Inspiring innovation

Successful brand inspiration and innovation spring from many surprising sources

I’ve just finished writing a new book, Inspiring Innovations. At heart it’s simply a story book for marketers, offering some 75 tales, all intended to help them find their business’s next big thing. Having completed the manuscript, I’ve been able to sit back and ponder what I’ve learned about innovation. Here are seven big lessons.

There is no single right way to go about innovation.

There are many different and sometimes surprising sources of inspiration, including pain, shame and embarrassment. Diners Club – the first independent credit card company – was the result of the awkwardness felt by Frank McNamara when, having taken a client out to dinner, he discovered he had forgotten his wallet.

Be curious and look at things afresh.

Great innovators look at one thing and conjure up a different application. It was this ability that saved Kutol’s mouldable wallpaper cleaner from a premature end in the 1950s – and gave the world Play-Doh. Millions of cans have been sold since.

Be ready to adapt and change direction when unexpected opportunities arise.

Viagra was originally intended to help reduce blood pressure. Its commercial potential was only spotted when men in the clinical trials refused to give back the samples after enjoying surprising side effects.

Learn new things and be ready to do them for yourself.

In their early stages, many major brands relied on their founders’ commitment and hard work. As the old saying goes, success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Will Shu, co-founder of Deliveroo, spent eight months as a delivery driver when he launched the company in 2013. He still does a shift every two weeks, feeling that it helps him better understand restaurateurs, customers and his drivers.


The idealized stereotype of successful innovation is the instant sales sensation: a new idea born in a eureka moment that becomes an overnight success. That’s rarely the reality, as this brand’s story illustrates. In 2007, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were struggling to pay their rent and needed cash fast. Their need coincided with an up-coming design conference. Spotting that the city’s hotels were fully booked gave them an idea: could they rent out the space in their flat? They bought three airbeds and, with the promise of breakfast, launched the not-very-creatively-named ‘’. They got two customers. It took two years and two re-launches before Airbnb appeared in a form closer to the global success we know today.

6 Surprisingly little research is done – or required.

Whenever I told my late mum about the amount of research I was doing for a new product, she was always amazed and would say: “Why didn’t they just ask me?” I never did set up the SOO (sample of one) agency, but she had a point. A number of great brands initially relied on the gut instinct and conviction of their founders, far more than on extensive market research.

A little luck goes a long way.

There’s no escaping the fact that having a great idea sometimes just isn’t enough, as Sara Blakely, founder of shapewear firm Spanx, can attest. Having moved from cut-off pantyhose to specially made body-shaping garments, she secured a listing in the luxury department chain, Neiman Marcus. Sales were slow, so Blakely started calling everyone she knew who lived near the stores, asking them to buy a pair of Spanx, promising that she’d reimburse them. She was running out of friends – and money – when lady luck smiled on her. Or rather, Oprah Winfrey did, naming Spanx as one of her favourite things. It changed everything. Distribution spread quickly to other stores and she signed a contract with home shopping channel QVC, which sold 8,000 pairs in six minutes. According to Forbes, Blakely went on to become the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire.

Inspiring Innovations by Giles Lury is out now (LID Publishing)

Giles Lury is director at The Value Engineers and author of How Coca-Cola Took Over the World: and 100 More Amazing Stories About the World’s Greatest Brands