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Digital strategy & innovation: five business cases, five different approaches, and one common thread

The Reference NYC was present at this year's Digital Innovation Summit in NYC, a two-day event about digital strategy, digital marketing, and mobile innovations. The agenda was filled with top speakers from widely divergent companies such as A+E Networks, Gatorade, Skyscanner, Shutterstock, Instagram, BuzzFeed, and Soundcloud.

The presentations were varied but had one topic in common: how to deal with digital disruption within the businesses and sectors. In this article, we share the essence of each presentation and conclude with the general lessons we learned from the summit.

1. A+E Networks

“When brand leadership becomes a community”

The challenge for A+E Networks was twofold: alignment of the decentralised teams and recruitment of new employees by HR.
A+E Networks had a very small marketing department. The business was barely active on social media, if at all, and was not well known among millennials.
On the plus side, A+E Networks had a very strong business culture, a sexy industry (just think of all the celebrities belonging to the network), and various staff incentives.

“The HR department instead of the marketing department as the centre point for social within a company”

A+E Networks embraced social media as the platform to take on the above challenges. The HR department played a central role in this by encouraging employees to actively use social media.

A lot of news is now shared on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn by and via the international teams. Regional achievements are highlighted, and posts are put up about the many events and incentives. This has created a very strong community feeling among employees. So, it is an employee experience rather than a consumer experience.

As social media is public, the outside world quickly picks up on what A+E is up to. The business has not only seen its online figures and general popularity grow but has also seen a sharp increase in the number of unsolicited job applications from millennials.

This is a case in point of how a business with an excellent culture but little or no marketing budget has used social media in an innovative way to meet both HR and marketing challenges. Or: how employee experience can ultimately have a large impact on consumer experience.

2.Gatorade

“Building compelling consumer experiences”

Originally, Gatorade was strongly focused on professional athletes. In recent years, the business has significantly diversified. The definition of “athlete” has been broadened to reach a wider target group, resulting in a new proposition: “keep athletes hydrated.”

Gatorade struggled for a long time with the question of how to best reach its target audience. Of course, they needed to take account of the company’s values and heritage, and Gatorade wanted to create the most compelling customer experience possible.

Gatorade set up a framework for this:

  • Find a use case
  • Can we add value?
  • Is this true or relevant to the brand? 


For every campaign, Gatorade considers if there is a suitable use case. “Use case” means a strong existing concept that can be utilised. If there is a use case, the next question is whether value can be added. If it cannot be improved, it makes no sense to work on it.

If there is a use case with potential added value, Gatorade considers whether the concept is true to the brand or whether it will align with the business’ values and traditions. In addition, the company looks at which platform is the most suited to delivering the concept to the target audience. For instance, there is no point in developing yet another landing page if the entire target group only uses Snapchat or Instagram.

“Leverage the native functionality of social platforms to be breakthrough”

An excellent example of Gatorade's working method is “the dunk” campaign. In the States, the use case is the legendary tradition of giving a coach a Gatorade ‘dunk’ after a victory. Until recently, this experience was limited to a very select group of professional athletes. The value that Gatorade could add is to give everyone the opportunity to experience “the dunk.” Of course, this aligned perfectly with the company’s heritage and values.

The campaign was brilliant in its simplicity: a native filter on Snapchat allowing everyone to do ‘the dunk’ on their streams. The campaign was launched during the Super Bowl, and as this video shows, it was an unprecedented success:

3.Skyscanner

“Adapting a traditional business model for the mobile age”

Most of us know Skyscanner. It is the website where you can find the most attractive flights, hotel rooms, or hire cars on the market.
Today, Skyscanner, as a purely digital player, has quite a traditional business model. It mostly works using CPC (Cost per Click), which means that, for example, United Airlines pays for the traffic (the clicks) that Skyscanner sends to its website.

The business’ enormous growth demonstrates that the model works. However, Skyscanner understands that this model will not work forever: generating traffic to sell traffic is less and less profitable and, moreover, competition is fierce. For this reason, the business has taken the radical decision to (gradually) phase out this business model.

“From CPC to CPP or from catalogue to marketplace”

Rather than being a pure CPC player, Skyscanner wants to evolve into an actual marketplace where all providers are present. If you book a United Airlines flight, it will be entirely in the style of the United Airlines brand, including brand-specific modules, for instance, to reserve your seat. Each brand will have its own tailor-made modules.
As a customer, you can also (and this is crucial) make the entire purchase on the Skyscanner platform. So, you will no longer be redirected to the advertiser. This will have a great impact on the earnings model: fees will only be based on an actual purchase, in addition to which the class (economy/business) that someone books will also be taken into account.

