Coco Chanel

“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” As well as uttering these famous words, Coco Chanel made clothes that demonstrated just how true they were. It’s strange to think that the little black dress and women’s trousers were once thought shocking, until Chanel took the risk to experiment. In so doing, she challenged traditional perceptions of women’s clothing and their role in the world  and created one of the most desirable brands on the planet.

Now and Next Thinking

This way of looking at the world is a perfect example of “Now and Next” thinking. It’s a question of understanding what customers are buying today, and then making smart, provocative — and sometimes truly risky — bets on what they will be buying tomorrow. When it comes to designing clothes, fashion brands are excellent at “Now and Next” thinking. But, when it comes to anticipating consumer behavior in today’s industry, are they losing their edge?

Simply put, satisfying customer demand is much more difficult than it used to be. Think of it from the modern, digitally savvy consumer’s point of view. Above all, these individuals are hungry for change and new experiences. They want the latest, most adventurous styles and they expect to be able to buy and personalize them online, with super-fast delivery and the convenience of returning them on their own terms. Not only that, but they are constantly plugged into social media, to hear each other’s fashion advice and to signal their status and values to their community.

A Permanent Change

What this means is that consumers are embracing digital innovation more quickly than most of the companies that serve them. Moreover, this isn’t just a fad or a market shift that will resolve into business as usual. It’s a permanent and constant change in consumer behavior, which has profound implications for the brand, the store and customer experience as we know it.

Jill Standish

Jill Standish  Courtesy image.

In response, brands need creativity and the humility to accept that they are vulnerable in the face of new and emerging trends. And they need the bravery and hunger to take their consumers on an exciting and evolving journey every day.

Ten years ago, this would have been a fantasy, but our world has evolved. Every second, Amazon makes an update to its web site; every week, Asos launches new products and services. For this new generation of tech-driven companies, embracing a fast and agile working model is as important as embracing technology as a driver of success.

At the heart of this new world is the ability to experiment. Taking a leap into the unknown, and exploring disruptive spaces at speed, must become a business imperative and core capability of the organization. Otherwise, opportunities for growth can slip by, and you will see your relevance to your consumers slip by as competitors take your place.

So, how can fashion companies harness the fearless, creative spark of Coco Chanel and apply it to their businesses — building hyper-relevant relationships with their consumers — today? And how can business leaders and their innovation teams become bolder, faster and more successful in the experiments that they run?

In our view, there are three guiding principles to bear in mind.

To experiment successfully, businesses need to move at pace — to seize the opportunity presented by a new market or to simply keep up with customer preferences. Their undoing frequently comes by way of the layers of process and bureaucracy that aim to minimize the risks inherent in innovation. These processes are created for understandable reasons, but — at worst — they are rooted in models of old business practice and introduce unnecessary hurdles that stifle creativity and slow innovation to a snail’s pace.

Dave Allan new

Dave Allan 

Rather than designing and implementing a raft of new processes and protocols, we believe it is better to decide on an experiment’s viability by asking a series of fundamental questions. First of all, you should ask whether the experiment fits loosely within the structure of the existing business and your ecosystem of suppliers, or whether radical change will be necessary. Then you should consider whether you have people with the passion, skills and entrepreneurial mind-set to make the experiment work. You need to ask: are we being bold enough, are we confronting the “big what ifs?” Is the consumer at the heart of this idea? And what is the fastest, most effective way to test and make a reality?

Experiment Culture

Our final principle is about making innovation part of the business for the long term. It may help to think about this in terms of the living business.

If you want to stay relevant to your customers, but you also accept that their loyalty is a thing of the past, then you need to be able to adapt your products, services and marketing strategy on a constant basis. Roughly one in four customers say they would spurn a company that wasn’t relevant to them, which means that your business can never stand still. It needs to be “alive” so it can evolve as your customers evolve.

Becoming a living business is no small undertaking. At a high level, it involves becoming more responsive to new opportunities, scaling alongside an ecosystem of partners, embedding customer-first thinking and design, and building more intelligent marketing and sales experiences. The alternative is to risk losing relevance among your customer base.

Conclusion: Reflecting What Matters

Fashion has long been a pioneer of innovation, as the experimental mindset and risk-taking of Coco Chanel and others makes clear. In the past, brands earned the loyalty of their customers by designing clothes that reflected changing tastes and preferences. Today, they need to think even more broadly; they need to consider what matters to their customers beyond clothes — whether that’s their personal values, the relationship with the brand, the experience of interaction or the networks they use to communicate with like-minded individuals.

In this world, broad, bold, fast experimentation is not an option: it’s a necessity. While some large businesses see their scale as a barrier, claiming it is harder for them than it is for start-ups, they should remember that they have the resources to build the capabilities and infrastructure to run more experiments and drive more learning than smaller brands. In this world, scale becomes your friend.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and head of retail at Accenture, and Dave Allan is cofounder and board member of What If! Innovation, which is part of Accenture.