Perfection or imperfection?

Philippa Cresswell of EP Evolution discusses the highly topical challenge of established brands thinking and acting ‘local’ to drive engagement and innovation with customers

I have long been passionate about innovation and spotting new and exciting opportunities – be it about people or brand and concept evolution. However, I also know just how difficult it is to balance the expectations of a large and sensitive brand name with the need to innovate quickly and constantly.

Yet I am still seduced by perfect rows of apple and tomatoes, and ‘out of season’ produce in supermarkets rather than the progressive use of misshapen, seasonal produce which would challenge thinking and use of the ingredients (and with my food background I should know better). The use of ‘non-perfect’ produce is win-win, with flavour and value for the consumer and is more profitable for the producer who can then channel that money into their own innovation – BUT we like perfection and consistency.

At a recent innovation forum I was completely captivated listening to a young entrepreneur talking about the idea for his brand originating from his horror at the fish which is perfectly edible but, you guessed it, not quite the right size or with a recognisable name, and is thrown back into the sea. He is using this as a competitive edge to buy the ‘useless fish’ (cheap to him and fantastic for the fisherman, environment, eco system etc) and make into fish patties for his new concept. Win-win!

So it is with a wry smile and some musing that I sit enjoying my skinny cappuccino from a mismatched coffee cup in my local independent deli whilst waiting for my colleague to arrive. Why is it on a midweek morning that THIS coffee shop is buzzing with a real vibrancy and community that the brand over the road, although also with customers, simply doesn’t have?


How is it that, without the huge brand presence or marketing funds available to big brands, and with mismatched cups, non-uniform shaped cakes and some unusual savouries (not to mention a girl serving with pink hair and piercings!), this coffee shop continues to grow (they have expansion plans underway) and spontaneously innovate whilst still maintaining strong customer loyalty ?

This is a challenge that all major brands face. With ever increasing competition (the rise of coffee culture is well documented and has been prolific in recent years) how do they main consistency, the bedrock of trust and so vital to brand loyalty and profits, whilst being innovative and staying ahead of the game?

In my opinion and from hard gained experience it is large companies and brands complete obsession with control – even discussions about ‘ empowering’ people seem to have a manual to back up the process – that limit the ability to be innovative in a timely way.

So what is the balance? How do brands react quickly and in a ‘free thinking’ way whilst still meeting the needs of the shareholder and other security blankets?

I once plucked up enough courage to tell our CEO that for a brand known for innovation we had become risk averse and thus slow to market – and lost our edge.

“You are absolutely right”, he said, “shall we add it to the list of priorities for next year” – … you get the point.

2013-06-05_philippa_cresswell-1Independent advantage

Big brands have huge support (and costs) to consider which is where the local and smaller operators can win, with:

  • lower profit expectations
  • simple controls which support/ don’t suffocate the business
  • recruit staff with their values and are bought into the business for what it is
  • ability to engage with the customer and their team and react quickly to ideas
  • create trends and ideas not follow them – and keep doing it
  • ‘fly by the seat of our pants / react / have fun / be customer centric’

We should also remember that with both a recession and recent meat scares the public look closer for reassurance – back to the sense of community that we have lost, and local cafés support this.

Larger brands can work with and learn from these trends to ensure they stay current and important in the customer’s view. But they need to follow a few simple rules and must look outside rather than just be internal in their thinking:

  • how can we get products to market quickly?
  • how can we break down the restrictions in this process?
  • what is the long term risk to the business if we don’t do it now?
  • how do we stop our obsession with perfection and control suffocating the innovation pipeline?
  • how as a business do we embrace ‘imperfection’?

I have some very clear views on how this can be achieved (and we did some great things at Virgin once we broke down the ‘reasons not to’ thought process) – how we can pull independent thinking into huge process driven operations.

Think about the people who work in the brands, the customers and the ever emerging youth who are simply bursting with ideas which are well researched and thought through in some cases, and in others ‘just off the cuff’.

Imagine the power of embracing all these ideas and the passion – oh the passion!

But let’s remember that some brands do this really well, for example:

  • Pret A Manger– arguably are great at constantly innovating whilst retaining customer loyalty. I’m a huge fan and love that they stay constantly on trend.
  • Bill’s Restaurants are doing a great job – it feels fun and spontaneous and has that amazing community ‘buzz’ – you know it’s a chain but quickly forget.

Here’s to imperfection…

Philippa has worked in the hospitality and travel industry for 20 years, specialising in brand and concept design, operations and implementation. During that time she has worked for high profile brands including NEXT, House of Fraser, Debenhams, Safeway and the Virgin group. Most recently Philippa was New Product Development Director at Virgin Trains, responsible for scoping the customer experience strategy and ensuring its delivery to support the Virgin Brand umbrella. A creative, customer centric and results driven consultant with a passion for delivering real value at all levels of a business.

For more information about EP Evolution please contact Chris Sheppardson,