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- 12 Jan 2011
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12 Qualities of Mind Required for an Innovative Luxury Brand


Dr. Bob Deutsch, cognitive anthropologist and president Brain Sells consulting firm, outlines twelve key concepts in unlocking innovation within luxury businesses.

Creativity and innovation are critical to all corporations, but now more than ever before these qualities of mind are central to the continuing success of luxury brands. This is as true for LVMH’s strategy development as it is for its product development. This is true for how Hermes or Gucci each thinks about itself, as much as how they conceive of the world at large. Given the new economic environment, it’s time to review the conventional wisdom about luxury brands and consumers. The challenge is to solve the apparent paradox that pits innovation against luxury – as new and modern against classic, enduring and traditional.

The cognitive processes innovative people engage in to create new ideas and render paradoxes into higher-order concepts are common across cultures and hierarchies. Let’s explore twelve keys to unlocking innovation in the luxury business world.

1. Curiosity

Curiosity implies a certain respect for how things really are, not just standing pat on what one hopes things to be or assumes they are. The gist, the cliché, the stereotype, and the business-as-usual stance are the enemies of curiosity. Creativity is where particularities reign over generalities. Creatives have the persistence (and this persistence requires courage) to bore into “the real” and wait for it to reveal its authenticity.

Vaclav Havel reflecting on what the world needs described it as “understanding over explanation.” He suggests we cease seeing the world as governed by finite laws that humankind can direct through rational thinking. His was a rejection of the idea that all things can be grasped objectively by successive approximation. Here Havel is advocating a need to comprehend meaning from the inside out, in its specific unfolding. Luxury brands need managers inspired by this perspective, which helps one to see the forest and the trees, the big picture and the detail.

Curiosity about and discovery of authentic meaning, of course, presume some prerequisites.

2. Self-Knowledge

The blossoming of innovation in a commercial environment requires a person who has found a place in the world of work that enables him to pursue that which is his true nature. This employee must meet: (1) a corporate hiring practice that selects people for how their self-story fits and evolves along with the corporate story, and (2) an executive cadre that encourages innovation.

3. Interdisciplinary Experience

Creatively, self-knowledge and expertise require many different kinds of experiences. In addition to one’s particular expertise, familiarity with two disciplines is better. Ease with two cultures is better than one. Cross-fertilization between fields/worlds allows one to abstract differences and commonalities, to know when a difference makes a difference. Experience in different domains provides greater acuity to see the boundaries of one’s vision. And when innovative people with diverse interdisciplinary expertise are brought together, collaboration in pursuit of innovative futures always holds a special promise.

4. Sensuality

Creativity requires access to the experience of your own experience, not skimming over one’s experience. This demands sensitivity to what one feels via their five senses, moment-to-moment. Creative people live life on an emotional roller coaster. They want to be aroused.

5. Openness

Creativity assumes that inspirational experiences can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Tunnel vision is limiting, as are preconceived notions of where one’s attention should be paid. Voices, places and situations beyond your own are grist for the innovation mill. The innovative person “goes with” the currents suggested by this openness and is the first to present colleagues an inkling of an idea because he wants feedback.

6. Directed Serendipity

Creativity is a process. The creative person is like a billiard ball, having one’s own mass and velocity, but depending on what he bumps into, careens off in different directions that he contributes to but does not wholly define. Then, after some iterations, he meets the next-something and his reaction is, ‘That makes me think of….’ Now he is on to something. Paul McCartney talking about song writing says, “It’ll be bad three times, but the fourth time a little bit of inspiration will come and that one little thing will make it good. Then you try another chord and it pulls it all in.”

This freedom and flexibility is also seen in how innovative people can turn crisis into opportunity. A wonderful example is how, during World War II, Salvatore Ferragamo, having incurred a shortage in critical supplies and materials, created a method to increase heel strength from old candy wrappers. In other words, a critical part of the innovative state of mind is the end is not known at the beginning. (This is in sharp contrast to the typical business meeting where everyone knows where they stand, what they want, what the political possibilities are, and what business-as-usual will dictate.)

