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The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the world’s biggest celebration of disruption in technology. Over the past few years, CES has also become a place where established brands come to seek answers to the question, “How can my company think more like a startup?”
To paraphrase author and innovation expert Marty Neumeier, in our digital-first world, it is not a matter of whether your company’s status quo will be disrupted, but rather when. Established, traditional brands that are being disrupted are witnessing firsthand the ill effects of being risk-averse and slow to market due to organizational complexity. The solution is designing for growth within the enterprise: embedding the mindset of more nimble, digitally native companies into the existing corporate structure.
Building innovation centers, adopting open office plans, appointing a Chief Innovation Officer, instituting a Google-esque “20 percent time” free-work policy—there’s no end to the tactics companies have employed to foster a culture that generates new ideas. Unfortunately, these efforts often have only marginal success because the real powers of startups—singular focus, entrepreneurial drive, and fast decision-making enabled by a less complex hierarchy—are far more difficult to replicate within large organizations.
So rather than big brands trying to act younger, what would instead happen if established and upstart companies began to prioritize partnerships, each bringing their respective strengths to bear on the challenges facing their businesses?
At CES2016, the view from both the trade show floor and conference events began to paint a picture of an emerging collaborative reality.
The conference portion of CES was dotted with panels and breakout sessions on the topic, with speakers from virtually every industry establishment—from Coca-Cola to Playboy—providing insights as to how their legacy brands are leveraging insights, expertise, and processes derived from partnerships with startups. Sessions with names like, “Shall We Dance? Brands Collaborating With Startups” and “The Startup Imperative” were almost as common at CES as discussions about virtual reality or connected cars.
In one instance, Coca-Cola’s collaboration with Music Dealers, an innovative music licensing company, was presented as a natural extension of the soda giant’s well-publicized partnership with streaming music service Spotify. The collaboration allows Coke’s marketers to take advantage of pre-cleared tracks from emerging musicians and engage the market more rapidly, while Music Dealers gets to promote its roster of artists through both Coke and Spotify’s sizable platforms. It’s this type of win-win deal that epitomizes what a brand-startup partnership can be.
As another example, CPG giant Unilever is beginning to showcase success stories from the launch of The Unilever Foundry. The brand’s incubator for cultivating reciprocal relationships with startups, the Foundry provides product marketing mentorships, funding, and the potential for global scalability in exchange for fresh thinking and experimentation in nascent fields like proximity marketing and first-person qualitative research.
NBCUniversal, through its partnerships with online media outlets Vox, BuzzFeed, and AOL, is leveraging data and insights to help its advertising sales teams target audiences more effectively, as well as enabling its programming division to develop relevant content for those companies’ hard-to-please demographic. These partnerships strongly reinforce NBCUniversal’s mission to provide more intelligent insights for its advertisers.
Speaking at a CES panel titled Brand Reinvention, NBCUniversal’s Chairman of Ad Sales and Client Partnerships, Linda Yaccarino, was effusive about the potential of forging “frenemy” partnerships with what are in many ways rival content platforms. “I’m surprised our competitors have not done more of these types of deals,” she said.
Many more examples emerged at the show: GM’s teaming up with Lyft on electric and self-driving cars, AT&T’s stake in Fullscreen for creating device-agnostic video content with social media stars, and the first round of connected home products resulting from Samsung’s acquisition of SmartThings. Each is evidence of the benefits emerging from partnerships between old and new.
CES is a grand showcase for companies young and old, proven and nascent. After a decade in which technology disruption was the nightmare of some and the primary goal of others, an exciting new paradigm of mutually beneficial collaboration has emerged. Brands can gain firsthand knowledge of digital-first corporate behaviors, product creation processes, visibility to a younger consumer base, and relevance in the customer-driven market. For startups and young companies, rewards come in the form of financial backing, mentorship, and the perception of stability earned through association.
If CES 2016 is any indicator, “How can my company think more like a startup?” may just be the wrong question. Instead, the question should be how collaboration between companies of different sizes and strengths can serve to make both better.