When you need to innovate, don’t go changing what your customers like about you.

The National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Innovation Summit keynoter David Robertson, MIT senior lecturer, consultant and student of innovation, explained the big power of little ideas and the concept of a “third way” of innovating that’s not inside the box, not outside the box, but around the box. It’s the credo behind his approach to innovation and one he detailed during the summit in Cleveland, Nov. 5- 6.

  • A great example: Robertson used Lego to illustrate. In an attempt to expand the brand beyond its iconic building brick, Lego rolled out a series of what it considered “disruptive” innovations including a line of molded action figures, toys for babies, and a TV tie-in. All failed over the course of four years, sending the company to the edge of bankruptcy.

Lego instead found success developing the Bionicle line of buildable characters. Each had a distinct backstory that was updated every year. The figures and stories became collectible and the company added Bionicle t-shirts, books, video games, and DVDs. The goods not only sold well on their own, they drove more sales of Bionicle Lego kits, complementing the brand rather than disrupting it.

  • The lesson for foodservice operators: While companies often look for innovation inside the box (incremental innovations to the core product such as more flavors, colors, sizes, etc.) or outside the box (intentionally trying out disruptors that can succeed or fail spectacularly), Robertson cited Lego’s success as thinking around the box --  honoring the company’s core identity but expanding on it in ways customers respond to.

Too many companies try to expand business by competing with other companies, copying whatever breakthrough leads the moment. A better approach, he says, is to build relationships with customers: Really learn about their likes, dislikes and motivations for buying your brand. “Date your customer, don’t fight your competitor,” he says.

Robertson’s takeaways for foodservice companies:

  • Think about what you don’t want to change.
  • Identify the product or service you want to innovate around. How can you take what the customer likes about you and make it “more”?
  • What’s your business promise and what ideas will further deliver on that promise?
  • Bring innovations to market, but test and tweak ideas in individual restaurants to see what works and what fails before rolling it out systemwide