Innovating Communication About Innovation

January 10, 2019

Let’s face it, communicating on innovation is challenging for companies in any industry. Companies in the technology sector tend to be more synonymous with innovation than those outside of the industry. Yet, most companies are engaged in innovation efforts, but don’t always want to tell their story. A review of APCO’s corporate reputation research identifies three potential guidelines for any company looking to update their approach to communications on innovation.

Talent, expertise and partnerships, not R&D spend, make for a strong foundation for your innovation story

Based upon our years of research findings, regardless of the number, most stakeholders will find fault with how much a company spends on research and development. It’s either too small or too big, it will never be perceived as being “just right.” However, the process by which a company innovates is still an important part of the overall story. Companies with a strong reputation communicate on the innovation process by highlighting the talent of their workforce, the partnerships the company seeks or cultivates and the ways in which the company encourages innovative thinking, such as through an integrated office design.

Meaningful innovation efforts that add value to society make for the strongest innovation story

With more than a decade of research under our belts, our findings indicate that the companies with the strongest reputations are champions for the interests of their stakeholders and society. These “best of the best” companies articulate an innovation narrative that shows a clear connection between this effort and the benefit to society overall. It’s very easy to get trapped in an innovation story that zeros in on attributes of “more” or “better,” but the most impactful innovation stories focus on the big picture impact on society. And it’s important to note that this impact does not need to be revolutionary, but it’s important to make the connection between the effort and resulting benefit.

Listen to your audience and tailor the story accordingly

We also learn from our research that innovation communications are most effective when in-step with perceptions of the company’s key stakeholders. From experience, it’s hard to get that innovation message just right as the middle-point between innovative enough or too innovative is different for each industry and company. In fact, I recently re-learned this lesson in a recent message-testing study conducted for a manufacturing client. In the research, we tested new areas of innovation that the client and I found exciting, such as robotics, drones, and 3D printing. However, what we believed to be a highly positive development for the company, was in reality viewed extremely negatively by respondents and interpreted as code for automation and future lost jobs. Moreover, the reaction to these messages were so strong that it completely derailed further discussions on seemingly unrelated areas of the company’s operations. The experience served as an in-your-face reminder that the most effective communications – on innovation or anything else – are aligned with the opinions of the company’s stakeholders.

One final piece of advice. The most compelling innovation story will be one that remains authentic to the identity of the company’s corporate brand. Staying true to the heritage of the brand can help any innovation story stay on track.

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