One of Nike’s first running shoes was inspired by a waffle iron. When Apple was trying to come up with colors for its iMacs, designer Jony Ive talked to jelly bean makers. A Swiss engineer came up with the idea for Velcro after his dog was covered with burdock burrs from a hunting trip.
Michelle Greenwald, a marketing professor at New York University and Columbia University and a veteran marketer, said such examples of product-design inspiration aren’t as rare as you think. Greenwald does more than talk about her philosophy of innovation. Since 2012 she has hosted week-long tours of New York and Copenhagen for CMOs, heads of R&D, chief innovation officers, and the like looking for inspiration--and maybe an expenses-paid trip to a cool city (the next two Inventours are set to take place in Paris and Barcelona).
In Greenwald’s view, the Inventours are valuable to marketers because it teaches them to be more observant about all the different factors that go into developing products, including packaging, product features, merchandising, and customer touch points. “By seeing how highly successful innovators have organized their teams and the creative environments of their firms, marketers can gain insights and inspiration to improve their processes and think differently and more systematically,” she told CMO.com.
Such insights don’t come cheap: The cost of an Inventour is around $8,000, not including flights and hotel, though Greenwald said that’s on part with other comparable programs. For the fee, participants get one-on-one access to creative professionals in their native habitats. The Paris program, which is scheduled for October, for instance, will include sessions with Nicolas Bergerault, president and co-founder of Atelier des Chefs, the Paris cooking school; Jacques Guillemet, co-founder and designer of retailer Pylones; and a tour of Le Camping, France’s top startup accelerator.
Greenwald said she believes most seminars directed at executives–even TED Talks--aren’t as inspiring as they could be because they’re not interactive. “I thought it would be more interesting to go to the workplaces of people who have actually done things and been successful and learn from their insights, their philosophies, what kind of environment they’re creating,” she said.
In a Copenhagen tour, for instance, the execs met with Claus Meyer, chef and co-founder of restaurant Noma. “He bicycled to his deli, and we sat with him for 50 minutes and chatted,” Greenwald said. “Then we met with his vinegar brewer, and then we met with his baker.”
Chefs pop up a lot in the Inventours itinerary, in part because, hey, everyone likes to eat, but also because the program takes its inspiration from Ferran Adrià, who Greenwald calls “perhaps the most creative chef who ever lived.”
As the story goes, in 2008 Greenwald was living in Barcelona, teaching at IESE, when the chairman of her department wrote a Harvard case study about Adrià, arguing that companies could learn from his innovations. Greenwald wrote an article for Metropolis magazine about how companies can apply Adrià’s methods. “That case study changed my life,” she said.
Greenwald was struck by how Adrià defied the stereotype of the scatterbrained artistic genius, using a methodical checklist that informed his cooking. “It’s not like random associations,” she said. “The dimensions that he looks at are like acoustics of food, mechanics of food, deconstruction evoking the sixth sense, which for him is like irony or childhood memories.”
Seizing on the idea, Greenwald began touring the world to take pictures of things that she found innovative. “I put them in a checklist that companies could use to innovate more methodically,” Greenwald said.
The collection eventually took the form of “Catalyzing Innovation,” an i-book that Greenwald continues to update. The book includes more than 700 examples of innovation that are broken down into 60 categories, such as “color innovation,” “distribution innovation,” and “pricing innovation.” In Greenwald’s view, innovation often comes from improving an aspect of the product experience. For instance, Apple’s innovation for the Macbook Air was based on looking at one attribute–weight–and making that a point of differentiation.
Greenwald was also stuck by how Adrià used to close his now-defunct restaurant down six months a year despite an insane waiting list for tables. During that time, Adrià and his chefs would travel the world looking for inspiration for the next year’s menu. They often wound up bringing unusual items into the kitchen, like a cotton candy machine for a savory fish dish and liquid nitrogen to make cocktails.
“People need to get out of their industry and out of their country,” Greenwald said.
The first Inventours session took place in New York in 2012 and drew about 15 execs, who were quickly ushered out of their comfort zones. Among the activities was touring Queens to check out 5 Pointz, an epic graffiti mural in Long Island City, Queens. “The best graffiti in the world was in Queens,” Greenwald said. “We had someone from the Pantone Color Institute and someone from Firmenich, one of the top fragrance producers, and they talk about trend forecasting based on the world’s best graffiti artists. It was spectacular.”
Lisa Lamberty, VP of global and regional color at Avon, who attended the New York tour, agreed. Also top of mind was a talk at the Whitney Museum by Richard Coraine, one of the executives who helped develop Shake Shack. “What they try to do is ‘plus one,’” Lamberty told CMO.com. “He used the example of a hot-dog cart that he had done in Bryant Park, where they were saying, ‘How could we be innovative with a hot-dog cart?’ So they put up all the things that are negative about a hot-dog cart, and then they started ‘plussing one’ on all of them, for example: Dirty water–that’s a negative, so what about chicken broth?”
Lamberty said that even though she’s in a completely different category, “I apply that to everything I do now.”
That sort of epiphany is the best-case scenario. “Thomas Edison said to invent you need an imagination and a pile of junk,” Greenwald said. “The point [to companies] ... is to look at the 60 different types of innovation, pick maybe 12 that apply, and then brainstorm, ‘How can we change the business model? How can we change the packaging? How can we change the product delivery system?’”
Greenwald said that what she is doing is merely imitating what the most innovative companies do–explore the world and then poach ideas. For example, Festo, a German maker of industrial equipment, regularly sends its engineers to the Stuttgart Zoo to indulge in biomimicry–the practice of emulating designs from the animal world; that’s what that Swiss engineer, George de Mistral, did to create Velcro. “They created some equipment that’s particularly flexible based on an elephant’s trunk,” Greenwald said of Festo’s engineers.
Other marketers who’ve attended said they like the cross-pollination of ideas.
“It’s helping companies who may only look at their own category to think along lines that they would never think about,” said Bonnie Carlson, CEO of the Brand Activation Association, took part in Greenwald’s New York program.