Innovation Labs: Marketing Doublespeak or the Next Big Thing in Advertising?

To meet growing demand for the most innovative advertising methods, many companies have begun setting up innovation labs. Rather than being used to create and sell new products, these labs focus solely on testing customer experience in order to figure out the best ways to interact with consumers.

To help give marketers an idea on how to set these labs up, Forbes spoke with the leaders of three different labs. The first one, Absolut Labs, is run by brand director Afdhel Aziz, who is working with others within the iconic brand to figure out the future of their marketing. He told Forbes that they are focused on shifts in consumer behavior, as evidenced by people moving to streaming services rather than cable TV.

“What’s fascinating about Absolut is for the last 30 years it was a brand built on advertising,” Aziz explained. “What we have to think about is what does the next 30 years look like? What does a brand like Absolut have to do in order to add another layer of innovation to what we’re doing out there?”

To staff the lab, Aziz works with a New York agency partner with three people dedicated to Absolut’s brand.

Cosmetics giant Sephora also has an innovation lab working on new ideas. It is run by Bridget Dolan, a veteran marketing leader at Sephora. She has worked with Sephora for 14 years, mostly to help with project innovations such as Beauty Board and Color IQ.

“So I was honored to create a team that is truly focused on the client experience and how to help her shop for beauty,” Dolan told Forbes. “We’re thinking about that through the lens of the store, the mobile site, thinking about all of it. So Color IQ is a good example where we took a challenge and asked how could we make that come to life?”

Dolan wants the company to be known for helping their clients find the makeup that’s right for them, and she believes technology is the answer. Sephora is also known for its strong social media presence and email marketing campaigns, so the innovation lab will be another layer to an already great plan.

The last marketing innovation leader Forbes spoke with was Sonos Studio. Led by the CMO of Sonos, Joy Howard, the key to this lab is to become the top innovative marketing organization in the world. She has already worked with brands like Nike, Coca Cola, and Patagonia, and she hopes to help Sonos in the same progressive ways she helped the other brands.

“You only have to go through a few cycles of the fads and fashions in marketing to understand how important true innovation is,” Howard said. “I’ve seen a lot of those come and go and I think what matters to people is stuff that breaks through and that’s really new. At the same it takes being very attentive to culture and very faithful to a true insight around your customer and how that matters to your business.”

Starting with a studio in Los Angeles in 2012, the company has rapidly expanded, now having a location in London and pop up locations in Amsterdam and New York.

“Our company is full of audio geeks and one of the worst things about playing live as a musician is actually about sound,” Howard continued. “It’s pretty common when you’re on the road, especially if you’re a young upcoming artist, that you just don’t have a great experience that [the sound system] is ready to go.”

According to Jeff Lizik, Director of Digital Marketing with, no matter what kind of marketing you’re involved with, it’s essential to stay in touch with your changing consumers.

“Today’s technology is evolving so quickly that it makes a lot of sense to have someone dedicated to the ever changing customer experience. Too many businesses lose focus of the customer experience. With the combination of the labs and the marketing tactics that are working today, it’s a no brainer for staying ahead of the curve,” Lizik said.

Ultimately, these innovation labs seem to operate according to a rather ordinary, age-old rule: the customer is still always right. Of course, finding out what those customers actually want is the real challenge.

“Today it’s about one size fits many. Organizations overlook very important behavioral differences and differences in need states — what people might want at that particular point in time. The ability to collect and mine the right data is the biggest challenge now,” Khalid Khan with consulting firm A.T. Kearney told Information Week.

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