Getting under the cloak of Woolmark's digital and innovation efforts

Global head of digital and innovation talks to CMO about how AI is informing fashion tech development, retail's evolution, plus the impact of voice and connected devices on fashion and customer engagement

Changing business perceptions

Whether it’s in retail, the product or on a farm, true innovation means changing perceptions internally and fostering a strong appetite for risk, Madden continued.

“True innovation is a mindset: You need to be able to be much more open, and it’s much riskier,” he said. “Too often, people are so focused on not failing, they don’t focus on succeeding. That’s been a key shift for my team as we looked to embed a culture of innovation.”  

A principle Woolmark is embracing around marketing to help innovation is the ‘adjacent possible’, a complexity theory. This is about stepping away from a linear-based approach to achieving innovation or a business goal, and embracing different branches of activity, teams and adjacencies.

“The idea with an adjacent possible approach is you have to shift the mindset to embrace these elements spinning away and realise they’re all working towards getting to the larger goal, even if they’re working over in another branch or adjacent area,” Madden explained.  

In the case of sneaker innovation, for instance, Woolmark had one team working on the technology to knit, then another on blending fibres.

“One team was talking about the ways the knitting was possible; as soon as that happened, they were talking to another branch, which said this fibre would work perfectly, and we started joining up the dots,” Madden said.  

Another area this ‘adjacent possible’ approach is helping is with utilising voice-activated devices to improve product care information delivery.

“I could send a team off to look at how people could voice for care instructions. But there are other elements too, such as a connected home. How do I work in that connected home environment, in and out of their wardrobe? Are there wardrobes, laundries, and how do I engage with people in those spaces?” Madden asked. “So I split the teams off. One is looking at the fundamentals of how we can get care instructions into the voice channel. You can now ask Google Home how to wash your garments and it’ll give you an answer.

“But for someone focusing on what a smart wardrobe looks like, there’s so many other ways to think and partner. For example, we are working with a company in HK that takes your delicate garments and stores them in an eco-sensitive environment. On your app, you just order what you want to wear tomorrow and it comes back to you.

“That’s another branch [of innovation] and if you can start looking at how to link those, you’re opening up a completely different avenue for garment care.”

This branched innovation approach requires executives to constantly remind their teams of what the key business goals are, Madden said. It’s also about reassessing against wider business goals. For Woolmark, these key outcomes include whether projects will benefit wool growers, educate customers, and open up opportunities for wool sales.

“We watch the price of wool as a key metric. So we tied back the price to the use of wool in sneakers, for example. That was the result of 6-7 streams of work,” Madden said. “If you looked at the ROI on each of those, some were more apparent than others. But if you tied them all back to the overall piece of work… we’ve produced an innovative garment and we can see the associated benefits of it.”

Woolmark’s in-house development team is also working on smart farming technologies, such as wearables on animals, plus augmented reality.

“By opening it up and making sure everyone understands the broad-level goals we’re defining, you foster better innovation,” Madden said. “So if you know the smart tags link up to some kind of automation, and to voice so a farmer can open and shut gates, you better understand how smart farming shapes the future.”

Madden agreed having a remit across both digital and innovation has helped foster a strategic innovation mindset at Woolmark. Embedding his team across marketing, trade and fabric-based innovation and down to the farm level has been another big win.

In addition, digital and innovation increasingly act as a centralised support function for global teams, a structure Madden said better empowers satellite offices to find partners and opportunities in their respective markets.

“Coming back to the voice example, we have chatbots in Korea, a consumer-facing care campaign, tickets and labels, our relationship with washing machine manufacturers, and new types of wool we’re communicating to partners about. That represents 4-5 different teams that previously necessarily wouldn’t have worked together.”

Check out more of our reporting on how to foster innovative thinking in your organisation:

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