Fish where the fish aren’t

Part 2 of our series on innovation. Part 1 here.

There are all sorts of stories about innovation “eureka” moments. That flash of bath time inspiration which led to the inventor re-mortgaging their house to fund the wonder product. Or the entrepreneurs scouring the supermarket aisles looking for tired or dominated categories to disrupt. Stories like this lead the narrative but are incredibly rare and only the successes get recalled. More often, sadly, re-mortgaging the house leads to moving back in with mum and dad.

And it doesn’t reflect the situation that most marketeers face – corporate cultures; byzantine approval processes; complex supply chains; retailers demanding ‘one out, one in’; sales teams wanting to be ‘wowed’; fractional differences in product masquerading as ‘game-changers’ allowing competitors to copy fast.

The question is therefore: where do you look to innovate to increase your chances of success?

Here are five thought starters to consider when framing up projects and shaping the challenges:

Frame your start point
Starting with your consumer base, it’s possible to draw up a robust picture of the market opportunities that are ripe for some new thinking and creativity. Start by defining the territory. What’s important to consumers in your category? What are the big needs that people want fulfilled? What are the over-arching attitudes to the category? What are the ‘rules’ or accepted practises that be challenged or twisted? Which brands already ‘own’ needs? Should we tackle them head on or out-flank them in some way? Disruption comes from understanding the order. Creativity from understanding the constraints.

Framing your start point and clearly mapping the terrain gives you the space to innovate in not just in one campaign, but again and again – the base from which to build a meaningful pipeline of new products or services.

…but be happy to go off-piste a bit too
When you understand the shape of the market, you understand when you’re taking a flyer too. There’s no harm in investigating what may turn out to be cul-de-sacs. By exploring the odd snickets and ginnels of consumer need and desire, you may find a new path to the prize; indeed, you may find a whole new area of opportunity. But stay in control too – you can spend a lot of time with the metaphorical machete cutting through the undergrowth of possibility, only to quickly wear yourself out and lose the alignment and focus of the group.

Improving lives not stealing share
This might sound like it’s stating the obvious but really – really – start with your consumer. Don’t start with your issues. Don’t start with your target. Be mindful of course of your company needs, personal aims and ambitious goals, but if you start from there, you’ll pursue categories that are big and competitive today rather than those that can be big tomorrow and where you can lead not follow. But more than this, if you start with the question of ‘how can I make my customer’s life a little bit better?’ you’re much more likely to come up with ideas that work for them and you. And it is about improving lives: however small, however insignificant you may think it is – that’s your role as brand steward and that’s your responsibility to the category too – to seek ways to expand consumption in meaningful ways, not just slicing the salami ever thinner.

Needs, desires and problems to solve
There’s a whole marketing narrative around digging deeper for insights. Asking ‘why?’ 5 times…and then ending up with an ‘insight’ that is often unusable. There’s a need for balance here. Yes, be curious and ever watchful about why people behave the way they do around our products and why they hold the attitudes they do. But don’t miss the obvious. Don’t miss the opportunities masquerading as itsy-bitsy usage patterns that can drive significant commercial growth. Why isn’t it resealable when the product goes dry? Why aren’t there enough in the pack for two servings each? How do we make it lighter? How we can improve the spout so it pours better? How can we improve the closure so people don’t crack a nail when opening it? How can we show more easily that the product is ready to serve?

Budweiser changed the best before date from a ‘use by’ date (= old) to a ‘born on’ date (= fresh), knowing that beer drinkers want to drink beer as fresh as possible. No change to the packaging other than some letters on the date code. But with some serious investment in consumer comms, brand equity was grown and consumers knew what to look for to check how fresh their beer was.

Finding the trend transitions
It’s human nature to get excited about some fancy name given to three spots of some weird behaviour in Boulder, Colorado. It’s altogether different to identify a pattern of behaviour linking people in Bathgate, Bournemouth, Ballymena and Brecon. And even harder to calculate whether it’s a trend that hasn’t been exploited yet and is going to have consumer traction going forwards. But that’s what you’re after, the transitions from something that’s emerging to something that’s mainstreaming. To fish where the fish aren’t now but will be tomorrow.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2021

Nosey Crows!

The Crows are currently immersed in one of their favourite tasks: looking for data and insight that can lead to some sparkling innovation. Cue deep dive into investigating product launches, product failures, insight reports, virtual shopping and some remote Consumer Connections. Piecing together the parts and testing hypotheses. there’s no doubt: Crows love being nosey!

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about our approaches to building rock solid foundations for innovation or brand building Caw!

#innovation #research #noseycrows #investigation #curiosity

Customer Journeys

The Crows have been doing lots of work of late on customer journeys: bricks and mortar, online, Omnichannel, the lot. We’ve been getting our feathers around customer diaries, accompanied virtual shops, online groups, all sorts of interesting and innovative stuff around the path to purchase Give us a call if you’ve got a challenge or opportunity around your customer journey. We’ll help you work out caw-se and effect (*groan*).