7. Blank Sheets

Innovative thinkers are intrinsically inclined to put aside dogma, convention, and tradition. They start with the basics, as if never before having heard the present problem. A blank sheet means that all assumptions and definitions are “on the table.”

8. Problem Structuring (Before Problem Solving)

Innovative thinkers give themselves leeway to bound and segment a problem. They respect the creative process and do not succumb to external, arbitrary pressures. Problem structuring entails having more questions than answers and being playful when framing approaches to problems.

9. Subjectivity (Over Objectivity)

Innovative thinkers know objectivity is a false ideal. Their only agenda is discovery. Put another way, creativity requires living the experience one is focused on, and in doing so turn data into memory and memory into “blood” (see Rilke’s poem, Blood Memory).

10. Flow

Innovative thinkers thrive on being in flow – letting the process “cook,” rather than trying to control it. They exist in the “middle” of it. Mark Morris, considered to be the current most creative modern dance choreographer, has a habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it. When steps are made from the inside, the primary concern is for how they feel on the body.

11. Stories

Innovative thinkers think in story form with a relational structure that connects plot, character, circumstance, and progression. Creativity requires looking at relationships between data points, which helps manage complexity and structure a problem in multi-dimensions so ideas arise regarding underlying patterns and principles, as well as inferences about non-linear causality. Narrative thinking can help guide and gird how a design project goes from idea to completion.

Innovative thinkers move from models of operation to narratives that provide context, and then to meta-stories (stories about stories) that transform data. Remember, Peter Pan’s desire to go back to Never-Never Land was motivated to help the “Lost Boys” – the boys who had no stories.

12. Metaphorical Thinking

Gregory Bateson, biologist and systems theorist, said, "Logic is a very elegant tool, but logic alone won’t quite do… because that whole fabric of living things is not put together by logic…. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive. ” Metaphor-making is one of the foremost capabilities of the human mind and forms a critical basis of innovative thinking.

Metaphor allows one to play a cognitive trick on oneself. I know “Thing 1” and I don’t know “Thing 2,” so I’ll “move” Thing 2 over to Thing 1 and call it Thing 1. This cognitive leap frees one from the here-and-now so metaphor can be deployed in the service of future scenarios. Metaphor gives the innovative thinker room to put things together that usually don’t go together. Moreover, what’s admissible as input to the metaphor-making process is often seemingly off-topic.

Innovative thinkers create with a childlike sense of delight, without cynicism. As Wynton Marsalis said, “The world is perfect when you’re playing.” Luxury brands that recognize and cultivate innovative thinking, make more good things happen.

Innovative Thinking Can Help Resolve the Basic Paradoxes of Luxury

The general process of innovative thinking goes from inkling to fledgling notion to linear concept to story (or stories) to meta-stories to metaphor to new ideas…but not in a linear way. The process is engaging and productive. It refocuses luxury managers’ eyes and their models on “the truth of the imagination.” In this way they can better design solutions to the fifteen primal dilemmas that luxury marketers must resolve. These are:

1. Function vs. beauty.

2. Classy vs. cool.

3. Functional essence vs. bling-laden excess.

4. Private experience (quiet luxury) vs. conspicuous logo.

5. Simple vs. simplicity that is so wonderfully complicated.

6. Scarcity and exclusivity vs. expanding your market (After millionaires, what?).

7. Thinking long-term vs. thinking short-term.

8. The richness of the experience vs. the rich price tag.

9. How to bring haute couture to the developing world?

10. How to see small changes that lead to paradigm shifts?

11. How to recognize big changes that will fizzle out fast?

12. What is affluence as a state of mind?

13. How to design a unity between timelessness and modernity?

14. How to represent the present as evolving from the past?

15. What becomes iconic as a design?

Economic stimulus plans are over. The stimulus that remains is innovative thinking. Luxury brands can go to the sci-fi biologists and clone the first-mover, Bernard Arnault, or they can cultivate and mentor innovative luxury managers. The latter seems more luxurious.


Brain Sells is a strategic advisory practice that works with companies to reinvent how they assess the mind and mood of various publics and then communicates with them.