Large corporates that want to be seen as disruptors face a double challenge: first, to have the agility to develop the idea; then, the ability to communicate it successfully. One UK-based aviation group believes it has what it takes to take on this challenge.
Disruption seems to be the buzzword that defines our economy at the moment. Small, potent businesses, built from a transformative idea are routinely taking on – and defeating – big incumbents. So CEOs are rightly demanding that their managers ‘make us the next Uber,’ while entrepreneurs solicit early funding with the promise that their idea will be ‘the Airbnb of…’ their chosen field. There’s a palpable energy and momentum around start-ups these days, a sense that they can change the world. And an abiding sense that bigger, more established businesses are more part of the problem and unlikely to provide much in the way of innovative solutions.
For communicators in large businesses, this landscape presents a double problem. First, the possibility that conventional wisdom is correct, and big companies are unlikely to produce that breakthrough idea. Second, the likelihood is that even if a well-established business did have a disruptive idea, it would be difficult to communicate the story effectively to the marketplace.
Clay Christensen gets to grips with these challenges in The Innovator’s Dilemma, arguing that big companies cannot be innovative, because in their search for incremental profit and efficiency they must pass over ideas that “offer lower profit, that underperform existing technologies, and can only be sold in insignificant markets.”
He goes on to suggest that big companies struggle to respond to threats from disruptive competitors because the very things that made them successful – “listening to [existing] customers; tracking competitors’ actions carefully; and investing resources to design and build higher-performance, higher-quality products that will yield greater profit” – make it difficult for them to adapt to new audiences and market conditions. But for every rule, there are exceptions. Apple is a notable one. As James Allworth explains in Harvard Business Review, when Steve Jobs returned from exile in the 1990s, he built a culture that put products and customer experience ahead of profits.
The result is the most valuable – and profitable – company in the history of the world. IBM also stands out as an exception. Although they have occasionally struggled in the short term to respond to disruptive forces, the company has reinvented itself on several occasions and succeeded in remaining strong, relevant and profitable over the long term.
"We will experiment with an array of techniques that are new in our industry."
So what are the key lessons we can learn from these exceptions? And how can we apply them in a big business today?
Bringing ideas to life
Solving the first challenge – producing truly breakthrough ideas – is the best step towards solving the communications challenge as well. If a business has established the right conditions for disruptive thinking to emerge, the conditions should also be favourable for communicating those ideas. And communications rooted in real substance ensures real credibility.
In my own business, Inmarsat Aviation, we faced the double challenge head on. Our leadership recognised an emerging opportunity in the marketplace: to supply a global, reliable, high-speed in-flight internet service for commercial airlines and their passengers, addressing the relatively inconsistent and patchwork service that competitors were providing. And our engineers had an innovative solution, built on lessons learned from our long heritage of providing satellite-based safety and tracking services to the airline and shipping industry. The idea: a satellite-based internet service that would work anywhere in the world. Later, a second idea joined the first: an integrated satellite and ground-based system in Europe, built with the latest technology to ensure maximum connectivity and speed.
Fortunately, Inmarsat Aviation is part of Inmarsat, a FTSE 250 company and leader in mobile satellite communications, with the wherewithal to stand behind our ideas. But money alone wouldn’t ensure success. Inmarsat Aviation also required the space and freedom to act as a market disruptor. Securing that freedom became our first major communications challenge. We had to establish a distinct and well-defined market identity, sufficiently differentiated from the corporate brand to be viewed as a credible innovator.
We also needed a better understanding of the potential customers. We started by recognising that we would be moving beyond our traditional customer base of safety-focused engineers at major airlines and focusing on their colleagues, who specialize in planning and delivering passenger experiences on-board. But that description doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of our target audience. So we developed a rich segmentation strategy that enabled us to target audience members with content that spoke to their specific needs and concerns.
By embracing a customer-centric approach to our communications, we pivoted from our traditional engineering and infrastructure- led approach and instead focused on the relevant benefits to each of our customers and their passengers. Then we invested in a global communications and sales support infrastructure, building on the insight that we couldn’t approach our new audience through the same, centralized structure that we had employed in the past.
Finally, we learned that our new audience segments have a high degree of communications and marketing sophistication, and it became apparent that we had to deliver at that level if we were going to be successful. This became an opportunity, as we recognised that sophisticated, innovative communications would also act as a proof point for the innovation behind our products.
Earning sales.... and recognition
We brought that innovative communications approach to life with a big, disruptive moment at APEX 2016, one of our most important annual trade events. By providing an unconventional event presence in the form of engaging stands and blanket communications, we connected with our target audience and beyond, and brought our message to life with compelling proof points and a benefit-led narrative. We also learned from start-ups. We kept our team small and nimble.
In 2017, we’ll push this disruptive approach further by using innovative channels, segmenting our audience and hypertargeting with the most relevant messages. We will experiment with an array of techniques that are new in our industry, embracing and optimising our successes and quickly dropping the ones that are not working. The results thus far are strong. The sales leads are flowing in. Inmarsat Aviation is recognised as an innovator within our industry and the wider marketplace. And we are successfully building a disruptive start-up within an established FTSE 250 company. Have we cracked the Innovators Dilemma? Only time will tell, but for the moment, we’re optimistic.
Key lessons for innovators working in large corporates
1. Stay focused on the customer.
2. Give people the space to innovate, and celebrate new ideas.
3. Be nimble. Fast and wrong is usually better than slow and right.
4. Don’t be afraid to fail. But if you do fail, don’t double down on failure. Kill what doesn’t work. Do it quickly, and move on.
5. Make a splash, but back it up with substance.