Insights from the 2012 Warc Prize for Innovation

Insights from the 2012 Warc Prize for Innovation

Carlos Grande

The Warc Prize for Innovation was a free to enter global contest to find examples of effective innovation in communications across any marketing discipline. Below, Warc's Editor discusses some key themes that emerged from the Prize.

You can browse entries from the 2012 Prize here.

In innovation circles, it sometimes seems as though nothing succeeds like failure.

"If you don't fail," Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer of Mars Chocolate, told last year's Association of National Advertisers' Creativity conference in the US, "you're not working hard enough".

"Fail fast, fail often," counselled Brainjuicer's John Kearon in the pages of Market Leader ('The death of innovation', Q4 2010).

And in March, Julie Cottineau, the former VP for brand at Virgin USA, told the Brite Conference on Global Branding: "Entrepreneurs realise they are going to have to fail if they're ever going to succeed… Failure is a market condition. It's not a value judgement."

Against this backdrop, Warc's idea of creating a global prize for the most successful case study of innovation in communications might strike you as a provocation.

Occasionally, it is exactly that: when I recently gave a presentation featuring the winning case study (see below), the audience started arguing over the case's merits before I was even halfway through my slides.

One side thought the case in question was too successful to enjoy an enduring impact. The other thought it was too successful not to have had a lasting legacy.

Rom tapped into Romanian patriotism with a bold spoof Americanisation of the brand

However, if the 2012 Warc Prize for Innovation – which was free to enter and open to entries from any country, industry category or marketing discipline – aimed to provoke anything, it was a renewed discussion of what innovative communication means today.

What follows is an attempt to summarise some missives back from the frontline of the Warc Prize judging process. Given the number, depth and variety of entries for the prize, it is an attempt which, in the spirit of innovators everywhere, is itself doomed to be, at best, an honourable failure.

What case studies tell us

First, the facts – and the caveats. The prize, which awarded $10,000 in cash to the winning entry, was launched in October 2011 and closed in March 2012. In total, it attracted 70 entries from 20 countries and 14 industry sectors.

Broadly, entrants staked their claim to be innovative on one of seven grounds:

  • They had developed a new communications platform for their brand (35% of entries).
  • They had found a new way to exploit traditional media channels (28% of entries).
  • They had applied a new insight about their target audience and/or its culture (10% of entries).
  • They had challenged the marketing norms in their category (10% of entries).
  • They had created a new product or service (6% of entries).
  • They had deployed a new technology (6% of entries).
  • They had used a new research technique to demonstrate innovation (5% of entries). Like all case study competition entrants, this group could be regarded as a self-selecting and self-promoting elite.

This is in danger of missing the point. For who else is going to extol a campaign's virtues if not the agency behind it? And what else would an agency submit but its proudest achievement? No-one is likely to enter a blatant case study of marketing failure into a competition any time soon. Even in the most rigorous of awards schemes, false starts, digressions, inconvenient facts and happy accidents are all likely to be edited out or seamlessly incorporated until what remains is a more-or-less forward march towards triumph.

This narrative shaping is essential to the format's blend of storytelling and real-world evidence. Less obviously, case studies also tell us about marketers' current ambitions and omissions, what they find most difficult to define or proof, and how they want to be seen by the wider world.

Operation Christmas brought Yuletide to the jungle to communicate with FARC guerillas

For instance, the fact that India was the single biggest source of Warc Prize entries (27) should not lead us to believe it is the most innovative of markets.

But it could lead us to suspect that some Indian agencies are keen to present themselves as among the most innovative practitioners in a way that is not yet a priority among agencies in, for example, China (number of Warc Prize entries from China: two).

The participating Indian agencies also appear to have some of the most supportive clients: P&G, Vodafone and Volkswagen were among the brand owners signing off case study entries from that market. One suspects Indian clients are as keen to be seen as innovators as are their agencies.

Prize entrants were required to submit a written case study of 2,500 to 3,000 words that described their campaign background, chosen insight and strategy, implementation and performance against objectives, as well as defining the innovation and lessons demonstrated by their work.

Of these, the most challenging was the final section. It also carried the most marks (we're no fools).

Defining the aim of your innovation is paramount

The word innovate is derived from the combination of two Latin stems, in- ('into') and novus ('new'), which together make up the verb innovare, meaning to renew or change. Of these two etymological strands, most prize entrants stressed the newness element and underplayed the emphasis on introducing change.

But there is a fine line between invention and innovation, and some prize entrants stood on the wrong side of it. An original use of newspapers may be inventive, for instance, but it is not innovative unless it demonstrates that it was also a process for delivering a substantive change to the performance of the brand involved.

Among the 70 prize entries were campaigns which featured a 'talking newspaper' ad to promote Volkswagen, branded rickshaws to market Duracell batteries and the deployment by the Pedigree Dog Adoption drive in New Zealand of technology that scanned pictures of homeless dogs and consumers in the hope of matching unwanted pets to prospective owners with similarly shaped features.

Of this trio of examples, only the Pedigree case can be said to have introduced real change into the relationship between buyer and brand by creating a new way to increase dog ownership. And even this campaign was based on the insight that owners often resembled their dogs – a truth only slightly less whiskery than some of Pedigree's end consumers.

Perhaps the tightest definition of innovation came from this quote in a submission by News International Ltd (TNL) and the agency, VCCP: "Formula One is probably the most effective innovation industry in the world for one simple reason. Speed is the only reason to innovate and any change or intervention which does not result in increased speed is a waste of money and certainly not an innovation."

