Brand driven problem definition

Brand driven innovation is an important concept if you want to use your brands purpose to successfully drive innovation and transformation. As problem definition sits at the heart of innovation, achieving success means translating your brands purpose so that it connects to the problems to be solved.

Back in 2007 I worked with Washington Mutual on their brand. The underlying purpose was a combination of simplicity and customer centricity. It was referred to “simpler banking and more smiles”. The basic insight being that people don’t want the kinds of complexity banks typically create. Instead, they’re much happier with simpler experiences delivered in an enjoyable way. Something the WaMu operating model made them uniquely capable of delivering relative to the big banks of the day.

As online banking had taken off, a huge frustration for customers was that opening an online free checking account (remember those?) was anything but simple. You could start easily enough, but the actual account funding and opening part required a series of manual steps in the middle. First the bank had to send the customer a signature test strip. Then the customer had to sign this before sending it back to the bank. At this point, with the signature on file, the bank could then allow the account to be opened and funded. This shifted a process that should have taken minutes out to around 2 weeks on average. And no surprise, most of the accounts people started to open online were never funded at all.

In response, the bank translated their purpose beautifully into problem definition. Reasoning that if the brand was about creating simpler experiences that made people smile, then “the average customer should be able to sign up in 10 minutes or less. If it takes longer than 10 minutes then it doesn’t go on the site. No exceptions.”

This framing, translating simplicity into time was profound. Based on this constraint, WaMu innovated the process. Instead of a signature test strip, they figured that they could ask account openers to use and sign the first check in their checkbook. Then the signature would be placed on file, removing the need for the test strip. In turn, this now meant the account could be opened immediately and made available for deposits.

The result? The average account signup went from 2 weeks to 8 minutes, and they saw the equivalent of 100 branches worth of free checking accounts being opened online every day. Not bad for a seemingly simple piece of process engineering.

What I took from this was that innovating based on the brand means that you first need to frame the problems to be solved through the lens of the brand.

It is very uncommon to see a brand strategy with this innovation-translation built in. As a result, the need to translate brand strategy from a communications construct into problem framing is a necessary step if you want your brand to be reflected in your innovations.

Clearly this task is highly dependent on the innovation need at hand, which means the translation process might need to happen many times in many different ways across your business. In the WaMu example shared here, a 10 minute signup process would have been a meaningless way of defining the problem if we were innovating a new savings product. That would have required a different translation and a different set of constraints.

In this example the business imperative was to generate a greater number of online account openings. The brand imperative was to see it done in a simple and enjoyable fashion. For the purposes of problem definition simplicity translated into time.

The result was a great experience for the customer, a big commercial impact for the bank, and an equally big signal that the WaMu brand was making things simpler for their customers.

A good example, I think, of pro-actively translating brand strategy and purpose into specific areas of problem definition in order to drive innovation. It won’t just happen on its own.

Paul Worthington