Brand strategist Adam Hanft called in for his session of the Reevoo podcast last month. It was a fascinating chat which touched on everything from innovation to Facebook advertising restrictions and the advent of the emoji.

Listen to it here

His thoughts on how big brands can – and should – challenge startups in the innovation stakes were particularly interesting.

It’s not all about size

“Big brands love to talk about their size, their scale and their history… but it’s not about who’s the biggest and who’s been around for a long time,” says Hanft. Rather, for customers, it’s about which companies have adapted to treat their customers as individuals.

Technology allows people to be identified as individuals and companies that don’t take this approach are in trouble long term.

According to Hanft, it’s a generational attitude: “Clearly millennials are hyper-focused on individuality.”

Customers will see through it

But this doesn’t make it sensible for companies to pretend they’re smaller than they are in order to appear more nimble. This is as much a marketing mistake as it is a structural one.

“An obvious mistake for a big brand is to pretend that they’re small. If there’s no authenticity in the positioning it’s not credible and can actually damage the brand.”

Instead, companies should be listening to their customers and using feedback as a launchpad for innovation.

Big brands have the money, skills and data to implement innovation. - Highlight to share -

Bigger can mean better

Hanft insists that size, scale and history can be positive attributes if thought about in the right way. Companies shouldn’t pretend they are small but they should demonstrate the power of their size. If you’re big and powerful you should be using your clout and your muscle.

“You need to focus your strength on making life better for your customers through your resources. There’s nothing more transparent than a big company trying to be cool and use lower-case typography and be hip in a superficial way. Big companies should lean to their strengths and big companies have the resources to do what startups should do.”

Big brands have the money, skills and data to implement innovation. They also have the money, skills and data to be able to help, listen and serve customers on an individual basis. They should never forget that.

What about collaboration?

Hanft wasn’t that positive about the idea of corporations collaborating with startups. “It’s not going to happen fast enough because the number of big companies that are that progressive is small.”

Rather than partnering with more innovative organisations, big brands should try to develop their structures internally.

“Big companies are so overly structured and programmatic in their thinking that they leave a tremendous amount of ground to entrepreneurs.”

Simply grafting on a startup won’t make a significant difference.

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”

It’s also about developing a culture that can look at problems face on and see innovation as necessary rather than the last resort.

“You’ve got to be able to deal with what’s called the innovator’s dilemma. Some shifts may put you out of business in the long term but you have to deal with them straight away.”

Hanft quoted Peter Drucker’s slogan “Culture eats strategy for lunch” while discussing the need to develop a corporate culture that promotes innovation internally.

“Companies need to focus a lot on how to incorporate platforms internally which are conduits for culture change and mind-shifts.”

And one of the easiest ways to start breeding that kind of culture is by encouraging communication – Hanft recommends Slack – “to break down silos between divisions.”

Tips for big brands looking to innovate:

  1. Innovation is thinking about customers as individuals.
  2. Big brands often have the money, skills and data needed for innovation.
  3. Culture change and internal communication are often key for innovation.

Our pick of the brands doing innovation right:

1. DeWalt does smartphones

Consider how fragile a smartphone is. And how often you’ve managed to smash it on the floor or drop it in the loo. So – imagine how battered builders’ phones must get. Tool manufacturer DeWalt is about to come out with a smartphone which can survive dust, water, shock, pressure, chemicals and vibrations. It can also be used while wearing gloves in freezing temperatures.

DeWalt might be international and established but it is showing proof of the strength afforded by its size and expertise. It understands exactly what its target market wants, but is also venturing into new tech. I’m half-tempted to get one – imagine pulling that out in a meeting.

2. Vauxhall does WiFi

It’s not Tesla that’s doing WiFi but a brand that’s better known for affordable family cars. Vauxhall is competing with Siri by developing its own onboard personal assistant, the OnStar. The new tech tells you how to look after your car, get to places and even has a WiFi hotspot to enjoy reliable internet wherever you are.

It leaves you wondering why WiFi in cars isn’t more mainstream?

3. Dyson does hairdryers

After hoovers, air fans and hand dryers, Dyson is now getting into haircare. After investing £50 million and taking four years, the company has come up with a hairdryer that’s quiet, light and has an intelligent temperature control that ensures you won’t burn your hair.

Dyson has always been known for its forward-thinking design. Innovation is part of its brand.

And there’s no reason why it can’t be part of yours too.

Innovation isn't just for startups