Baby steps toward brand innovation

Remember the truth-or-dare games you played in grade school: “I dare you to leave a note in Eddie’s locker!” or “I dare you to call Bobby’s house!”

Those dares felt quite adventurous back then, and not too achievable. But even if we tried and failed, we always stood a bit taller, felt a bit bolder and acted a bit braver after our efforts.

It seems as though we take fewer chances as we get older. As an adult, when was the last time you dared yourself to do something meaningful?

As a brand leader, when is the last time you dared your brand to do something out of its comfort zone? Is it time?

Years ago, Good to Great author Jim Collins dared companies to set BHAGS, the term he coined for big, hairy, audacious goals. But sometimes, we are not quite ready for BHAGS. What we need are baby steps in the daring direction. I guess you could call them BSITDDs.

Many of us can relate to Bill Murray’s character in the movie “What About Bob?” He desperately wants to teach himself new behaviors by continually muttering to himself, “Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps” as he takes minuscule actions in the right direction.

Little victories motivate us. Little victories are often just what we need to celebrate as brand leaders. Bite-size breakthroughs can often lead to bigger victories.

Is it time for you to innovate? Here are five baby steps to get you started.


Film director Steven Spielberg has said he never stops dreaming: “I don’t dream at night. I dream all day; I dream for a living.” Which members on your team spend most of their time dreaming about your brand’s future?

If your company is like most, dreaming is a practice that is often cast aside for doing — doing what is most pressing, most urgent today. Brand dreaming takes intentionality.

Many of my clients make dreaming a regular branding practice. Group, a church ministry resource company, has what it calls “Dream Days.” Amy Nappa, executive editor and champion for women’s ministry at Group, loves everything about the word dream.

“I love that it conjures up ‘might thinking,’ as in ‘we might do this, we might do that,’ ” Nappa says. Dreaming allows us to let go of our daily distractions and think long term, she notes, adding “I love that it always leads to new endeavors for our company — from product ideas like a new book offering to wider options like partnerships.”

Great brands never stop dreaming — no matter the size or strength they achieve. General Electric makes dreaming a brand practice: The company hosts “customer dreaming sessions” to drive innovation.

Go ahead and daydream. Go a step further and make it a brand priority!


In the literary world, there are novels, short stories and even short shorts. Writers sometimes call these extremely brief stories flash fiction — vignettes usually 300 to 1,000 words.

Try this writing exercise with your brand narrative. Condensing your brand experience into a creative mini story will come in handy more and more as customers desire to process information in bite-size pieces.

It’s no surprise these days that brands need to work overtime to capture their customers’ attention. Innovative brand leaders look for ways to communicate with potential customers in short, edited ways.

Pop-up retail experiences are one way to do just that — quick, immediate, convenient, targeted minibrand experiences and experiments. Fashion retailers have been doing this for ages, from Hermes to Reebok.

Now you even see brands using smaller containers like vending machines as the new microbrand concept — video rentals from a Redbox kiosk vs. a full Blockbuster store. Your brand may never be equipped to go that tiny, but it is a worthwhile exercise to dare yourself to get there.

Start with your brand short short. What would your brand experience look like as a pop-up store? As a boutique kiosk? As a vending machine?


Gap did it. L.L. Bean did it. These are just two examples of multichannelers that went back to their brand roots to see what originally made them tick. They then looked at what of that original brand dream had enduring creative power for the brand’s future.

Gap last year celebrated its 40th anniversary with the launch of a revitalized denim line called 1969. L.L. Bean debuted its Signature line earlier this year with a new collection based on classics with an updated fit and style. One of these products is the legendary L.L. Bean Boot, which has been reinterpreted and given prime brand-building real estate on the Signature spin-off catalog’s inside front and back covers.

Your archives may be just as rich and vibrant as these two brands. When will your brand leaders schedule a back-to-the-future conversation? Why not spend some time regressing and see what kind of progress you might make?


Have you seen any of the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclast” series? It’s a wonderful pairing described by Robert Redford as “two leading innovators from different fields who come together to discuss their passions and creative processes.”

Actors plus sports legends. Musicians and chefs. Comedians and poets. Filmmakers and authors. These conversations are enlightening reminders of how brands can benefit when right and left brains collaborate more fully.

When I worked as a merchant at stationery cataloger Current, merchandisers were paired with designers to develop 500 to 1,000 SKU holiday and everyday product lines. This tandem partnership between analytics and creatives made for productive, brand-enhancing creative tension that ultimately benefited our customers.

How can your brand tap the potential of the right- and left-brain leaders in your company? For even an afternoon? For a full-day brandstorming workshop? Or, perhaps, even for full-time business partnerships?


Innovation involves experimenting with both big and baby steps. Experimentation naturally means that some things work and some things don’t. Brand leaders usually don’t like to dwell on what isn’t working. But they must. Sometimes it pays to kill your darlings.

Retailer Target did this when it announced this year that it will close its garden departments nationwide. The general merchant says gardening is no longer a profitable category.

Target now plans to add more groceries and restructure the cosmetics and home decor departments. Saying goodbye to the gardening category gave Target the ability to redirect its brand energy and resources.

To what brand darlings might you need to say goodbye? How will this allow your team to focus on other initiatives?

So, baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. One daring move at a time. What are you waiting for?

Innovation takes a great deal of intentionality. Bring your physical and emotional and intellectual best selves to this process. Take baby steps in any one of these directions. I dare you!

Andrea Syverson ( is president of the consultancy IER Partners, and author of BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Playbook for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.

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