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"The Front Lines" of Innovation

All of Corporate America seems to be thinking about innovation. But few managers have a closer view than Sam Lucente, whose desk sits at the intersection of design, innovation, and customer experience. As Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) director of design and brand experience, Lucente's job is to use insights from the design, technology, and marketing fields to enhance the consumer's interaction with HP products. Part of the corporate marketing team, he has been at it for two-and-half years.

BusinessWeek Corporate Strategies Editor Brian Hindo spoke with Lucente by phone recently, after he had attended a gathering for innovation executives at San Mateo (Calif.) creativity consultant Jump Associates. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

How has the thinking about innovation and design evolved at HP over the past few years?

Post-merger, it was all about telling the world that we're much more than a PC and a printer company. Not only did you have to go to market with world-class design, because that's what the competitors were beginning to do, but there was a need for this glue to hold this stuff together. And you really want to harness that inventive power of HP employees. It's kind of like everybody has their own version of Bill and Dave's garage in the form of their cubicle.

Can you describe your role within HP?

As products become much more complex, it's not about designing the individual product, it's about orchestrating this complex ecosystem to create a wonderful customer experience. So my job touches on all aspects -- all the tangible, visual, real-world aspects of that experience. If you just think of a customer journey, it's everything from collateral and point-of-sale to packaging to the industrial design, the user interface, and the area where interface and the software and the hardware come together, which we call product interaction. So it's orchestrating all of those touch points.

As a tech company, what can you learn about innovation from a company like, say, Clorox (CLX), which is in such a different category?

In a lot of ways, it's very similar. They're dealing with chemistry, and I'm dealing with technology. For them it's not about how well the bleach is going to clean. People know what bleach can do. In that sense, they're faced with commoditized product.

In the same way with technology, we're reaching this same kind of commodity pressure with PCs, with inkjet printers, and we can constantly raise the bar with technology. We're both faced with the same problems.

I think, though, that largely in the tech industry when we talk about innovation, it's about the next cool gadget. But more and more we're beginning to talk about -- hey, we got all the technology we need, we got all the functions and features we need, I want this stuff to work. I want it to do what I want it to do, when I want to do it. And to innovate around that customer experience -- to make things simple -- is really complex and difficult.

So these ecosystems, it's really not about the product. The product has to be really well designed, and in some cases, just a world-class icon. But it's really devices that hang off the ecosystem. So I'm working with people to create these ecosystems.

What do you hope to gain from talking with other execs who deal with innovation issues?

We're beginning to get a handle on doing world-class design as professionals, and you see it more and more in the level of design, especially in the U.S. But this whole area of customer experience and innovation in the tech industry, from the customer experience point of view, is really a new frontier. This is a small world -- the leaders in this whole space, there's not very many of us. And I know, based on all the brand strategy work we've done, there's a lot of alignment and a lot of things that go on at Nike (NKE) that I can learn from.

What specifically?

This whole notion of using influencers. Nike leads trends. They can zero in, not really on a segment, but on a certain group of people in the world and link that up with an influencer. They just know it hands-down. And because of the goods that they're creating they can do a lot of short-run productions and stuff like that.

Those are all the things that we're going to have to do in the high-tech industry. At HP, one of our cameras was actually designed by [rock singer] Gwen Stefani. That thing sold very well. So we're doing that. But to look at Nike and talk to them about how they're doing it -- it's a great learning experience.

How else can you use a more flexible, scalable supply chain to promote innovative ideas?

You're seeing it already, in the red notebook, or the Gwen Stefani camera I talked about, or this Livestrong notebook HP did. But at a high level, maybe it's more long term, but things move from mass production to mass customization to individualization to personalization. You see it in the car industry with a Toyota (TM) Scion that you can customize or a Mini, or a Harley Davidson (HDI) motorcycle.

People want to feel like an individual. If I were able to offer you a highly customized notebook that reflected your aesthetic sensibilities and linked into an ecosystem the way you wanted to do it -- we've got to be thinking about that kind of stuff.

What are some of the big issues that still vex executives who deal with innovation?

By far one of the big things is that it's ill-defined. We're on the front lines. There's a lot of innovation at the chemistry level, at the technology level -- features, functions -- but there's not this broader kind of experience level. How you wrestle with that, how you quantify that, how do you get an $80 billion company to get behind one ecosystem vs. another? So we discuss all the different ways we measure. What are the successes, and what are the failures?

Another big discussion item is how do you walk through this creative process? For the longest time ideation was about throwing out as many ideas as you can. We've realized pretty quickly it's really not about a bunch of ideas, it's about really good strategy, alignment with business, diagnostics, and deep customer understanding. And when you're ready to talk about ideas, bringing people to the table who are informed is what it's all about.

Then, the ideas are no longer just about the product, they're about new business models and how you go to market, and what's your supply chain like. You can see it's a much different world than it used to be.


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