bit of available time, so we have new and deliberate business [partnerships] that we’ve put together over the last couple of months. Those collisions are creating some creativity and inspiration. We’re in the fortunate position of hiring people, and [that brings in] new energy, excitement, passion and new questions. That, too, can be contagious in a good way for the group.

We’ve needed to build in a little bit of forced fun, because it’s easy to work from 7 to 7. We have walking meetings, a deliberate step outside during the day. So it’s possible, but it needs to be nurtured carefully.

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