“The art of innovation is to anticipate what consumers can’t articulate yet”
Back in the days, common football player’s opinion was that a boot mainly needed to protect you from the opponents’ tackles and the impact of kicking the ball. Adi Dassler was said to be an inventor and a lateral thinker more than anything else. He observed that a footballer was only in contact with the ball for maybe 90 seconds of the 90 minutes; the rest of the time he was running, so Adi Dassler reasoned that a footballer needed footwear as light as possible instead of heavy, clumsy leather boots. Apparently Adi Dassler didn’t care much about conventions. He had his own ideas and followed them, no matter what others said. When I recently read about this little anecdote in our history book I immediately thought that you can still feel Adi Dassler’s visionary and creative spirit here at adidas. But what makes an idea a successful innovation? What is our framework for innovation? My curiosity was piqued and I decided to ask Bernd Wahler, adidas Head of Innovation, for an interview. Here’s what I learned…
Bernd, first things first: Why does adidas innovate?
We innovate to make athletes better and enrich peoples’ lives. We want to unlock human potential so that everyone can go ‘all in’. This approach is anchored in our DNA since Adi Dassler made the first pair of shoes in his mother’s laundry in the 1920th. His heritage and energy are still very much alive. We are very passionate about leading through innovation and consumer relevant solutions. This enables us to get a competitive advantage and to fuel growth. It’s just amazing to be allowed to work at the core of this.
The adidas innovation team (ait) is famous for groundbreaking innovations in the sporting goods industry. Did all adidas innovations arise from these master minds?
The adidas innovation team is indeed responsible for a lot of our innovations and I am proud to be a part of it. But it’s not only us. Innovation is an integral part of every adidas employee’s work; no matter which department we are talking about – be it product creation, operations, IT, marketing or the area of sustainability. Innovation is after all one of our brand values. One of the exciting things about working with adidas is that you can feel this mindset throughout the entire company. Nevertheless, we can’t take it for granted and, therefore, continuously foster this special climate.
From your experience – what kind of people are born innovators?
Most definitely people who are inherently striving to challenge the status quo in order to change the world for the better. They are positive minds and not afraid of taking risks. We know that failure is an important part of the process – as long as you learn from it. Here at adidas it is also important to have a deep understanding of the brand as well as of the people whose problems you want to solve. After all you want to surprise them positively. Being eager to learn and curious enough to look beyond the rim of your teacup also adds to these important characteristics of true innovators.
How do big innovations come into existence? Is there a lot of planning behind it or is it more about dreaming?
Blue-sky thinking is important, but one thing is for sure: you can’t just go wild; you also need processes to make innovation happen. Usually you find inspiration through identifying a need or a problem. Then you create an idea around this inspiration – which asks for a lot of empathy and powerful insights. The art of our business is to anticipate what consumers can’t articulate yet. After this you start to implement your idea through prototyping, testing and developing the invention until it is ready to hit the market and to deliver an exciting consumer experience. Obviously this is just a very rough outline of the process.
The word innovation implies something totally new. How much can one company really innovate? Where are the boundaries?
On the one hand there is what we call ‘revolutionary innovation’. This type changes the entire sports category or even the complete industry. But there is also ‘evolutionary innovation’ – inventions which you try to continuously evolve. It’s about reinventing yourself from time to time whilst staying true to your DNA. I will give you an example: The Predator defined a new era of football boots. By evolving it, it always stayed a benchmark. You need to keep in mind that is important to give consumers a chance and enough time to understand and experience the innovation. You can’t just blow them away with a revolution every other season. The mix makes it – the mix of disruption and fresh evolution.
When will you blow us away for the next time?
Well, wait and see. It might be sooner than you think. Let yourself surprise by our creative power…it’s endless.
Thanks for taking the time, Bernd.
You are very welcome.