Christopher Yu is Vice President, Integrated Marketing Strategy, Innovation, and Technology, U.S. Bank and is this year’s jury chair for Effective Innovation at the WARC Awards. Here, he describes how innovation is about pushing out of your comfort zone and remaining laser-focused on your customer

Describe what you do at U.S. Bank and what role does innovation play?

I work as the futurist for our marketing team, as a facilitator of an ongoing internal conversation regarding our brand strategy. I partner with our marketing teams, business lines and technology groups to define and execute our digital road-map. About half of my job is improving the holistic big picture of existing capabilities in collaboration with all those different stakeholders. The other half consists of evaluating opportunities to launch new capabilities. So there’s a little tweaking of what's working well and a little thinking about how we can do things in entirely new ways.

Finance as an industry has seen a lot of innovation, often from startups looking to disrupt. What do you do at U.S. Bank to stay ahead of the game?

I am fortunate to work at a company that has invested in that process of staying ahead of the game. One of our four central brand pillars is “creating the future now.” It translates into a strategic commitment to staying ahead of our customers’ expectations, both consumers and businesses. That means being able to understand customers’ needs in real time, orchestrating consistent, high-quality experiences across those touchpoints that we use to engage our customers and responding with agility to their requests. We've done a couple of things to bring that principle of creating the future now to life.

We've established two internal project funds recently at the bank, which we call Innovation and Cultivation, to identify and invest in our best new ideas. Some ideas are more disruptive and fall into the innovation bucket and some are more sustaining types of innovations that fall into the cultivation bucket. So we've established some foundational resources and commitments to drive in innovation. And then, I, among many other folks at the bank, am involved in the orchestration of the ideas into the process and figuring out ways that we can execute the ones that float to the top.

How do you define innovation?

For me, it starts with a quote from Steve Jobs in the 1990s.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple

He said: "Ultimately it [i.e. the creative process] comes down to taste. It comes down to exposing yourself to the best things humans have done and trying to bring those things into what you're doing." Luke Wroblewski, [Product Director] of Google, who wrote the book Mobile First, recently re-posted it to LinkedIn, which made me chuckle. I love that quote because it doesn't restrict innovation to a specific product type, set of technologies, or processes even. It implicitly challenges innovators and creators to achieve a couple of things. First, to hone a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the best historical examples of thinking and making. And second, to leap ahead in imagining what new experiences might be most meaningful based on that body of knowledge.

I think of innovation as that process of assimilating what represents the best in taste and then extrapolating from there with experts from a variety of different fields. Innovation is something which is always a collective process, even if certain aspects of it, such as design, may be specialised and more solitary.

Do you think that innovation has to always involve tech?

Tech is simply an instrument of delivering innovation but innovation is not solely dependent on technology. Leo Burnett changed the game for Always with the Like A Girl campaign.

This is a good example of the power of an idea, not necessarily of a technological solution.

 Today, three years after that campaign launched, it’s still proving its relevance to current debates and discussions. It’s a tremendous example of innovation in framing the narrative.

Closer to home, at U.S. Bank, we are increasingly embracing the move towards organisational agility, which can include technological breakthroughs but at heart is about how people work together. I've been delighted to be involved in launching one of our first agile marketing teams, which really challenges us to rethink the fundamentals of how we interact with our customers, how we raise their awareness of what we do, how we engage with them and educate them about what product and services we can make available to them and how we measure our own performance in supporting their needs.

You are a self-confessed fan of great user experience design (UXD). Tell me about what part innovation plays in UXD.

Innovation and user experience design are relatively inextricable from each other. Every innovator has a bit of designer in them and every designer has a bit of an innovator in them. Every formal innovation programme that I've been involved with starts with ideas about how to solve a specific problem for a specific person or user and that, in essence, is the discipline in user experience design.

How can innovation help cement the trust that's required for the relationship between a bank and its customers?

This is not an easy thing for any bank to solve in one effort. At U.S. Bank, we see our mission as investing our hearts and minds to power human potential. In practice, we're making that mission a reality by increasingly focusing on knowing who our customers are and finding ways to speak to them on their own terms. There are obviously formal approaches to solving this problem: for example, in being able to interact with them in an omnichannel fashion. Being able to understand that, increasingly, customers may interact with us on their smartphones and then continue that discussion in a branch. They may only be interested in direct communications from us if those communications are informed by a knowledge of the other discussions that they've had with us, the other interactions they've had and the overall history of our relationship. That’s the challenge for companies in our shoes and it places a responsibility on us to be laser-focused on who our customers are, and to bring one U.S. Bank to every single interaction.

What will you be looking for from entrants into the Effective Innovation category this year?

A lot of our discussions on the jury will revolve around the organisational challenges faced by our entrants and to what extent they were able to address risk in the most intelligent way possible. Being able to demonstrate a tolerance for risk and a willingness to push the boundaries beyond the entrants' typical comfort zones will be at least one of the key criteria that we look at when judging. Other dimensions would include the ability to establish dialogue with customers and really achieve some of the high levels of trust that consumers are looking for in real-time and in ways which are permission-based. It's about understanding where are the boundary lines in establishing the most productive relationships with customers.

Got an innovation case study? Enter it into our WARC Awards Effective Innovation category. The deadline is 12 February 2018 and entry is free. The other categories are:

  • Effective Use of Brand Purpose
  • Effective Content Strategy
  • Effective Social Strategy.