A couple of weeks back I was a guest at the launch of Brand Driven Innovation – written by Erik Roscam Abbing (who, way back when, was my teacher and later mentor at university) about, you guessed it: brand driven innovation.
With some time off courtesy of my lack of interest in taking up vacation during the year, I finally managed to finish the book and write a review to boot.
First, the physical book. The layout of the pages and the structure of the book are unusual; an innovation in itself. I read quite a bit and I’ve not seen a business book or academic work with such an aesthetically pleasing, easy to read layout before. And Erik has made sure to liven the main text with conversations between experts about the topic at hand, case studies and little exercises to get a grip on the points that were just made. Seriously, a breath of fresh air.
I was in Erik’s class at TUDelft when he first started experimenting with this subject matter, so a piece of it is familiar territory. The basic premise is that innovation, design, and branding are closely related. That, in order to innovate successfully, the brand should be the driver for innovation, grounded in the organisation, and that a number of tools and processes will help you develop successful innovations. Design is a key process in this system; the first is building a brand that is ‘fit’ for the process, and then to use it to develop matching innovation and design strategies. But also, they way designers work and think is a key ingredient to the way this method is applied:
[…] We then explored design’s third task, which lies in what we called design’s ‘upstream territory’: to help create strategy, and to design management. This is not so much the domain of design as an operational activity, but more the domain of design thinking. We’ve looked at what design thinking entails and how it helps to crack wicked problems. Design thinkers have the ability to quickly switch between different modes of thinking and they follow an iterative loop of analysis, ideation, prototyping, and testing. This enables them to visualise and try out strategies, a valuable addition to the more traditional business school approach of analysis and choosing a strategy.
In just 200 pages, Erik puts down his argument and provides the reader with ample guidance on how to approach this in practice. This means that there is a lot to learn, but as Erik’s style of reasoning is quick and brief, you’ll have to pay attention and take pause now and then to think over all of the steps that he just took in the space of two paragraphs. This is good and bad: a lot of ground gets covered, but sometimes you are left feeling that a shortcut was taken.
After making a clear, concise case why branding, design, and innovation are closely connected and interrelated, the rest of the book deals with bringing the theory to life and giving very practical pointers on to apply these ideas. There’s a smart model:
The process is very clear: cyclical, four distinct stages, each of them iterative – the method really incorporates the basic tenets of design thinking: human centered, iterative, integrative, multidisciplinary. Each phase has its own chapter in the book, and you are taken through each stage step-by-step. This is a slight pitfall of the book: there are so many steps and ‘do this, build that’ type of guidelines that it’s quite easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. In chapter 4.4 for example there are all of 26 consecutive ‘do this’ imperatives, an amount that would very much benefit from being displayed in a more flow-y kind of way, and in relation to the total process/model.
But, since the book is aimed at an academic audience, it’s probably OK to require a bit of extra effort from the reader ;-) For the practical mind, however, not so much.
One of the big plusses in the book are the case studies. Each major step of phase is illustrated with a brief case where the topic at hand is particularly clear. This works really well to put the ideas in context and see what they mean. In fact, I think it would be really useful to have a follow-up book filled with in-depth case studies, where not only you can see the topics covered in play, but also the interpersonal forces, office politics and commercial results. I think that will be really helpful in conveying the book’s core message to senior management and other people who are not familiar with the areas of expertise on which the process draws.
Apart from tools and insights, the book gives a lot of attention to the overarching themes of embedding this way of working into your company’s culture and the need to be strategic rather than tactical. It’s very clear that Brand Driven Innovation is a process of interaction and learning, and not one of command and control, and Erik spends a good amount of his book explaining how to bring your culture around to working like this.
This means that the subject matter sometimes is a bit fuzzy and ‘30.000 ft. up’ but I think Erik made a very good choice in focusing on the strategic and organizational implications, rather than the results. The big win here is a way of working that will make you an inherently better competitor for years to come, rather than the outcomes of a particular project.
So, all in all this book is a real winner. It’s actually the first book to my knowledge that deals with this subject extensively and makes the case for BDI explicit and tangible. I’m a believer in this approach, and I think in the future the winning companies will have to adopt a similar point of view and process, one way or the other.
The format and structure of the content makes it a great read for business people of all strides looking to hone their innovation skills. The practical nature of the book helps us understand the dense matter and frame it in the business context.
I would look for an addition or an updated version to include two things:
- in-depth case studies of the total process and results afterwards;
- a better step-by-step overview of the phases and their results and fit with the bigger picture
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