Autumn: the best time for brand planning

It comes as no coincidence that both my letterbox and media feeds are sending me all sorts of catalogues and top tips on gardening… it seems that now is deemed to be THE time in the gardening calendar to get it ready for next year. That, coupled with turning my attention outdoors to a much-neglected garden during lockdown, has obviously put me on the mailing list radar.

Whilst sifting through all this mail what struck me was that the parallels between Autumn brand planning and the Autumn gardening activity calendar both serve to make the right preparations for an impressive performance starting next Spring. After all, there’s nothing like getting the year off to a good start to make the hard slog to the end of the financial year so much easier. Plus there’s the feel good factor and confidence in what you are doing to bolster the commitment for the rest of the year – without the need for any budget cuts!

So, how to make the most of Autumn brand planning? Here are five things to consider:

  1. Review your performance over the year. It has been a testing year for all but by taking the time to take stock of what has worked well, what has failed, and sifting past the big macro-level factors that have impacted everyone to find the deeper underlying reasons of why for your brand, is time well spent between the trading peaks of Summer and Christmas. Too often marketing teams talk about but then don’t spend time unearthing the real truths behind performance: why new launches failed, why new distribution opportunities didn’t quite deliver, why redesigns fell flat or flew.
  2. Mind the gap! Where have other competitors performed well when you have struggled to make your mark? Has your brand been overshadowed by new market entrants? Were you waiting in the wings, hoping things would get better when other brands were stealing the march and confidently pushing forward. Gap spotting is such a critical part of understanding your brand’s opportunities.
  3. Perfect your positioning. Be really honest. Do consumers, customers, stakeholders and colleagues truly have a shared understanding of the brand, what it delivers & how it delivers it? Is it consistent, distinctive and differentiated? If it isn’t, now is the time to get under the skin and review.
  4. Try something new. When the stakes are high, risk is often avoided but sometimes when the market is stagnating, breaking away with new ideas and approaches is what is needed to invigorate growth. How brave are you?
  5. Land the brand. A great plan needs the support of the business. an insight is nothing if it doesn’t grab people. A strategy is nothing if it doesn’t create action. Innovation is nothing if you can’t bring the ideas to life. A brand plan is nothing if it doesn’t inspire. Focus time on creating the tools that will sell your brand and your plan not only to customers but also internally, to stakeholders and sales teams. Buy-in is everything, don’t leave it as an after-thought.

Now more than ever is the time to get your brand back on people’s radar – start planning!


Gael Laurie is Brand Building Director of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh

Ride For The Bees 2020

We’re doing our fundraising this year for the wonderful Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Bees are in trouble. In the last 80 years our bumblebee populations have crashed. Two species have become nationally extinct and several others have declined dramatically.

Bumblebees are familiar and much-loved insects that pollinate our crops and wildflowers, so people are rightly worried. We wanted to support The Bumblebee Conservation Trust because they’re a small charity doing vital work. They’ve set a vision to create a world where bumblebees are thriving and valued. And their mission is to increase the number and distribution of bumblebees.

So we’re going to be riding 165 miles off road, aiming to do it in 24 hours. That’s going to involve night riding by canals… what could possibly go wrong?

We’re not setting a date because the most important thing will be dry conditions and as much light as possible for the time of year. However we’re aiming for the 26th September but check into our social channels for updates (FB, Insta, or @crowflieshigh) – we might go earlier, we might go later. Whatever day it is, it’ll be slowly, slowly catchee buzzy on this one.

Please, please support the bees – even just a few Pounds make a big difference to the charity and it means a huge amount to us Crows too.

HERE’S a buzzy thought: if you have a garden, or an outdoor space, here are some great little tips for how you can make it bee and pollinator friendly! Give them a go!

Gardening advice


Launch of Crow Visualisation


Brands have to inspire internally before they can excite externally – the sell-in is critical. That’s why we’re launching Crow Visualisation today (10th September 2020). We’ve noticed that the link between great thinking and action is often overlooked. So we’ve assembled a crack flock of Crows with specialist expertise from concept visualisation and prototype rendering, bringing insights to life, data visualisation and infographics, business presentations and “decks” and even storyboards, videos and animation. Our aim is to create hard working visuals that help you create momentum inside your business and with your customers and key stakeholders.

For a list of our specific services click on the link here.

Change of Crows!

I’m delighted to announce that Gael Laurie is joining The Crow Flies as Brand Building Director from 1st September. Gael and I worked together 20 years ago but fortunately having scared her away once, she’s still happy to work with me again! Gael has what we look for in all the Crows: a wealth of experience working on leading FMCG brands (across drinks, Pharma and personal hygiene) and with her previous creative consultancy experience, helping smaller and challenger brands build a strong platform for growth. As well as that, she has, by her own admission, a naturally nosy nature into what drives people’s behaviour – perfect for when we look to apply research learnings and insights into brand strategy and innovation plans to deliver brands with foundations of stone.

