Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Marketing With Innovation Contests

By Bronwyn Monroe

Senior Director of Strategic Marketing

Marketing’s greatest opportunity is also its most difficult challenge.  Engaging audiences with distinct and powerful branding is the most effective path to driving interest, loyalty and sales.  At the same time, it’s harder than ever to get through to your audience in new and meaningful ways. 

Here’s an innovative approach: Consider bringing new stakeholders and perspectives into the product development process earlier while identifying novel technologies that give your offerings a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Inviting fresh ideas from experts outside of your organization with a related technology solution can challenge your existing views about how products can perform and what sets them apart from competitive offerings. Reaching outside your company’s walls to find solutions in other industries or technical areas not only brings new solutions to your company’s problems but expands the audience of individuals thinking about your organization and the needs your offerings meet.

For example, through the strategy of Open Innovation, the use of table salts in research for osteoporosis drugs led to new approaches to reduce the salt content of potato chips. Combustion capabilities used in construction provided an entirely new customer experience with traditional candles.

Today’s strategic marketing leader can benefit from understanding that millions of technical experts worldwide are either existing or potential customers, or influencers. When strategic marketing works hand-in-hand with R&D to open up technical needs to the outside world, it aligns two departments and disciplines to the benefit of both. R&D develops a direct connection to new innovators with fresh perspectives while marketing advances its products faster and increases visibility and equity for the brand.  

The question then becomes how do you align strategic marketing and R&D in a sustainable and efficient manner?

Innovation contests are an increasingly popular solution that both B2B and B2C companies use to address a gap in internal know-how. In its simplest form, an innovation contest is when a company defines its technical need and attaches a prize to motivate innovators to respond with solutions that can be acquired, co-developed or licensed. Typically working with an innovation intermediary, companies can tap into a global solution provider network across industries and geographies to find winning solutions.

Take a recent innovation contest conducted by GE in its industrial solutions business.  The company sponsored a technology search for an attractive, ergonomic rotary handle accessory for its molded case circuit breaker.  The contest homepage included the prize amount for the five successful providers of viable submissions ($10,000 each), a timeline, and a full description of what was being sought.

Winners were chosen and announced in the press and posted online; their backgrounds as varied as the ideas they submitted:  An industrial designer from Frankfurt, Germany; a toy and consumer product designer from Connecticut; a design consultancy based in Sydney, Australia; a spacecraft and robotics R&D engineer in New York City and a cross-functional team of architects, engineers and designers in Milan.  By the end of the challenge, a community of solution providers, customers and GE innovation and marketing managers had been brought together around the development of what was basically a fresh new approach to a simple switch.

Another example of a brand-building innovation challenge was conducted by Under Armour.  The company recognized its performance monitoring technology — Armour39 — as an opportunity to reinforce its position as a cutting edge sports apparel and accessories provider.  In this case, Under Armour Senior VP of Innovation Kevin Haley announced the Armour39 Challenge as a chance to “…empower innovators from around the world to help us in our mission to make all athletes better.”  The challenge called for solution providers to submit product enhancements for Armour39 such as competitive analysis, exercise identification and cardiac assessment functions that would provide real-time performance advantages for athletes. 

The Under Armour marketing team turned the selection of the winners into a public event at the Under Armour Future Show in Baltimore, Maryland.  The 15 finalists were invited to present to the Under Armour executive team; providing a highly visible finish to the challenge.

Conducting an innovation challenge requires a structured process that includes:

  1. A blended team from both R&D and marketing with established goals and metrics.
  2. A well-articulated call for submissions that makes it clear to solution providers what you’re looking for and any performance specifications that must be met.
  3. A timeline that establishes milestones within the project, which may have multiple phases.
  4. Transparent judging criteria and process.
  5. A dual technical and marketing outreach that engages the technical audience as well as a broader stakeholder audience around the project’s mission.
  6. A prize strategy that entices solution providers and demonstrates the sponsor’s commitment to selecting winners and winning solutions.

Companies that understand the value of innovation contests know they are a versatile tool to engage multiple audiences and develop a repeatable process to boost new product development.

One outcome that can be counted on is the unification of two traditionally separate divisions — marketing and R&D – by a common goal and mission.  Now that’s something most marketing executives never thought could happen.

Bronwyn Monroe is Senior Director of Strategic Marketing for NineSigma which provides innovation services to organizations in the private, public and social sectors. Founded in 2000, NineSigma helped pioneer the practice of Open Innovation. For additional information, go to