Jonah Disend's Redscout Innovates Brands

Ideas, Inc


Diane von Furstenberg calls him a “brand shrink.” Other firms have labeled him savior, savant, and genius. Jonah Disend, 42, is founder and CEO of Redscout, an innovation and brand strategy firm that helps companies devise new products and services. And how does Redscout do that? By getting its team of “professional problem solvers,” as Disend calls them, to look at companies in new and unexpected ways (which means eschewing marketers’ traditional analytical tools, like consumer testing). Headquartered in Manhattan, Redscout has offices in San Francisco and London.

Your company tackles a nebulous area: innovation. 
Diane von Furstenberg explained it best. She said, 'You’re a brand shrink.' In good psychotherapy, it’s one thing to sit there and complain about your parents, but it’s another thing to actually go and do something about it. And we help brands do something about it. We’re usually hired for two reasons. It’s either because a business has hit a wall, as when the CMO of Dominos said, “We’re in three declining categories—pizzas, deliveries, dinners—and what should we do?” Or because a firm has had tremendous growth, like Chobani or Harry’s, and is asking, 'What’s the next chapter?'

Explain how innovation as a process works with a client.
Firstly, we diagnose what’s really going on, asking the question 'What business are you actually in?' Take Gatorade. It acted like it was in the beverage business. It’s not; it’s a sports company. Then we get involved with R&D, the people who are actually engaging with the products. What most companies do is wait for R&D to come to them with the answer, but they’re problem solvers. You can’t wait for them to come up with awesome products.

Then what happens? 
This is the biggest thing we say to our clients: You need to understand culture in order to be relevant, but we innovate for the real world. So many people try to be cool, and only 1 percent of the population is actually cool. We’re interested in the mainstream, how people really live.

So the next step involves conducting fieldwork like an anthropologist?
 [For brand research] I once spent eight weeks on the road, living with different kinds of families—on an Army base, with Baptists, a home-schooled family. The most fun was living with an African-American Baptist family who took me to church. As a total outsider—I’m a white gay Jew—it was the most welcomed I’ve ever felt anywhere.

  Research books and items from Redscout’s work on the Miller Fortune brand, the largest launch in Miller Coors history.

Research books and items from Redscout’s work on the Miller Fortune brand, the largest launch in Miller Coors history.

What are the steps after you do field research? Where do the ideas come from?
We look at the problem we’re trying to solve. Get rigorous on how to solve that idea. It’s the reason we hire mostly introverts. I believe introverts are better at coming up with ideas; extroverts are just better at talking about them. I’m anti-brainstorming. I don’t believe in 15 years that I’ve ever seen an idea come to market that’s come out of one of those 'Kumbaya' sessions. So we send people off in teams of two, and they have a few days to come back with initial sketches to present to the group.

Give me an example.
For Westin, it was the idea that most business travelers are frustrated with their ability to find a place to get work done—the room is inappropriate if you’re meeting coworkers, but the lobby is too loud. So we created Tangent for Westin, which is a business center you can rent out. It’s a Zipcar model that turns it into a revenue center.

Tell me about some of your biggest success stories. I know you were the mastermind behind the reenergized Kate Spade. 
We went back to the reason behind the brand. If Ralph Lauren is American royalty, Tory Burch is about living an Upper East Side lifestyle, then the Kate Spade woman wanted to live a more interesting life. She’s the girl who lives in an eighth-floor walk-up, but you knew you’d use Champagne glasses when you went to her house. This insight manifested most directly through the Live Colorfully line: fragrance, products, even the stores became more colorful.

It surprises me how many fashion brands have tapped Redscout for insight. You worked on the launch of a premium beauty line, too.
The challenge is that beauty at the high end is very much about science. It’s dermatologist driven. That part is never credible from a fashion line. For fragrance or cosmetics, which people think of as fashion-focused, it works. With this beauty line, we were responsible for naming the products, amping up the science, and talking about the benefits.

What about British Airways?
It’s an interesting marketing conundrum. Often [companies] cede the thing you think your competitor owns. For example, BA said, 'We can’t win in service because Asian airlines own service.' But we pushed back and said, “Actually, it depends on how you define service, especially if you fly a lot.” On most US airlines, sure, you could die and no one would notice, but on Asian airlines, they can over-service you. I mean, 'No, thanks, Korean Air, I don’t want 47 towels.” What’s uniquely British, we told BA, is anticipation—when to be there, when not to be there. That’s the ultimate in service.

Read more at Gotham Magazine here