Of course, this is not an entirely new concept. Businesses such as Zalando and WeChat are currently making the same transformation, but it takes courage to make such radical changes to a business model of a growing business.

4. Shutterstock

“E-commerce: suggestion, curation and discovery”

Shutterstock’s biggest challenge is making the correct images easy to find. This is ultimately what their entire business is about. Contributors can make their images available on the platform. All kinds of creative persons use the images in adverts, marketing material, communications, etc. This makes it essential that images are easy to find, which is coupled with search requests, on Shutterstock's website or via external search engines such as Google or Bing.

Shutterstock exhibits a very complex product of which the specific characteristics are often hidden in tiny, emotional nuances such as colour, expression, and composition. These are all elements that are exceptionally difficult to make “searchable.” One of the most common problems was the difference between what people found via a Google search and how they could find the same image on Shutterstock.

“Search and Findability as a differentiator”

Shutterstock has made search and findability its main differentiator. This means they will focus less and less on traditional keywords that contributors can link to their images. Instead, they use innovative technologies to make images searchable and findable.

One of Shutterstock's initiatives is suggested keywords. Based on the picture that the contributor uploads, Shutterstock will give automatic suggestions. These ensure that the metadata is not only more relevant but also more complete.

The recently introduced “reversed image search,” which was created in response to the abovementioned Google search problem, goes one step further. When you upload a picture, Shutterstock will show you matching images from the whole catalogue, using precise pixel comparison, algorithms, and photos for machine learning. Each search request helps the system to get smarter as it observes which matching images result in a final conversion.

Shutterstock also wants to use curation and discovery to improve the searchability and findability.

5. Nestlé Waters (ReadyRefresh)

“Transformational principles in the water delivery industry”

If you think that the above cases are successful because they involve innovative products or services, this case will definitely interest you. After all, is there any larger commodity than selling water? Welcome to the world of Nestlé Waters, a business that since time immemorial has delivered water to business in ‘5-gallon bottles’.

Nestlé Waters' old system was easy: a courier arrived once a week, took away the empty bottles and replaced them with full ones. Today, the market is saturated, and the model is out-of-date. Moreover, there is a threat. After all, Nestlé Waters is at the intersection of 3 ecosystems where a significant amount of innovation is taking place: Delivery (with disruptors such as drone delivery), Commerce (with newcomers such as Alexa and Google Home), and Lifestyle (with health innovators such as FitBit).

This is why Nestlé has launched ReadyRefresh, a digital platform that not only targets businesses but individuals too. Their mission is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to lead healthier lifestyles. So, you can choose the products you want, and when and how frequently they are delivered. In addition, you receive recommendations about how much water you should drink per day to stay sufficiently hydrated.

Nestlé Waters no longer sees the above ecosystems as threats. Instead, the business has embraced these initiatives and provides integrations (for example, an Alexa for ordering water and FitBit to recommend when water should be consumed).

“Utility and Experience for company success”

The two most important success factors that Nestlé Waters has imposed on itself are utility and experience. Utility means that they must be able to respond to demands such as: “keep me stocked with essentials”, “give me more time to do what I want”, and “do the heavy lifting for me”. All these needs must be met for ReadyRefresh, or they will not have happy customers. Utility is, therefore, the minimal success factor, the satisfier.

Experience is where Nestlé Waters wants to excel. They do this by satisfying demands such as “know what I need and what I like”, “make it worth the money or the premium”, “surprise and delight me”.

This is where businesses such as ReadyRefresh can and will make a difference. If they manage to excel in terms of experience, their offer will once again exceed the level of commodity.

The central theme

We have seen five different businesses, with five different ways to innovate. Yet in all cases we can see clear trends emerging:

  1. Put your core values central in everything you do
    As a business, you stand for something, and if you want to create compelling customer experiences, you have to put these values central in everything you do. Usability is nothing without experience. For every action that you take within your company, ask the following question: does this fit in with our values and is this clear for the customer?
  2. Integrate and embrace
    Many technological innovations are turning the market upside down. Think of businesses such as Amazon (Alexa), Über (Delivery), Facebook and WeChat (Messaging). Embrace these innovations if they are relevant to your products or services and ensure that you can integrate with these platforms with an API (instead of creating yet another superfluous landing page). 
  3. Go where your audience is, leverage native platforms
    Don’t try to build the new Snapchat or Facebook for your brand or business. Instead, embrace the built-in functionalities of existing platforms where your (internal and external) audience are present.
  4. Dare to change
    We sometimes say ‘never change a working concept,’ but if you want to continue to be relevant, you must at the very least question your business model on a regular basis. Companies such as Skyscanner and Zalando have fully understood this.

Interested in applying these insights to your business?
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