How Activating A Corporate Brand Kickstarts Radical Innovation

A brand promise, messages, and definitions about what is on and off brand provide limits within which creativity can thrive.

Co-authored by Torben Valsted

We (Sunnie and Torben) come from different perspectives: Sunnie is an ardent student of radical innovation, and Torben in brands. We combined our expertise to reach a point of confluence for these important topics. A brand can serve as a powerful instrument for companies to generate radical innovation in two ways: to provide constraints that are necessary for creativity and to create social cohesion that enables learning.

A Brand as a Constraint for Creativity

Constraints stimulate creativity[1]. In a world that is changing quickly and becoming increasingly unpredictable, problems are often not well-defined and no pre-existing solutions are available to serve as a starting point. In this situation, our brain can’t produce “preinventive structures” that serve as a precursor to the final innovative product[2]. A creative process involves cycling between exploration and exploitation, with each iteration adding more towards the final product. In such situations introducing constraints can actually improve the creative process by providing raw materials to start the exploration cycle.

A Brand as a Vehicle to Build Cohesion

Radical innovation requires iterative learning, and learning is inherently social in nature (people learn on the job and from each other). Strong team cohesion contributes to the team members’ ability to learn. A brand can serve as a powerful instrument to build cohesion in a team.

The kind of leaders who are successful in leading organizations in these unpredictable times—whom Sunnie calls Quantum Leaders—often reiterate team and company goals, strategies, and brand promise so the team is clear on the direction they need to go. They clearly define what is on-brand and off-brand. They use the brand promise as a rallying cry, a common goal for everyone to march towards. Most importantly—and this is where the majority of companies fail—they ensure customers experience the brand consistently across geography, over time, and spanning the entire customer-experience spectrum.

When what the customer experiences is consistent with the brand promise communicated in the form of advertising and marketing (messaging), the customer experiences the brand as authentic and feels safe engaging with it. If you are an airline company and your brand promise is “fun,” every aspect of your company must consistently communicate fun in all touch points as well as internal departments. The customer experience from this culture is fundamentally different than one coming from a funny safety video from a stodgy company, which comes across as inauthentic, i.e. unsafe. Everyone in the organization must live and breathe the brand promise, or it never becomes salient enough to be translated into an authentic brand experience for customers.

Because of the far-reaching impact of the customer experience on the brand, this step goes far beyond the CMO. Managing the brand becomes everyone’s job. What does the HR department have to do with the brand? They are not at a customer touch point. Oh, but they have a huge impact on those who are. What kind of hiring criteria they set, what type of behavior they incentivize, and what kind of people they promote or terminate sends clear messages to the organization and sets behavioral norms, which customers experience at the touch point. When the entire organization is passionate about keeping the brand promise, it creates team cohesion and connection, an optimal environment for learning. Radical innovation is a result of iterative learning, which means connection and learning are required for radical innovation.


In the early 70’s, Jeff Johnson had a dream that forever changed the sporting industry. Jeff was the first employee hired by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, and his dream about the Greek Goddess of victory, “Nike,” led to the naming of the world’s leading sports brand. The aspirational slogan “Just do it” will always stand for the inspiration we feel for a “race” without a finish line. The Nike brand-minded leadership, now heralded by Mark Parker, is a force of its own, and employees breathe the essence of “Just do it” every day. 

Brand as an Instrument for Radical Innovation

A brand promise, messages, and definitions about what is on and off brand provide limits within which creativity can thrive. A brand can also provide cohesive, consistent direction for everyone to follow, which creates a sense of connection and a safe environment for learning. These conditions are necessary for companies to spawn radical innovation. Marketing leaders can use these principles to drive the agenda for radical innovation.

[1] Stokes, Patricia D. Creativity from constraints: The psychology of breakthrough. Springer Publishing Company, 2005.

[2] Moreau, C. Page, and Darren W. Dahl. "Designing the solution: The impact of constraints on consumers' creativity." Journal of Consumer Research 32.1 (2005): 13-22.