Running Strong With Two Underappreciated Growth Strategies (Part II)

In Featured, Innovation by Allen Thornburgh

In Part 1, I advocated for developing growth strategies that are impervious to common, predictable problems, such as big elections, natural disasters and losing major donor reps. Step 1 is ensuring your fundraising and marketing operations are strong on the fundamentals, but most ministries stop there. Step 2 is where smart, forward-leaning organizations can set themselves up for real, sustained growth, through growing new audiences and products. We talked about why you need to add both strategies to your long-term growth portfolio. Now we’ll explore the processes for pursuing those strategies.

For-Profits Have the Same Problems as Non-Profits

Nonprofits often have an understandable but regrettable inferiority complex in comparing themselves to for-profits. But even consumer brands struggle with new audiences and products, and need help.

If you’re a runner, you’ve probably heard of Brooks Running, a leading brand for running shoes and clothing. As recently as 2000, however, they weren’t a leading brand. They were a designer and producer of various athletic shoes on the brink of bankruptcy due to low sales.

As recounted by Bloomberg, when CEO Jim Weber arrived in 2001, he “scrapped almost the entire product line — no more cleats or tennis or basketball shoes, no $30 cross-trainers sold at Walmart — and refocused the company on the one thing that still sold well: high-end shoes designed for serious runners.”

In our innovation practice, we call this process of winnowing and refocusing Product Portfolio Assessment. Just as for-profits need to say goodbye to weak products and pour their efforts into their best opportunities, so do you.

Having decided to focus on “high-end shoes designed for serious runners,” Brooks had to get two new things right: the product (high-end shoes) and the audience (serious runners).

Not having the institutional expertise to pull this off, they brought in an innovation firm to help. The firm put them through the Human-Centered Design process: Understand, Explore and Develop.

Understand: Brooks had been too focused on the diehard runner. Now they needed to understand the more casual jogger, who “confessed that they didn’t enjoy it — they just ran because it was good for them…‘I remember one woman we talked to who had an iTunes playlist, and she knew that if she got through all the songs, it would be 30 minutes and she could stop. It was very SoulCycle-ish — working out because someone is yelling at you, vs. someone running for the love of running.’ Brooks hadn’t considered this kind of customer before. ‘They just want us to make running easier…’ ”

Explore: Based upon their growing understanding of this new audience, Brooks began contending with the new minimalist running shoe trend. “ ‘I was like…nobody is going to run in our shoes anymore,’ says Carson Caprara, Brooks’s director of global footwear product line management.” In the end, after exploring these trends, Brooks rejected the long-term efficacy of the trend and engineered new running technology that best met the market’s needs.

Develop: Brooks “built a shoe for those who wanted to run but needed a literal push…[via] a material that, when you ran, gave you a little bounce…‘Then we shaved down the heel so it was more like a racing flat and runners landed quicker,’ says Eric Rohr, Brooks’s senior biomechanical engineer.”

Brooks’ use of the Understand-Explore-Develop process wasn’t limited to a technological application. They also found that this new audience “wanted to look cool. Brooks had been so focused on designing shoes for avid runners that the entire athleisure, sneakers-to-work trend had passed it by…So Brooks set about creating lighter, sportier shoes.”

This use of human-centered design fueled a renaissance at Brooks so significant that it caught the attention of Warren Buffett, who added it to his famously impressive Berkshire holdings portfolio.

New Audiences and Products — How Do I Do That?

Like Brooks Running, most ministries do not possess institutional experience and expertise in building new audiences and developing new products. It’s the same for many companies as well. Brooks needed to bring an external firm into the equation in order to understand new audiences and develop new products.

Masterworks’ innovation practice exists to help organizations build new audiences and products in order to fuel growth. In our “Innovation Strategies That Work!” session at CLA’s Outcomes Conference, on April 19, at 2 p.m., we will share the strategies, processes and tools we use to help ministries develop these new exponential growth strategies. We are confident that our attendees will leave with the certainty that there are new ways they can achieve growth for their organizations. We hope to see you there! And if you’d like to meet up at the conference, I’d love to hear about your own innovative thinking and work in your organization (email me and we’ll grab some time!).