November 01, 2019

Carol Cone: On Innovation

Carol Cone was recently named one of the Holmes Report’s top 25 marketing and communications innovators for her career-long contribution to establishing and breaking boundaries in social purpose. Since 2013, the Holmes Report has released an annual list of 25 professionals who are influencing change in the communications industry. The Innovator 25 includes individuals who have creatively disrupted traditional communications and marketing practices to maximize ROI and social impact. 

We sat down with Carol to talk about her entrepreneurial spirit, the root of innovation, and the key to a genuine social impact campaign. 

How did you find yourself here, dubbed the “Pioneer of Purpose,” and named one of the top marketing and communications innovators?

I never set out to create an industry. I followed my gut early in my career where I combined my love of marketing and branding with my upbringing surrounded by social justice. Early on, intuitively, I leaned into helping companies and brands have meaning to become important to their stakeholders – employees, consumers and communities. Social issues, when authentically connected to an organization have meaning. And communications that build from authentic meaning are compelling and lasting.  

Where does innovation come from? What inspires you to shake things up in the social impact world?

I don’t wake up every morning and follow a strict routine, or set daily intentions to innovate. I simply walk through life as a sponge, soaking in everything around me. I take inspiration from “out of the norm” content; I read and watch things that aren’t standard for CEOs. I love Disney movies, for example. When you absorb information like a child and forget a life of preconceived norms, you think more expansively. As we age our ideas are shot down, often because they have never been done before. To create stunning ideas, you have to believe and believe with great conviction. Defend they can be done. You might not bring all of them to life, but you have to just keep trying.

My personal joke I use in speeches: I started my career at 6’ tall.  Now I am 5’ because of the pioneering efforts I took.  If my audience doesn’t laugh, I know I have a problem! 

I also consume countless blogs, newsletters, and videos. I love attending the Cannes International Festival of Creativity to absorb the world’s most disruptive, creative ideas. I’ve been a judge and speaker there, and this year we won two Lions for Aflac. They have over 35,000 entries that are the most bold and disruptive ideas globally.

Additionally, innovation doesn’t come from just one person. My parents served as a huge inspiration and instilled a curious spirit in me. My stepfather was one of the original modern artists in this country, and my mother opened the first Off-Broadway theater in New York. She gave me tremendous energy and showed me that the tiniest thing can be a huge force in this world. My step-father also showed me the magic that comes with being bold and taking risks. I was 16 years old the first time I went to Europe, and I remember he dyed his hair and beard bright pink for a disruptive in-the-streets art event in London. 

I inherited my creative spirit from my parents, but I have kept it alive by surrounding myself with people from all different backgrounds. Diversity is key to expanding your thought and challenging the norm, which are both essential to disruptive innovation. 

What is your super-human power?

I connect dots. That’s how My Special Aflac Duck came be. I connected Aflac’s need to break through in their 23-year, $125 million commitment to pediatric cancer, their beloved brand icon (the real Aflac duck) and the idea of creating a social robot duck to help kids get through really tough times during their treatments. The goal: give Aflac’s multi-billion-dollar icon a superpower.

How do you measure innovation? By new ideas and creativity, by the risk taken, or by the impact made? 

Start with social impact, and then factor in business impact. The key is that they work together; it’s the power of “and.” Was an impact made and did the business grow? 

With Rockport, the social impact was the creation of the walking movement, and the business impact was their 4x growth in 5 years and the overall creation of a new category of walking shoes at retail, which grew to over $1 billion. 

With Aflac, the social impact was providing social and emotional support to kids going through cancer. The business impact was their significantly increased corporate reputation and a 2.3% increase in sales.

How do you continue your innovative momentum?

I have been called one of the most creative people in the field, but from Rockport, to Reebok, to PNC Grow Up Great, sometimes I have to wonder how I’ll keep the cadence. That’s why Aflac has been so exciting. You need clients that will give you the opportunity to really stretch and test the boundaries, and Aflac has been that client. 

You always want to start by building off of insights. Identify a core insight that a specific challenge presents itself in. The sharper you can define the bridge to the challenge, the narrower your field of possibility becomes. 

In researching childhood cancer, we discovered that children go through an average of 1,000 days of treatments. We talked to physicians, consulted literature and listened to the families, and found that children need more than medicine to cope – they need emotional support. 

This insight guided us to our main challenge: how could we provide emotional comfort and alleviate children’s loss of agency during their treatment? 

True disruptive innovation is about connecting patterns against an insight. We knew that children gain control over their life when they have the ability to do what they do most naturally– play. We also knew that children find emotional comfort in soft animals that they can cuddle and have as a companion. Sproutel was already on our radar, so we came up with the idea to take the Aflac Duck and reimagine it for these children. 

Aflac gave us creative room to dive deep into their target audience’s needs, and they placed their faith in our innovative product. I always look for clients that are willing to take a risk in the name of social impact, because that’s where the magic happens.

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