Few marketers can afford to be as single-minded as this. However, the best prize entries set out both the change they expected their innovation to deliver and the resulting business value they wanted it to create.

For Febreze's 'Breathe Happy' campaign the intention was to correct the misattribution of the brand's advertising and boost its preference scores in a crowded odour elimination category.

For GlaxoSmithKline's Polident 'Kilauan Emas' entry the goal was to increase penetration and sales by introducing a new category (denture adhesives) into an emerging market (Malaysia) using a new platform – namely a branded singing TV talent show for the over-45s, proudly showing how their newly secure dentures boosted their stage confidence.

Intriguingly, although platform-led innovation dominated the total number of entries, this was less true when the entries were trimmed to a long-list of 20. When this was further reduced to a shortlist of the best six cases, there were two examples apiece of platform and audience led innovation, and one each of product and category led innovation.

Know the limits of innovation

During the judging, debate ensued about how far innovation should aspire to go. Did entrants need to prove they had contributed to a 'game-changing' innovation, or only to a more incremental benefit? Should the innovation in question only be possible in the highly specific context of one brand or could it be replicable by other brand owners? Could it be short-lived, or did it need a lasting legacy? Did it need to make marketing – or even the wider world – a better place?

The Pedigree Dog Adoption drive matched homeless pets to lookalike would-be owners

There were entries that cleared the highest of these hurdles, such as the 'FARC: Operation Christmas' campaign. This work was based on the novel and effective deployment of giant illuminated trees as media vehicles in the Colombian jungle to attract the attention of hard-bitten FARC insurgents and convince them to lay down their arms. As one prize judge pointed out, it was hard to criticise an initiative aiming to increase world peace. Ultimately, though, it was deemed unfair to judge all brands by such lofty ideals.

Less clear-cut was the issue of whether a campaign could be innovative if it did not satisfy an unmet consumer need. Initially, this seemed a useful criterion with which to sift the strong entries from the weak. Counter-intuitively, however, there were cases that read as convincingly innovative, but were clearly orientated around the needs of the originating business, rather than the consumer.

An example was Dorito's Late Night: World First Entertainment. The business priority here was to reposition Dorito's as an integral part of the in-home late night entertainment rituals of young Britons. It would be hard to claim that this audience suffers from either a shortage of salty snacks or a paucity of online diversions. However, a breakthrough use of iPhone technology and a credible piece of branded content (a music video from UK rapper Professor Green) helped present the brand as a credible provider of entertainment on YouTube and other social media outlets.

Cognisant of such examples, we took a pragmatic line. Entrants needed to demonstrate that innovation was responsible for helping them attain their commercial goal. This innovation didn't have to be game-changing, but it should have created tangible value for the period in question.

Consumers are the final arbiters

Paradoxically, creating such definitions may be necessary, but not sufficient, to fostering genuine innovation. This became apparent as we arrived at our final shortlist of six, which were:

  • Colombian Ministry of Defence FARC: Operation Christmas (Colombia).
  • Dettol Messaging Interrupts, Utility Delights (China).
  • Febreze Breathe Happy (US).
  • Polident Kilauan Emas (Malaysia).
  • Promote Iceland Inspired by Iceland (Iceland).
  • Rom American Rom (Romania).

During the whittling down process, we encountered many examples in which consumers' reactions provided the most convincing proof that a genuine innovation had occurred.

Dettol China, for example, explained how in a bid to bring out the brand from 'below the kitchen sink', it created a new miniature spray bottle that Chinese women could put in their handbags as a portable hygiene aid. The communications strategy was built around getting samples to the target audience and encouraging them to spread word of mouth about the product innovation. And the eventual prize winner,

Rom, took this further, showing how consumer reaction could turn a change exercise into a national debate.

Rom, once Romania's favourite chocolate bar brand, was struggling under competition from the likes of Mars. Its owner, the Romanian confectioner Kandia Dulce, opted for a high-risk spoof rebranding. In an attempt to reignite patriotic sentiment, Rom was repackaged as 'American Rom' with stars and stripes packaging and a cover story that it had new US owners.

The resulting public uproar played out across social media, chatshows and flash mobs – all monitored and exploited in real time via PR and digital media. After the spoof was revealed and the familiar Rom restored to consumers, the brand regained its status as the nation's favourite and reversed its sales decline.

If consumer reaction had been muted or even positive towards American Rom, the campaign could have backfired massively. It was the scale, clarity and daring of the Rom campaign that gave it the prize ahead of the runner-up, FARC: Operation Christmas.

By the campaign's conclusion, two-thirds of all Romanians were aware of it. It also provided a vivid demonstration that however lucidly a brand defines a strategy innovation, public participation and support can take it to a whole new level.

And finally…

However, lest this seems too adulatory a note on which to end a piece about innovation, spare a thought for the author of one entry.

This concerned a Singapore case study about a campaign premised on providing users with the tools to upload videos filmed on their Cisco Flip handheld camera to their Facebook page as a way of building awareness of the Cisco Flip brand.

The narrative pursues a typical trajectory towards triumph until the following passage:

"Conclusion: Flip Your Profile gave the world a new way to shoot and share and in return received millions of free media impressions. The campaign rolled out on 14 February 2011 and lasted for eight weeks.

"Unfortunately, Cisco then decided to shut down its consumer division and that marked the end of Flip video cameras globally."

Proof, if it were needed, that even in the world of case studies, it is still possible to snatch failure from the jaws of success.

About the author

Carlos Grande is the Editor of Warc. He joined the company in 2008 after eight years at the Financial Times, where he was marketing correspondent and, before that, senior UK companies reporter.

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