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How brands should approach innovation whilst getting comfortable with failure

On Day 5 of Cannes Lions, Mark Sandys, Chief Innovation Officer, Diageo, stated that while leading through being wrong feels really different, it is highly imperial because these failed incidents lead to learnings which then lead to some of the best work

Taking to the stage on the final day of Cannes Lions 2023, Mark Sandys, Chief Innovation Officer, Diageo, talked about the importance of failure and how some of the failed incidents provided the brand with the learnings which eventually led to some of the best work.

Kickstarting the same, he stated that the alco-bev major is one of the companies that is built on innovation and over the years has stood on the shoulders of giants such as Arthur Guinness who innovated to create some of the most iconic brands in the world hundreds of years ago.

“One of the privileges of working at Diageo is that you get to be the guardian of some of the great brands for this phase of their life and to work out how you're going to reinvent them for the next phase of their life, and for that, you need to have a long-term perspective or forever goals,” he said.

Sharing more about these long-term strategic imperatives that the brand is always trying to deliver on, Sandys emphasised that one of such goals is about Guinness wherein the brand brief always happens to contain four alphabets- OGCD, i.e- Only Guinness Can Do. 

“This precisely is because Guinness looks and tastes pretty different from any other beer on the bar and right back to day one when Arthur Guinness decided to brew black beer when the rest of the world was brewing brown beer,” he said.

He then went on to state that if there's an innovation that could be done by another beer then it's not good enough for Guinness, which was invented back in the late 1950s through the usage of nitrogen in beer instead of carbon dioxide. 

“Most of our best innovations on Guinness have been about how to deliver that perfect pint in different ways and in different occasions as well. It's something that only Guinness can do and we've been doing that for years- through incredibly novel usage of technology such as using nitrogen, use of ultrasound, of digital, then of nanotechnology. But the thing is, like not all of them worked but then they did teach us two things- how to make the product that would make the product explode throughout Asia. This was through a widget which was put in the beer cans for an enormous breakthrough,” he added.

Sandys then stated that it was owing to the above innovation that Guinness won the Queen’s Award for Innovation in 1992, “and later during Covid when people couldn't get a pint anywhere, we saw people online experimenting with how to pour their cans in different ways and that made us then think about what we needed to do next and led to Guinness micro draft and Guinness Nitro Surge.” 

Sharing information on some of the other few forever goals of Diageo, he stated that one of them is about creating a new category of non-alcoholic spirits across every consumer goods industry, be it through wellness or its promotion, as it is a really big trend and the company is increasingly seeing- the one where people are choosing to moderate their alcohol consumption but wanting to remain in the occasion whether through marking a moment of celebration or minding the marking winding down after work.

“About five years ago, we set off to try to figure out how we could recreate the taste of some of our most iconic spirits in a non-alcoholic form. We knew it was going to be pretty hard, so we didn't try to do it all ourselves either. We were looking at who were the most creative and vibrant entrepreneurs making spirit startups at the same time as well. And through that process, we created Gordon Zero and Tankeray Zero, and started to work with Ben Branson, who created Seedlib,” he stated. 

He also pointed out that non-alcoholic spirits are the fastest growing category in the alco-bev segment currently at the moment, making it yet another more established non-alcoholic beer than non-alcoholic spirits. 

By 2018, the company could see what was starting to happen with non-alcoholic spirits and therefore went and created Pure Brew non-alcoholic lager.

“Guinness Zero would not be where it is today if we hadn't had that failure. This is precisely why now getting comfortable with failure is important because the challenges that marketers are facing today are bigger, harder and less clear than they've been before.” 

He then pointed out that Diageo was already using AI to predict what are going to be next year's hot flavour trends and therefore help them buy the most effective media platform, however, now the company is starting to trial using AI to accelerate its innovation ideation as well. 

“Web3 is going change online identity and transparency of ownership in a way that's gonna be a game changer for our category, which, if you think about it, has always required proof of ID and is therefore going to test using it to democratise luxury spirits - including tequila,” he said.

He then went on to state that leading through failure is really hard as most people today get a sense of meaning from success and progress and that leading through being wrong feels really different.

“You've got to be able to create a fertile creative process to open up as many potential options as possible and AI could be an accelerator of that, and you've got to create an environment where it's the outcome that matters more than who was the person who had the idea,” he suggested.

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