“Incubators” and “accelerators” may be everyday jargon in startup culture today, but the words were rarely used in the corporate world until recently. Now, companies like Absolut, IKEA, IBM, and Viacom are building labs to drive deeper and more sustained innovation across their brands. It’s not easy though—many corporate incubators fail for the same reasons that startup accelerators and even startups themselves fail. Whether it’s the wrong team, the wrong idea, or even the wrong execution, the biggest challenge for incubators is knowing who and what to invest in, as well as how many resources to allocate in order to succeed.
And while it’s become increasingly challenging to source and hire employees in a competitive market, the goal should be about balancing the need for a bigger headcount while sustaining innovation. By tying the incubator to the bottom line, it becomes an easier sell to convince decision makers that it’s worth keeping.
Kiel Berry is co-head of Viacom Labs, Viacom’s internal incubator that launched in 2016. Built with the intention of “delivering products, platforms, and businesses that inspire and empower the future of fan experience and engagement,” Viacom Labs is focused on blending the creative power of internal talent with direct insights from fans in order to create uniquely engaging experiences and products. From Berry’s perspective, the decision to head up this team lay within “the opportunity to create a group sitting at the corporate level where we’re centered on working with our brands while exploring the future of fan engagement.”
So how does Berry and his team experiment and define fan engagement? Last summer, they partnered with Airbnb to create a unique fan experience around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise where fans were able to go and stay in a literal TMNT lair in New York City. This was followed by a partnership with Giphy (an online GIF community and search engine) and Comedy Central to bring Giphy’s creation suite directly to the brand’s online video player. Fans watching their favorite clips on Comedy Central’s website were able to use Giphy’s GIF Maker to create and share GIFs instantly.
Both of these partnerships with popular startups ultimately feed into Berry’s overall objective: allowing fans to express their fandom without restrictions. By making fans a top priority, Viacom Labs is helping to strengthen the future of the business in addition to driving increased loyalty.
As Berry explains it, it’s about more than just giving fans what they want—it’s about striking the right chord between fostering fandom and being financially viable. “The balance that all labs have to make is that they need to be strongly tied to all the business units, but also have the freedom to be disrupters. When this balance doesn’t happen, that’s when labs fail,” he explains. “We’re striking that balance as we look at ‘innovation’ on a spectrum.”
“The balance that all labs have to make is that they need to be strongly tied to all the business units, but also have the freedom to be disrupters.”
Across the industry, other big brands are attempting to follow suit. IKEA launched the Space10 Innovation Lab in the fall of 2015 to better speak to the future of living. This prototype and product-testing lab doubles as an exhibition hall and a place where strangers and employees can come together to get inspired while discovering new talent and ideas. With the same thing in mind, Absolut launched Absolut Labs in the summer of 2016 to “encourage new ways of thinking that develop products and experiences to help shape the future of nightlife—and inspire people to create richer social connections.” Their strategy is grounded in partnering with external creatives ranging from technologists to musicians in order to think expansively. Meanwhile, IBM has high aspirations to make Ontario the next Silicon Valley. In partnership with the government of Ontario, the tech giant is actively working to close the “innovation gap” in Canada by having a space that helps entrepreneurs and startups more rapidly “move their business plans from research to commercialization.”
By going outside the walls of the corporations themselves, all of these companies are literally thinking and working outside the box to better realize the future potential and sustainability of their brands and the markets in which they do business.
In reflecting on Viacom Labs’ products thus far, Berry says it comes down to putting as much emphasis on what’s happening now as on what’s coming down the pipeline. “I’m always thinking about how we continue to create traction with our brands today, while also priming the organization for the future,” he explains.
So, how does a corporation ensure that its incubator doesn’t fall short? Building explicit teams and spaces for fans to engage directly with the brand helps to future-proof and tap into the power of the crowd. But ultimately, it also has to be fun and creative, because without a sense of curiosity or play, not even the best employees can come up with the next “big thing.”