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Contagious Insider Reports

by Contagious Team

A MANIFESTO FOR BUILDING SUSTAINABLE BRANDS

The Project Fly Team exports its ground-breaking innovation methodology to Washington D.C. to collaborate with the Inter-American Development Bank and 16 of Latin America and the Caribbean’s brightest startups.

It’s been nearly four years since Contagious Insider first began hatching plans with Mondelēz International – then Kraft Foods – for the ground-breaking Project Fly innovation platform. Working with Mondelēz LATAM regional marketing director, Maria Mujica and her team, along with boutique innovation house, +Castro, the Project Fly crew has existed in a state of constant reinvention ever since – pushing the global conglomerate and some of its biggest brands to do braver work that has generated more value in the lives of consumers and in the culture of the organisation as a whole.

In November, however, the team that prides itself on making others uncomfortable was given a taste of its own medicine as we were challenged to export the Project Fly methodology and apply to it to some of the world’s smallest brands. The request came in from Alejandra Luzardo, a senior communication specialist who leads product strategy and innovation at the Inter-American Development Bank – the leading source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Luzardo is part of the team leading IDB’s Demand Solutions initiative, a Washington D.C.-based event run in collaboration with the Blum Centers at UC Berkeley and UCLA, designed to unite entrepreneurs, VCs, government representatives and professionals from fields as wide-ranging as agriculture and entertainment to share innovation solutions that address development issues in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Entrepreneurs taking part included Victoria Alonsoperez, founder of IEETech, a social enterprise that developed Chipsafer, a platform that can track and early detect anomalies in cattle health remotely and autonomously. Plataforma Saúde, created by Tales Gomes, is a social impact business located in Rio de Janeiro that uses mobile technologies to provide high quality healthcare for underserved communities with limited or no access to basic healthcare. Carlos Edmar Pereira’s company – Livox – uses a self-learning mobile app to provide alternative communication solutions for people with disabilities and was inspired by his own passion for communicating more effectively with his daughter after she was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. The full list of entrepreneurs can be seen here.

The two-day event closed with a Venture Night in which some of those regions’ most exciting startup companies were given the chance to pitch their businesses to the assembled cognoscenti. And it was our job to prepare them, to make the big-brand intelligence that Contagious Insider and the rest of the Project Fly team is well-versed in, relevant to new-born companies.

The Project Fly Team was given three days to work with the startup founders – all of them focussed on social good, socio-economic, cultural or health-related issues – and not only help galvanise their pitch but also look to the future and think more broadly about how they can build a brand around what they do. Through a series of briefings, group discussions and exercises we discovered more and more about what drives these remarkable entrepreneurs, why they’ve taken it upon themselves to help the world and how we could do our bit to help them. It was the only workshop we’ve ever facilitated in which people shed tears when talking about their company’s mission and it provided an arresting reminder of why startups – when fueled with absolute passion and belief – are capable of affecting change in society that established monoliths can only dream of.

In one of the exercises, we challenged the group to work in teams and re-interpret the Contagious 10 Commandments for brand bravery (written for our Contagious X anniversary issue) and make them directly applicable to startups, using some of the brand-building fundamentals we had discussed. As the groups presented back, it became clear that this was turning into more than a workshop thought-starter – it had the capacity to become a cultural and commercial compass for anyone with passion and drive to create their own startup. It is in this spirit – of passing it on – that we decided to distill the collective feelings and experiences of this group into the following five thoughts:

INNOVATION FINDS PURPOSE IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Acutely aware that the startup landscape is oversaturated with every conceivable technology-based innovation, the teams agreed that what genuinely differentiates a good startup from a great one, is human empathy and a willingness to always prioritise human experience.

As a startup grows, this commitment to real people should remain constant and dictate not just what they do and how they do it, but most crucially why; getting lost in data and forgetting the human face of users was a failure scenario for the entrepreneurs.

REMEMBER YOUR RETURN ON EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT

It became clear quite that these entrepreneurs are not working to get rich – they’re doing it because they are passionate about making a difference. And yet they agreed that the two are not mutually exclusive. One team in particular talked about the virtuous circle that can be created in a company in which the more personal emotion you invest, the stronger and healthier your product or service becomes and the more impact it has on the world – rewarding you with an emotional and financial return. As more nascent companies embrace vehicles like the Benefit Corporation and triple-bottom-line accounting we expect this commitment to long-termism to spread.

PEOPLE ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN ALGORITHMS

Unsurprisingly, every startup in the room was powered by technology and yet the biggest leaps forward they’d made had been through interaction with people. Collaborating; soliciting advice; participating in events like Demand Solutions and most importantly, challenging customers to invest and share in their mission. Put simply, technology may power a startup, but people make it grow.

ALWAYS ANSWER A DISRUPTIVE QUESTION

Many startups are founded on a challenging question asked of an industry or way or working, and yet the teams agreed that they had seen too many young companies disrupt only to end up being disrupted themselves when they got too big, established or comfortable. To protect against this, startup owners should continue to ask disruptive questions – not just of their category or field but also of themselves, and interpret the answers as new ideas. Are we continuing to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone? Are we being too controlling when we should be collaborating? Are we asking for help at the right time and from the right people? All can result in new ventures, exciting offerings or new customer sets.

PROTECT YOUR FUTURE WITH PRINCIPLES

Unlike many brand-based workshops we’ve experienced, in which companies dream of a strong, inherent sense of purpose, our teams had crystalline visions of their causes and how they manifested in their products or services. There was, however, a universal fear of becoming distracted by changes in their company or a wider marketplace and losing sight of this purpose as a result. The solution? Establish principles that provide a guiding light for everyone who contributes to the company – be they employees, customers or investors. Combining an absolute commitment with these core principles should ensure that a company could adapt and evolve but always stay true to its cause. As one sentence scrawled on the bottom of a flip chart explained: ‘The path changes but the heart remains the same’.

IDB’s Alejandra Luzardo explains what makes startup culture in the LATAM and Caribbean regions (LAC) unique:

‘While in Silicon Valley we see many innovative high-tech startups, it is uncommon to see startups focused in solving social problems. We believe that the LAC region does not have to copy recipes from around the world, on the contrary, we believe that these regions are capable of producing unique solutions that can compete with any other startups from around the globe. Most importantly, we believe startups can design solutions to help improve life, which is why at the IDB we want to boost entrepreneurs that can make a contribution to society.’

‘A strategic partnership between Mondelēz International, Contagious, and +Castro was a unique experiment. In their own words, the entrepreneurs described the experience as “Training without precedents” and “learning for life.” Personally, I think it was an experience that must be replicated in the LAC regions to continue co-creation with all players in the start-up ecosystem. Creating this experimental space, where private and public corporations, accelerators, investors, branding specialists, start-ups, students, clients and citizens work together with specific goals is critical to putting Latin America on the global innovation map.’

Mondelēz LATAM regional marketing director, Maria Mujica, explains what learnings she took from the startups:

‘I was once again reminded how passion, effort and creativity can bend constraints; take these things as conditions to operate as opposed to a reason not to do something.’

‘On a practical level, we were reminded that great marketing matters for startups. It feels as if there are challenges around creativity and branding that have been left unattended in the startup community, but these can be addressed if we bring learnings from the ecosystems of big brands. On a personal level, I learnt to keep trusting and to keep following the uncomfortableness. We got to this pilot by being open and experimental. By allowing ourselves to be part of a project that was totally new and not obvious to the way we generally work. Most importantly, however, we all learnt that everyone has something valuable to bring. Both the big and the small.’

All photos courtesy of Sergio A. Gonzalez.