Named as one of the top 50 women in marketing by Search Engine Journal and one of the top 10 influencers in content marketing by Onalytica, Carla Johnson regularly challenges conventional thinking. The world-renowned storyteller, speaker and author has spent the last two decades working with Fortune 500 brands helping them to leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action.
Here Johnson talked to Content Magazine about what it means to be truly innovative and why brands need to adopt the mindset of perpetual innovation.
Content: Can you give me an example of a brand that has been innovative with its content?
Carla Johnson: The Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio has been able to use its content to really establish itself as a world-class health provider. Amanda Todorovich, its Head of Content Marketing, started out creating a simple blog. Her aim was to focus on the mission of the Cleveland Clinic, which was to help people lead healthier lives, rather than overtly promoting the services of the healthcare provider. (Our interview with Amanda from 2014)
She shifted the content focus from what Cleveland Clinic sells to sharing information about how anybody, whether they’re a patient or not, can live healthier lives.
Over time, she’s grown the audience of the ‘Heath Essentials’ section of the website to over four million visitors a month, and the blog is now one of the top 20 websites, not just in healthcare, but in the world.
Cleveland Clinic has looked beyond providing content for just its patients and aims to serve a bigger audience. They’ve been able to look at the customer journey and create an amazing content-driven experience that provides real value at every step.
You’ve talked about companies who innovate and innovative companies. What’s the difference?
When we look at innovation, there are two types of companies. There are those that innovate, and then there are innovative companies.
The former tends to silo innovation. They have a group of people who are charged with innovation, it’s in their title. They’re quarantined off from the rest of the company. And if you ask anyone else in the company to come up with a new idea, they say, “That’s not what we do. We don’t know how to be innovative.” New ideas are isolated within an organization, because only a small group feels ownership for them.
Conversely, innovative companies believe in a democracy of great ideas, and they hold everyone accountable for being innovative. They know it’s the people closest to the customers who have the best insights into what goes on. They see opportunities to be innovative in the day-to-day touch-points, and it’s these types of innovations that make all the difference to customers.
Is there a formula that companies can follow to become more innovative?
Absolutely. Innovative companies seem to have a perpetual inventory of ideas because they function like ‘innovation factories’. They understand that innovation is a process that needs to be done on a consistent basis. By making the process of bringing new ideas into an organization, they’re able to make the unfamiliar ideas start to feel safe.
Number 1: Observe. They start out by observing the world around them. There are so many times when we shut down and focus on what we have in front of us. It’s when we stop, make time to be mindful, and watch what is going on around us that we start to look at the world from a different perspective.
Number 2: Distill. They look at their observations and they begin to notice patterns. It’s these patterns that they distill into a broader theme.
Number 3: Relate. They then do something that I called a ‘brand transplant’. They take the pattern that they’ve distilled from another idea and transplant that into their own brand. The ability to relate outside ideas into their own world is almost second nature.
It’s these three steps that make the difference between a brand that’s consistently innovative across the company and one that looks at just innovating the products or services that they sell.
What is perpetual innovation, how can brands adopt it?
When I think about companies that are innovative, I think about four different kind of companies.
The first one I call a ‘Cling-on.’ They have one great idea and they cling onto that for as long as they can. They’re not truly innovative, because everything they do is just a slightly different iteration of one idea.
Then, you have the ‘Steady Eddies’. They do little bits of innovation in small amounts. They show up a little bit different consistently over time, but don’t do anything that really wows you.
‘One Hit Wonders’ are the companies that really knocked it out of the park with one great product. They hold onto the glory of it but never do anything that stands out ever again.
Finally, there are companies that are ‘Perpetual Innovators’. They’re the ones consistently taking outside inspiration and bringing it into their company. They look at how they can deliver and execute consistently great ideas over a long period of time.
One of the things that make Perpetual Innovators successful is they understand the first ideas they have aren’t always the best ideas. They know how to continually iterate concepts and make them better.
Part of the ability to evolve ideas is how they look at giving feedback to people. In most companies when people come forward with a new idea, it falls victim to what I call ‘the gladiator effect’. The idea gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. The idea either lives or it dies.
With Perpetual Innovators, when they hear a new idea they pick out what they like about it, and then refine it within the context of their own business.
Their ideas don’t live or die. They are continually evolved, iterated and refined. It’s the only way to consistently deliver something that’s new, interesting, and exciting.