The art of storytelling

Some weeks ago, I attended the Front End of Innovation (FEI) congress in Venice. The setting was mesmerizing. This was my first visit to Venice and it completely lived up to my expectations. The congress itself was hosted by the Ca’ Foscari University, right in the heart of this magnificent city. One could argue that the setting of an innovation congress in Venice, a city where art and history combine with old trades and the beauty of the sea, is not ideal. However, the congress proved that tradition and innovation can be like hand in glove.
Whilst part of the congress was dedicated to the process of technical innovation through open sourcing, connect & develop methodologies etc., my attention as a market/consumer researcher was mainly attracted when the art of storytelling and listening as an enabler of relevant, compelling and engaging innovations was discussed.
Creating new ideas is an essential step towards innovation, that’s obvious. But it is not sufficient these days. In order for an idea to thrive in the market, brands need to generate excitement and support for their new opportunity. Don’t be fooled: an idea will never – or rarely – sell itself. That is where the power of storytelling comes in. Using storytelling throughout the innovation process – and embracing it as an essential tool to either capture or understand the hearts and minds of your target audience – will increase the relevance of an idea and therefore ensure that it stands out. Numerous examples can be quoted of how storytelling is becoming mainstream in the business world. At Nike, senior executives are called ‘corporate storytellers‘. 3M banned bullet points and replaced them with writing ‘strategic narratives‘. Procter & Gamble hired Hollywood directors to teach its executives storytelling techniques. Business schools have added storytelling courses to their curriculum.

R&D alone does not buy innovation, nor is it open innovation. At least not all the time anymore. It is clear that we need to rethink the innovation process beyond mainstream innovation processes, which sometimes solely rely on technical capabilities or evolutions. This can happen by embracing the consumer right from the start in the process and create the right environment for a consumer to tell his/her story. This is an alternative approach to the standard innovation processes. Alternative is not always better, I admit, but better is most often alternative.
Jaspar Roos talked about The Offline Glass as a great example of how consumer storytelling and the correct interpretation of the message encapsulated in the story can spark inspiration for innovation. The story is clear: consumers often talk about digital information overload. The Salve Jorge bar in São Paulo correctly interpreted this story and understood that people want to be rescued from the online world – at least for a while – and talk face-to-face rather than being hooked on their smartphones.

The Offline Glass is an invitation for people to turn off the online world, chat with friends and live in the reality around them, at least for a few hours. The Offline Glass definitely has some weaknesses – What if the phone starts to vibrate? What about condensation? What about accidental spills? – but it is brilliant in its simplicity.

Sameer Desai, Director Consumer Healthcare at Mundipharma, shared the Solar Bottle Lights as another example of how deep an understanding of the consumer reality through storytelling can boost innovative thinking. It took the entrepreneurship of Alfredo Moser in Brazil and the right interpretation of the stories from people living in underprivileged houses without access to electricity to develop the Solar Bottle Lights – one of the best innovations of all times if you ask me. The invention is simple. It involves filling up a 1.5L PET bottle with purified water and bleach and installing it ‘in / through’ the roof of a house. The water in the bottles refracts the sunlight during the day and creates the same intensity as a 55-watt light bulb.
The power and relevance of the initial idea cannot be ignored. It indicates that deep cultural and consumer understanding, based on trivial consumer stories, is of paramount importance and can sparkle life-changing innovations. What started with one plastic bottle has now evolved into the foundation ‘Liter of Light’. To date, Liter of Light has brightened up 28,000 homes and the lives of 70,000 people in Metro Manila alone. The project has spread from the Philippines to Indonesia, India and Switzerland with the goal of installing one million ‘solar bulbs’ by 2015.

Connecting with consumers and listening to their stories will spark inspiration for innovation. Everyone involved with innovation – researchers, marketers, engineers… – should allocate time and resources in order to listen to consumer stories. It will change your perspective, you will potentially hear what no one else is hearing and it will set your innovation spirit on fire.
Ciao Venice. Thanks for your story.

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