Gael takes over from Rob Parker – Rob has had a long term ‘itch’ around education and teaching. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Scout movement and took the opportunity of lockdown to start the process of training to be a teacher. He starts today (*gulp*) and whilst he is a loss to the Crow team, he will make a passionate, committed and inspiring educator and leader for young people. A cliché, but truly meant, our loss is education’s gain. We wish him well, but we know with his attention to detail and commitment to a cause he believes in, ‘good luck’ is something he will create for himself.

David Preston, Founder – The Crow Flies | +44 (0) 7885 408367 | +44 (0 7515 491252

General enquiries: | +44 (0) 1283 246260

Leading for innovation

In tough consumer markets, management teams often look to innovation to plug gaps in their plan and grow the top line in new and different ways, never more so as economic downturn threatens. Yet the promises and hype of innovation soon mean that myths & questionable practice can be confused with innovation reality. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the hard yards needed and the challenges to be overcome in the warm, coddling, glow of promises of ‘easy’ business success.

There are no quick fixes, no “hacks”, that guarantee success from innovation. Innovation is betting. You make your bet, you hope your number comes up. On balance, failure is more likely than success…but innovation success isn’t just luck either.  You can influence the odds in your favour.

And the place to start is with leadership.

Leaders play a crucial role putting the preconditions in place that make innovation success more likely. Working across different challenges, we’ve identified 5 innovation leadership success factors:

Words and Behaviours
The desire to innovate has to be more than a grand gesture or a noble wish. It has to be more than one person’s passion, even if that person is the CEO. And it definitely has to be more than words, even if those words are spoken with heart-felt belief. Purpose, strategy, structure, working practices, behaviours, targets… all have to add up, incrementally, to make launching great ideas more inevitable.

  • Invest time on putting solid foundations in place before you leap into resourcing up or creating ideas. Take the time to get everyone, properly, truly aligned and bought-in. This will not happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen by e-mail the day after a leadership away day.
  • Create a purpose for innovation that flows from the company purpose. In fact, it will be a cornerstone in delivering it. An innovation purpose acts both as a guiding star and guard rails. It should motivate and keep you honest and on track.
  • Be clear on innovation strategy. What do you aim to be, for whom, by when? What are the handful of enablers that can propel you forward or blockers that will hold you back? Address them relentlessly.
  • Structure for innovation. Set aside investment. Set aside time. Set aside people, being clear on what they must deliver versus the responsibilities of everyone else. Recognise that how you measure and incentivise their success may be different to others, as innovation will always have a longer-term focus.
  • Think about working practices; innovators need the space to be creative but the urgency of knowing they must deliver at pace.
  • Be clear on how behaviours will need to differ to allow innovation to flourish versus that of your other marketing teams.

Failure: the fuel of success
Innovation is rarely smooth. There will be bumps in the road and commitment to the cause will wobble. At the moment when a new product or service fails, or when you pull the plug, the whole strategy is put under the microscope. Doubters surface and get vocal. The whispering begins. Quash it. Immediately.

Recognise that failures are the fuel of success. Failures can lead to profound learnings about how to make something a success. This is when your leadership and your strategic alignment to innovation will be tested most – and in many respects it’s the real test of the innovation leadership mettle of the business.

Nothing to something is more than ideas
Of course innovation is about coming up with great ideas. But, thinking about the whole journey from nothing to something, ideas are really just a small part of it. Beanbags and chocolates play a role but are a small part of it. Brainstorms are part of it, but just a small part.

The whole journey is about understanding where to innovate (and why), who for (and why), what (and why), and the how… turning something from an interesting thought, some well-chosen words and beautiful sketch into a prototype and ultimately about committing resources into making that thing happen. Innovation is more than grand gestures. Committing resources isn’t just a creating a new role and allocating some loose change to bring things to life – it could be a new packaging line – and they don’t come cheap and they don’t come without absolute commitment to the cause.

Rhythm and routine
In innovation, increasing your chances of success means establishing a rhythm and routine in creating new concepts. If you lose a bet you have another chip to place. If your big bet doesn’t pay off today, you have another for tomorrow and the day after. Success in innovation comes through quality and quantity. Success comes through having ideas, concepts and prototypes all along the innovation journey. Getting the business into a rhythm and routine creates confidence. Spotting insights, creating ideas, developing concepts, validating with consumers, launching, learning and going-again. And again. Accruing learning. Building competence. Building some swagger.

Process and chaos; loose and tight
Innovation needs process but not to be strangled by it. It needs discipline, but the space to break some rules. It needs fag-packet calculations and 5-year NPVs. It’s the constant tension between process and chaos that allows innovation to thrive. Too much process and you will stifle creativity and execution. Too much chaos and you risk throwing darts at a dartboard backhand whilst facing the wrong way. You may hit the bullseye, but the chances are slim and you won’t know how to repeat it. It’s the recognition that innovation is a dance between looseness and tightness that makes the chances of success more likely. Innovation needs flexible guidance, not dogmatic rules.

All this, and not one idea created yet. That’s innovation for you. The success is in the hard-yards that few people give you credit for. It’s in the foundations for the house that are never seen. But without them, the glorious palace comes tumbling down. Innovation leadership, strategy and culture. Without them, the odds are against you.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh