| Nov 30, 2021 | Michael Benigno
The Gabelli School’s Responsible Business Coalition Hosts Fourth Annual American Innovation Conference
By Claire Curry
In the face of global climate change, social inequality, and the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s top companies are breaking the barriers on what it means to innovate. From rethinking how we vacation, to making medical breakthroughs and designing entirely automated cities, companies are thinking beyond the shelf lives of their own products and services and focusing on health, well-being, and a sustainable future.
Extraordinary innovation and social innovation earned top U.S. companies, including Aflac, John Deere, Ikea, Netlfix, Goodyear, Navy Federal Credit Union, JetBlue, and Toyota high ranks on the American Innovation Index™ (Aii), a research program that quantifies the innovativeness of nearly 200 companies from the customer’s point of view. Winners are selected based on the results of a national survey of 6,000 U.S. consumers who rated companies across 20 industries on key metrics, including innovation, customer loyalty, attractiveness, and social innovation.
On November 16, 2021, Aii winners were recognized at the fourth annual Aii Conference hosted by the Gabelli School of Business’ Responsible Business Coalition, the Norwegian School of Economics, and Rockbridge Associates. In her opening remarks, Donna Rapaccioli, PhD, dean of the Gabelli School of Business, commended this year’s winners for working to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing problems. “At a basic level, firm innovation enriches our experiences as consumers,” she said. “At its best, it stimulates our imagination of what is possible, and what we want our world to be.”
Gina Woodall, president of Rockbridge Associates, explained how the market research firm analyzed the data and summarized key trends. For the second year in a row, consumers’ perception of innovation and social innovation have continued to climb, and the pandemic’s impact on innovation varies markedly by industry sector. What’s more, she said that innovation correlates with higher stock returns and that industry doesn’t influence a company’s innovation rating.
Airbnb ranked highest above eight competitors in the lodging sector, including Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham, for “helping people save money, creating opportunities for people to make money, and creating ways for people to interact or be part of a community.”
Woodall concluded that companies that showcase their innovations have higher customer loyalty. “Innovation is a powerful strategy to drive growth in a crowded sector where satisfaction is just not enough,” she said. “Understanding why customers believe you are or are not innovative and socially innovative compared to competitors can also help prioritize your investments.”
Pragmatism is innovation
If innovation is broadened to include the ideas that can come out of necessity, anyone can be an innovator, said keynote speaker Michael Colarossi. Vice president of product line management, innovation, and sustainability at Avery Dennison Apparel Solutions, Colarossi recalled when his grandmother used saucers in place of plastic wrap to cover leftovers to illustrate the fact that pragmatism is innovation.
“I suggest that there’s a different definition of innovation,” he said, adding that his grandmother’s idea is not only cost-effective, but also environmentally friendly, considering the approximately 6.2 million cubic yards of plastic wrap in landfills today. “We need to pivot away from the idea of creating new things to really think about creating new value,” he said. “In creating new value, we may actually extend the life of the things that we already have.”
Colarossi acknowledged that failure is a natural part of the innovation process, and that learning from past mistakes is a company’s obligation to build a stronger future. “Don’t forget your history, including the failures,” he advised. “Embrace it, learn from it, be a product of it, and use it to reignite or even protect that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Aflac fights childhood cancer
Representatives from some of the winning companies participated in two panels on invention and societal impact at the conference. Buffy Swineheart, senior manager of corporate social responsibility at Aflac, shared how the insurance company’s famous mascot played a key role in its philanthropic efforts.
Teaming up with a toy company, the company designed a plush Aflac duck and accompanying app specifically for children diagnosed with cancer. “It is a social robot for children with cancer, and it enables children to better express their feelings to their nurses, their caregivers, and their families,” said Swineheart, adding that Time magazine ranked the toy as one of the best inventions of 2018. This year, a version of the duck will be released for children experiencing blood disorders, including sickle cell disease.
Toyota builds a smart city
Brian Kiser, an automotive training professional at Toyota, revealed the car company’s vision for a fully automated city outside of Tokyo, Japan to study autonomous vehicles, innovative street design, smart home technology, robotics, and new mobility products.
“There will be real people living in the city full time. We will study what their needs are and how we can best address those needs with new technologies,” he said. “At Toyota, we like to look at innovation on a small scale with improvements every day but, of course, we’re always looking to the future.”
John Deere improves sustainable farming
Few other occupations rely on the environment more than farming. Todd Florence, strategic communications manager, business and leadership at John Deere, said the company’s biggest focus is sustainable farming practices. It recently introduced new GPS and auto-tracking technology for its tractors to precisely tread over the land once, which could save up to 700 gallons of fuel.
“Our first full-blown sustainability report as a company in previous years covered about six pages, and this year, it was an 80-page document,” Florence said. “In the end, it was a variety of perspectives from different stakeholders that informed how we prioritize our ESG goals.”
Innovation needs heart
Meaningful innovation that incorporates a societal impact is part of what makes these companies stand apart from their competitors. Woodall noted that innovation without the intent to make a difference doesn’t build strong customer loyalty. “If companies are just high in terms of regular innovation and not thinking about the greater good, they’re really just a disruptor,” she said.
Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives Lerzan Aksoy, PhD, announced that the Gabelli School’s Responsible Business Coalition (RBC) will be the new home of the Aii. The RBC brings together 47 CEOs representing 275 brands to address the issues surrounding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) that impact business.