Hidden paths to innovation: 5 principles

February 23, 2021

Consumer behaviour and engagement with products, brands, and channels has changed over the past year to a point that so much that innovation must now be top of mind for today’s corporate leaders.

A crisis should not be cause to slow down innovation. But rather to energise efforts across the company. According to McKinsey, organisations that maintained their innovation focus through the 2009 financial crisis, for example, emerged stronger, outperforming the market average by more than 30 percent and continuing to deliver accelerated growth over the subsequent three to five years.

While modern marketers tend to think of the word innovate as a means to introduce big, bold sparkly new ideas or find the white spaces in highly competitive markets, the term actually originated around 1540 from the Latin term “innovare” which means ‘to restore’ or ‘to make changes.’

As we begin to look towards life after COVID, perhaps this century’s biggest innovations are born – not out of groundbreaking and new scientific thinking – but out of recognition that there is a real need for evolution and pathway that helps people move from the way life was before COVID, towards financial, social and emotional recovery. Our own tracking of consumers through COVID and now the arrival of a vaccine, has found that while many consumer trends may be energised or paused during this time, the drivers behind these behaviours and attitudes are still very much the same.

In other words, we could make the case that the path to innovation can and should focus on evolution, not a revolution. For example, in Spain, McDonald’s launched Big Good Burger. It’s still the same burger consumers have come to expect; but seven of the ingredients have been sourced from 2,000 producers who have been impacted by the pandemic. The simple idea of switching where a tomato was sourced from, has impacted thousands.  

There are some simple principles that companies can bear in mind as they invest in their own path of innovation:

people having fun

Start with real humans in mind: Not your customer. Not a demographic. But rather, examine how human priorities and needs have changed. While retailers look ahead to what the new reality of life might look like after the pandemic, the picture is still far from certain. Many consumers don’t think they will be comfortable returning to shopping as it was before and will have new demands. Our own research found that 75% of US adults and 73% of UK would like to see retailers continue to regularly clean to take measures against coronavirus spread. Brands will need to continue to be agile and reactive to their customer’s comfort levels which will continue to evolve differently in different markets. 

Think big, start small: meaningful changes can be made by identifying and addressing small disruptors (vs. inventing entirely new categories). Think about making many small changes for the better that in combination will make a big difference in your consumer’s lives. The Japanese use the term Kaizen. Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief that everything can be improved. And while the term was originally adopted by companies such as Toyota to improve the manufacturing process, today’s modern businesses have adopted it as a strategy to empower employees at all levels of a company to work together to achieve regular, incremental improvements. In a sense, it combines the collective talents within a company to create a powerful engine for innovation. 

Start with data; fuel with creativity: The pandemic showed many marketers; reliant on transactional data the need for longer-term and agile thinking. It taught many of us that reaction to behaviours alone, will not address the subtle shifts in consumer behaviours. It is just as important to use predictive analysis to uncover new insights that fuel thinking and guide the customer journey. At Foresight Factory all of our trends are data and evidenced based through our global quantitative and qualitative research; but that evidence is used as the spring-board for new and original thinking, not the driver of the idea. 

Let innovation be fluid and ongoing; The future is fluid and there are many possible paths in how 2021 will end. Genuine innovation allows you to be fluid and adaptable over time. By understanding the changing nature of trends and forecasting and how they will evolve – what trends are energised, what are paused for the long-term, – you can prioritise your efforts accordingly. Forecasting may seem more uncertain than ever, and while we can’t provide all the answers, we can offer guidance on the most likely trajectory of economic growth. Agile business planning will be key to thriving, not just surviving.

Change does not happen in silos; In times of increasing change, uncertainty and growing complexity, preparing for the unexpected with a view of alternative futures and possibilities becomes crucial for the organisation. Processes and frameworks can become roadmaps for the organisation to align on thinking, approach to the possibilities; application and importantly, create a common vernacular for innovation across teams. 

For a lot of companies, life after the pandemic means that the path to innovation is not new; but has always been there. A hidden pathway that over these next few years has an opportunity to capture what is familiar to their audiences, but also still offer ways to address today’s resilient customers new and evolved, needs and behaviours. It’s a chance to get reacclimatised to the world through things that are healthier, safer, more sustainable and experiences that are cautiously – social.  

In the next few week’s Foresight Factory will uncover some of what we are seeing as the hidden pathways to innovation as we ourselves look towards changes in audience, evolving categories and the ways in which today’s consumers are looking for brands to help them re enter a world that is safer with vaccines, but one in which not everyone is vaccinated.

For more information on our work on Opportunities and Innovation work you can find it here. Also, look out for our next blog in this series on “The Home as Headquarters” coming soon!


Written by Noelle Weaver

Managing Partner, US at Foresight Factory. My passion is and has always been about finding strategic ways to help businesses grow, evolve and change due to evolving customer and market demands.