Adapt or die: How the world’s top brands innovate

Adapt or die: How the world’s top brands innovate

charles darwin

So March 2015 saw Advertising Week Europe hit London, and the theme of digital disruption (the marketing buzzword ‘du jour’) was never far from the surface.

Speaking at Marketing’s session, ‘Start-up State of Mind’, Unilever chief of new ventures, Jeremy Bassett said: “Disruption is definitely a threat, but also a huge opportunity. The reality is that we fear the things we don’t know.”

To help make the most of these new opportunities (and avoid the threats) Unilever have created Unilever Foundry. This is a programme which nurtures young startups with an eye to eventually partnering with them to solve strategic problems. It’s a smart move.

techdept marketing technology

The creation of branded tech accelerators and in-house innovation labs is a trend that the team at Techdept have seen up close. We work with internal innovation teams at both Microsoft and NBC Universal among others. These are people looking for new ways to solve business problems or engage customers using technology – we use our entrepreneurial and product development skills to do this, a start up state of mind.

But why should you even consider working in this way? Surely this can’t be relevant for everyone?

Disrupting yourself

John Kotter, author of XLR8 – a book about the accelerated pace of disruption – shows how the pace of change (in patent registrations, stock market trades, start up launches, technology adoption) is growing exponentially. He also provides a model for companies to deal with this rapid change.

This is important because often it is the biggest brands which are the hardest to change (the ‘turning a tanker’ analogy). As Kotter says:

“It’s a familiar scene in organizations today: a new competitive threat or a big opportunity emerges. You quickly create a strategic initiative in response and appoint your best people to make change happen. And it does–but not fast enough. Or effectively enough. Real value gets lost and, ultimately, things drift back to the default status”.

He recommends a “dual operating system” – linking the fast moving, fluid, network approach of the start up with the more hierarchical structure of the corporate. That you should create a space to (as Facebook used to say) ‘move fast and break things’, that reports into the CEO and isn’t afraid of failure – using those lessons to create data to refine the next move.

The XLR8 blueprint – and business rationale – for internal innovation, combined with Unilever’s more open collaboration with non-traditional partners (rather than it all going, for example, to a digital or ad agency) contain the seeds of a new way of thinking for brands.

Building innovation from within, by adopting new ways of working and nurturing relationships with new partners creates lateral thinking around traditional problems. In order to engage today’s customers the answer isn’t ‘more ads’.

But which brands are doing this?

What are the differences in approaches?

What insights can you learn?

So we decided to put together our roundup of the most interesting in-house innovation and media labs from some of the world’s largest corporate organisations:

tesco labs

Tesco have been innovating within their ‘future thinking’ open innovation lab for over 20 years. Notable developments include the Tesco Finder, Contactless Payment and the Tesco Grocery App.

Their team has grown from a single employee in 1994 to 25 full-time researchers, designers and developers today.

Tesco Labs is set up to compliment the multi-channel approach that’s already helping their customers shop however, whenever and wherever they need to.

An interesting concept they created was an app for Google Glass on the Samsung Galaxy Smart watch. Tesco Labs believe wearables will be used in more contextual situations, and  developed the app accordingly. For example, if you’re at home and see that you’ve run out of milk, you can use Glass to scan the product barcode and add it to your online grocery basket for home delivery.

unilever foundry

The Unilever Foundry is on a mission to collaborate with innovative startups & entrepreneurs, to make sustainable living commonplace.

Where Unilever differs from Tesco Labs, is in the way they ask creatives, designers and inventors to bring ideas to them. Then, alongside Unilever, the idea will be turned into an operable pilot to test its real world viability, before Unilever’s Venture Fund decide whether to invest in the idea or not.

Where Tesco Labs focuses creating new products for itself, Unilever’s mission is to partner with any kind of tech startup, bring them to market and then add them to the gargantuan’s stellar lineup of owned brands.

Unilever partnered with content marketing software developers Percolate, to deliver a system through which a marketing organisation can build effective and consistent brand presences across channels. What’s fascinating is that Percolate are very different to the rest of the Unilever portfolio of Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and Flora to name just a few. This is clearly a calculated purchase though, with the marketing technology industry expected to grow to $32Billion by 2018, we might just see a view more technology ventures arise from the corporate giant.

Jaguar Innovation Lab

techdept marketing technology

Jaguar’s innovation lab again differs from Unilever. The US based lab has been developed to maximise manufacturing efficiency, driving quality and in a world where the environment is getting more and more important, a focus on green energies and lighter materials is paramount to their developments.

To explain more, here’s Nicholas Hoult…

GE Ideas Lab

g e ideas

General Electrics Ideas Laboratory is a place where influencers convene to explore new ideas, innovations and public policies designed to transform business, industry and the global economy. GE know that they need to prepare not only for today, but for what’s to come – they understand that to achieve their goals they must include influencers and thought leaders from across the planet.

