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Clorox: The Dirt on Innovation

Clorox (CLX) built its brand on bleach. Now the $4 billion Oakland-based company must convince consumers that it's about more than cleaning -- it's about making the job of caring for your home easier. Mary Jo Cook, the new business vice-president for Clorox' laundry home-care division, resides at the heart of that effort. In an effort to promote growth via innovation in its largest unit, Clorox tapped company veteran Cook for the position about seven years ago.

Cook and her team work to develop new products like the Clorox Toilet Wand. They usher the concepts through the idea, launch, and aftermarket tinkering phases, and make sure the innovation pipeline is stocked.

BusinessWeek's Corporate Strategies Editor Brian Hindo caught up with Cook recently by phone, after she returned from a powwow of corporate-innovation executives convened by San Mateo (Calif.)-based creativity consultants Jump Associates. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

About a dozen other innovation executives were with you at the Jump meeting. What issues did you all talk about?

We just shared a lot of ideas about how people are doing ideation and how you can do better. Part of coming up with ideas is appropriately framing the problem. You learn a lot about how people launch products.

As you might imagine, the way Nike (NKE) launches high-end urban-cool shoes is really different from the way I launch a Clorox toilet wand. But there are things Nike does with high-end urban-cool shoes that, if I twisted a little bit, I could possibly make work for the Clorox toilet wand.

How could you transfer lessons from a Nike shoe launch to a toilet wand?

Well, an example could be the role of Internet chat rooms and blogs -- getting word of mouth built. So for Nike, of course, a big piece of a shoe's success is that it has to come off as cool and have almost a "you discovered it" feel.

That's a lot less relevant for a toilet wand -- it's not about cool. But this blog/chat/word-of-mouth kind of thing -- surgically placing a few things on the Internet -- now that's a cool idea. And we probably don't do as much of that as we could.

Even though the participants were from disparate industries, did any common themes emerge in terms of issues you're all facing?

How do you prioritize the ideas? A fair number of ideas are out there, but how do you prioritize and choose the one you're going to bring to market? That was a big, common area.

Another common area was this idea of innovation as not just creating the product that will delight consumers -- it's creating it, commercializing it, the supply chain for it, the aftermarket management of it. That was a very interesting theme that resonated with pretty much everyone.

Did any best-practice ideas or tactical advice emerge?

One thing was trying to do kind of an idea-review process where all the stakeholders are in the room. For example, if you're an innovation group, you may have one idea that can work on Brand X, and one idea that can work on Brand Y, and one idea that can work in Country C.

You put all those ideas forth in the same meeting with the head decision-makers of Brand X, Brand Y, and Country C. That way, you agree as a group which one you're going to make critical.

Another theme I'm a big fan of is that it has to be a good idea, not the best idea. I think we spend a lot of time saying, "Well, is this the best one?" as opposed to "Is this really good? Could this be a really good business? Where could this take us next?"

Do you mean hitting more singles and doubles with new products, rather than going for the home run each time?

It's more like there could be four ways to hit a home run.

How do you make sure you've got corporate and organizational support for your innovation process?

The only way you're going to get top-line growth in our business is through some level of innovation. You may not have to turn your company over 100% every year, but you need it. It should be built into the forecast.

Many newly minted MBAs may not have things like creativity, innovation, and design fresh on the mind. How do you get talent on board that can think this way?

The one way to think about it is, "I'm going to run an innovation group, and I'm going to hire highly creative people, design backgrounds, people who have proven their ability to think outside the box. And then I'm actually going to create some sort of career path within innovation."

Depending on the size of your company and the importance of innovation and how much you're doing there, that might be something that can work.

We're at the other end of the spectrum. When it comes to marketing at Clorox, we'll hire a bunch of really, really bright people. We rarely or never hire them into a new business group -- they'll start in an established brand and get their feet wet.

And then, after a year-and-a-half, you start to see if they have expressed an interest in doing the front-end, new-business stuff. Is there a reason to think they'd be good at it? Do they have a special spike in consumer empathy? Do they tend to approach problems differently?

So my approach is, "I'm going to hire really good talent, function by function, and then I am going to move people around a little bit more, recognizing that certain skill spikes will probably lend themselves better to the new product group than others."


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