Blog: Dean BestTesco, Unilever eye innovation for place on the podium

Dean Best | 13 October 2009

One of Britain's most celebrated Olympians is currently addressing the IGD Convention in London.

Lord Coe, double Olympic gold medallist, is recalling, with some humour, his athletics career, as well as outlining his current role as chairman of London's 2012 Olympics preparations.

His apperance today (13 October) is no doubt designed to motivate the delegates into thinking about how they can beat off the competition in what is perhaps the toughest race they have run in their business lives - the current economic downturn.

Lord Coe's turn comes after a morning in which Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy and Unilever boss Paul Polman urged the audience to remember the importance of innovation in a recession.

As well as Sir Terry's unexpected attack on UK schools (which drew a smattering of applause in the conference room and grabbed front page headlines in London's evening newspaper), he touched on the subject of innovation.

"Recessions are a good time in which to innovate because - candidly - management is looking for answers. People coming up through the organisation would get a better hearing," Sir Terry said.

Tesco's chief also claimed that innovation costs less in a recession. "Entry costs are on the whole lower; assets are more reasonably priced; consumers find it more diffocult to defend their turf," he said.

"It's a particularly good time to innovate if you can anticipate after the recession what the 'new normal' will like."

Polman claimed Unilever's rising expenditure on R&D and marketing was "an exception" in the industry, while he also pointed to recession-fuelled NPD like the company's Knorr Stock Pots.

Like a long-distance run, investing in innovation represents a gamble; a gamble of knowing when to break clear of the field and kick on for the tape.

However, as Leahy and Polman suggested this morning, investing in innovation now can lead to a place on the podium when the economy recovers.

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