They say: “A place to convene. A place to discuss. A place for ideas.”

General Electric are putting large sums of money into the development of the industrial internet. They say this will lay the groundwork for the “New Industrial Age”. GE says the industrial internet is a technology framework that connects machines, facilities and people to deliver business value and improve productivity. The Industrial Internet will drive profound productivity gains not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

GE Reports – Tumblr page

General Electric discuss all of their findings within the highly commended GE reports website – the site is regularly cited as an exceptional example of content marketing. Not only educating the shareholders of today, but also enticing their employees of tomorrow.

british airways

British Airways did something recently that – as techies – we thought was very cool. They open-sourced their APIs and invited developers to innovate with them. BA hopes that developers will utilise the data to build new applications and improve travel technology for all.

Aside from this, the British Airways innovation team has been busy over the past couple of years. Notable advances in technology include ‘The Happiness Blanket’ – a device that measures the electrical fluctuations and identifies how the wearer is feeling in flight. The device allows the cabin crew to monitor how the passengers are feeling in flight, giving them the ability to provide a tailored service for each traveller.

NBC Universal Media Labs

media labs

NBC Universal is doing amazing things with Media Labs. Wearable Technologies, The Internet Of Things and the Connected Car are all tested to understand how they impact consumers. They have labs located in London, New York and Los Angeles – labs that are constantly learning how the latest technologies can ignite the future of media and storytelling.

On March 28th and 29th NBC held a hackathon in Orlando, Florida. More than 170 participants came to hack with technologies ranging from Virtual Reality and Interactive 360 video, to Internet of Things! A total of 42 teams competed for up to $15,000 in cash and prizes, as well as the opportunity to pitch their ideas to NBCUniversal Media Labs.

We’ve been working with their team in London for a number of years now.

Diageo Innovation Lab


With technical research facilities in the UK, USA, Hong Kong & Australia and 180 employees, the Diageo Innovation Lab is one of the largest in operation.

Recently, the innovation team were responsible for bringing the highly anticipated Haig Club to market, through a strategic partnership with David Beckham and British Entrepreneur Simon Fuller. Diageo claim that the innovation team is worth around £1.4 Billion of revenue to the company.

Diageo launched a Technology Ventures arm to the already successful Innovation Lab. The programme that was only launched in January 2015, is looking for technology startups who can deliver innovative solutions that can work in emerging markets.

Obviously, the technology venture is only in early stages, but at the end of April the chosen partners will be selected for the pilot launch in July – we’re excited to see the developments over the coming months.

bbc labs

We love the way BBC Worldwide Labs operates as a digital media startup accelerator.

They’re providing entrepreneurs with world-class mentors, great infrastructure and the opportunity to forge commercial partnerships for access to valuable market insights and learnings, access to talent and new technology.

Their goal is to strategically and commercially partner with and support the most innovative up-and-coming digital media companies that are helping to define the emerging digital landscape.

BBC Labs first commercial deal was signed with Foodity. The deal signed in partnership between BBC Good Food and Tesco, will give users access to Tesco’s online shopping experience – Tesco’s online customers’ baskets will be automatically filled with ingredients, and it means they can shop at Tesco without leaving the GoodFood site.


The Ogilvy Labs in London operate as a self-funded R&D facility that acts as a change agent within Ogilvy Group UK – the globally renowned advertising agency.

Their vision is threefold:
To seek out and engage partners who would help the agency and its clients achieve their business and marketing goals.
To develop, nurture and support new business ventures.
To provide experiences that would inspire through pervasive creativity – such as their Bi-Annual Semesters of Learning.


John Lewis Labs is now in it’s 2nd year of operation. They set out to develop innovative retail solutions in collaboration with some of the countries most promising startups. They set out to mesh the digital and physical worlds through effortless payment systems. As you might expect, John Lewis is interested in how they can innovate products smart products for the connected home.

JLAB offer £20,000 of initial investment, access to industry leading experts, the latest market leading tech and dedicated office space in Central London. Each team will embark upon a 12 week programme before 1 or more startups are selected to receive follow on funding of £100,000 plus the chance to secure a contract with John Lewis.

asos ventures

As corporate venture capital arm of the ASOS group, ASOS ventures are the strategic partner for promising fashion technology companies around the world. What’s special about ASOS ventures is that the initiative is lead by ASOS Chairman Brian McBride. Access to such high level business people is bound to be an attractive offering to the hottest fashion and technology startups.

The programme promises so much more than just an avenue of funding to the startups under their wing. As a strategic investor they will give crucial advice, help develop a customer acquisition program and give each startup guidance on operations.

Any young startups who have innovative ideas in the fashion space need to check out ASOS ventures.


Do you know any other brands who are using technology to innovate? We’d love to hear your comments in the section below.

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