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PHOTO: Med Badr Chemmaoui

It’s no secret that innovation is key to having a successful business. But then again, so is meeting customers’ expectations. Those goals are mutually exclusive, right? 

Wrong. In fact, they should go together. Popular brands are actually driven by customer expectations. 

Customer-driven innovation is the practice of pushing your brand in the direction that your customers want — as opposed to changing things without any sort of customer input. That might sound like Business 101. But the truth is, many companies fail at innovation because they put their own interests ahead of what their customer base expects from the brand.

Letting Customers Drive the Car

If you shake things up before asking your customers, the consequences can be steep. You could put your brand at risk, or even drive off long-term users.

One brand that seems to understand that balance is Sandals Resorts. I recently interviewed Adam Stewart, the deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International, who emphasized the importance of customer-driven innovation. “The biggest mistake I've seen brands make today is being apprehensive or hesitant of change,” Stewart said. “It's crucial for travel operators — and for brands in general — to be one step ahead of the next big thing consumers are looking for in a vacation or a product.”

A good example is Sandals’ work in Jamaica. Stewart pointed out that not only do Sandals customers bring business to the island, but the brand itself invests deeply in three areas: education, communication and the environment. Many travel brands assume corporate social responsibility isn’t even on the radar of someone who books a vacation. But in fact, 86% of consumers expect companies to act on social and environmental issues.

Stewart knows that innovation is not always a matter of building the flashiest piece of technology. What’s more important is understanding what’s on customers’ minds, and building something — whether it be a brand initiative or a product feature — to suit.

Related Article: Innovation and Alignment: A Customer Experience Leader's Harmonic Convergence

Adapting to New Environments

The work of innovation is really about adaptation. And one brand that understands this has been around for 115 years.

Another leader I recently caught up with is Guy Hilton, global marketing director at Mitchell & Ness. Just as it wouldn’t work to sell jerseys that look like they’re made last century, Hilton knows that it doesn’t make sense to use last century’s marketing tactics.

That isn’t just Hilton’s opinion; it’s what customers of Mitchell & Ness expect. It’s the work of customer-driven innovation, which requires adaptation without a loss of brand identity. “As marketers, we love being disruptive and pushing boundaries,” Hilton explained. “But doing that at the same time as protecting a 115-year-old brand can also be a challenge.”

To Hilton, that means embracing new tactics without losing sight of the brand’s wider strategy. The idea is still to connect with fans, but the ways in which Mitchell & Ness creates that connection have changed.

For one, Mitchell & Ness is taking advantage of Instagram’s commerce features. Users can check out new jerseys and sports apparel in a social community before actually checking out online.

Mitchell & Ness is also embracing new partnerships. It’s broadening its market with a relationship with Overwatch League, a popular e-sports fan community. Hilton pointed to growth trends in e-sports as a sign of where customers want the brand to go.

Adaption doesn’t mean overhaul; to Hilton, it means improvement — especially in the direction of new markets. “We will respect our past but ensure we keep building in new market segments to grow our future,” he said.

That, in this marketer’s opinion, is the right way to think about customer-driven innovation.

Related Article: Looking for Your Next Big Idea? Ask Your Customers — and Really Listen

The Balancing Act

Brand history matters. Market trends matter. Innovation matters. And absolutely, customers’ interests matter.

To be sure, it’s tough to mix those things together in a winning way. But if brands that span entire continents and market segments can do it, then so can you.