Jun 22, 2011

Innovation Index: Does the Outdoor Industry Measure Up?

With an anti-establishment culture, the ability to rapidly prototype new ideas and an adventurous craving for new, creative products, the outdoor industry has a number of the qualities identified with innovation.

Innovation is an elusive quality. We supposedly ‘know it when we see it,’ and though investments on patents, research and venture funding seem to be comfortable barometers, the U.S. is slipping in global leadership in many of these areas.

According to a recent TIME magazine article, “Innovation is as American as apple pie. It seems to accord with so many elements of our national character — ingenuity, freedom, flexibility, the willingness to question conventional wisdom and defy authority.”

Sounds like a familiar description of outdoor industry ethos. When asked about innovation, industry leader Gordon Seabury of Horny Toad agrees that innovation is about “solving problems through creative thinking, experimentation and ingenuity” and building “a culture on challenging the status quo with a fresh perspective.”

That sentiment is echoed by Icebreaker’s Lisa Thompson where “new and better” are the marks of innovation. Using the 2008 example of Icebreaker’s “Baacode” which traces the merino wool to its source on every garment, Thompson says “innovation is fun, sustainable and keeps people engaged and emotionally connected to what we’re doing.”

But, do customers value innovation?  Some brands believe that consumers look to them for new ideas, believing that consumers appreciate an innovative approach. However, many companies are reluctant to outwardly trumpet innovative practices.

“It always takes time to embrace innovation and proven success certainly helps adoption,” observes Seabury. “I think our customers absolutely embrace innovation, but we are careful to not talk too much and let our work prove itself over time.”

One of the ways that outdoor companies are demonstrating their own innovation prowess is through rapid prototyping. The design world values rapid prototyping as a key tool for innovation and many cutting edge companies including Icebreaker, KLYMIT and a host of others in the outdoor industry are using it to great advantage just as Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and many others have before them.

An article in FastCompany Design by Jeremy Jackson states that “getting the idea out of the designer’s head and into a demonstrable format is an effective process for eliminating initial shortcomings and misplaced design assumptions.”

With patents plentiful and strategic investments being made in certain areas, what are the next steps?

“I think the industry has been tremendously innovative in certain areas like in the areas of equipment, fabrications, adventures/conquests, environmental and business ethics,” adds Seabury. “I think the industry will be well-served if it can take that tradition and apply it to other relevant areas for the future, such as merchandising, attracting new participants, leveraging technology and the digital age, and developing new retail models.”

Innovation goes beyond product development. Advancements in mobile technology, lifestyle fabrication blends, the evolution of specialty retail and the intersection/integration of technology and outdoor experiences are areas that are considered important to the future health of the industry. That can be a daunting set of responsibilities to look at all at once.

Sometimes small steps are easier to take, and can still result in big results. Icebreaker’s small changes in their manufacturing process resulted in stronger fabrics and Icebreaker factories significantly reducing their coal usage.

“We’re always looking at additional ways to make sure that we’re doing what we can to keep moving sustainably forward and reduce our impact,” said Thompson.

New collaborative thought processes, product cycle changes, consumer trends, technology implications and innovative connections to customers are pieces of the innovation puzzle that OIA will be exploring over the coming months, leading up to and including the OIA Rendezvous leadership conference in October. Stay tuned for more.