Alex: Staying on the challenge topic, 2020 has definitely had no shortage of challenges! Being based in both Europe and the US, have you noticed a difference in how the brand and innovation industry has been impacted in both regions, or even in the type of briefs or questions that clients are posing? From my perspective I’ve always found the US to be a bit more comfortable with risk than Europe.
Alain: There’s a great HBR article called Roaring Out of a Recession and it was released after the 2008 recession, and it’s about how companies should invest in both offensive and defensive strategies in moments of crisis. A lot of companies tend to flee and cut staff or cut expenditures, when actually this is the time to invest, and the companies that invest in things like R&D, innovation and marketing actually outperform their competitors by a significant margin, something around the 36% mark.
The smart companies know this and are looking to increase their innovation expenditures and the role of innovation is more prevalent and should be more prevalent at times like this. I’m not just saying this as someone that sells this service, but truly, there’s factual data to support it.
In terms of difference across regions, what we’re finding in the US is that there is a real reticence on the part of most clients to spend. But there are a few categories where we’re seeing some real energy. For us, the only category that we’ve gained new clients is really what you might call the digital space. We’re working with a handful of these unicorns, which says something about how humans and the economy are working right now. A lot of people are doing many things online and at home, expecting things like delivery and streaming video, and those businesses are feeling a bit more open to spend on innovation. But at the same time, we are also getting some very, very far out whitespace innovation projects among more traditional companies that are not spending for tomorrow.
In Europe I too have noticed a greater risk aversion and I don’t really see a significant move one way or another. Brands are staying very quiet and have a ‘wait and see’ approach, and frankly, I think they’re following a lot of what’s happening in the US.
Alex: That’s super helpful. I think that links into economies bouncing back and how quickly they bounce back post-pandemic. In the US, if innovation investment stays consistent or increases, businesses are presumably able to adapt a little bit faster, whereas in Europe, it feels a lot more protectionist with budgets being reduced. Overall it doesn’t feel as though a lot of companies are adapting as quickly there as they are in the US.
Switching the conversation to diversity and inclusion, which has been another major subject of 2020, whether it’s related to the workforce or brands or society in general, I was particularly keen to get your perspective both as a black business owner yourself and as an innovation and brand leader in this space.
There’s a lot of articles that have come up in recent years on the lack of diversity and inclusion in the brand and innovation space but what’s your view on the industry and some of the challenges in faces around encouraging more diversity and more inclusion?
Alain: There’s a lot there. First it’s a challenging thing to opine about for me because what we’re trying to do at Sylvain Labs is to be the best consultancy in the world and we’ve done a good job of that – we’ve worked on very diverse challenges at the highest level and really the only thing that provides us a credible voice on this issue is the fact that the owner, and the person that runs it, is a Black man.
So it’s an interesting tension because, on the one hand, we should be evaluated the same way and be asked the same questions as any other consultancy might.But I also see it as a responsibility and a unique position where we do have some expertise on this. There’s an absolute void of “diversity” in brand innovation roles at companies and consultancies, which is a travesty because people are creating brands and innovating products for people that feel very different to them and there’s a complete disconnect.
I have mobile technology on the brain right now because of a client project and African Americans over-index on mobile technology by a significant margin over the general population. When you look at the people designing these mobile products with these devices and apps in the Bay Area there’s a tremendous disconnect. So, what value could you bring people if you reflected them better in the actual development of the product? What value could you bring your company if you were able to better deliver value to the customer? To me, it’s in the business case. There’s a clear business argument for diversity and inclusion. We try to elevate that among our clients as much as possible, but systemic racism is real and it’s a hard thing to push forward.
You started the question by saying, everyone’s talking about diversity and yes, some people are, but a lot of us have been talking about it forever. A lot of us were activated well before the killing of George Floyd and a lot of us will be activated well after. In corporate America and in some circles, this has now become a priority, which says something right? Why does it take another black man to be tortured for this to become a priority?