How to Grow Marketing Innovation In-House

CMO Spotlight: Trish Mueller, Home Depot

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Here's a handy little introduction (courtesy of my friends at The CMO Club) to the world of Trish Mueller, senior VP and CMO of Home Depot. As you'll see, the big, new marketing ideas at Home Depot are grown at all levels of the company -- a true DIY venture. Ms. Mueller and I had the opportunity to discuss this practice at length after she received her CMO Club Marketing Innovation Award.

One thing this video won't reveal is Ms. Mueller's personal hunt for innovation as CMO. A self-proclaimed "voracious" reader and people person, she ventures beyond the world of home improvement into retail marketing at large, hoping to discover opportunities that competitors may overlook. "I spend time with peers in other specialties," she says, "and I also spend time with our marketing team at every level."

Trish Mueller
Trish Mueller

As is often the case in a corporate setting, some potentially brilliant ideas never break the surface of middle management, usually for one well-meaning reason or another. Ms. Mueller wants to make sure these buds see light. "I work very hard to be approachable, so everyone feels they can share their ideas," she says. "You never know where the next innovation may come from, and you'll never hear about it unless you dig in with the team."

When I ask about her proudest achievements to date, she puts the spotlight back on her department and how together they thrive in the unpredictable field of digital marketing. "I enjoy the fact that there's no map for where we're going," she says. "We're operating on the frontier of the new media world and we're forging new digital roads every day."

One of these new roads led them to the Home Depot mobile app, where they developed a new feature to let shoppers manipulate a map of their chosen store and pinpoint exactly where their desired item sits on the shelf. Another new pathway ended with in-store workshops for new homeowners -- think shower installation, picking the best paint, building shelves -- a program that has received rave reviews from customers.

According to Ms. Mueller, however, her team's inventive spirit didn't just sprout overnight. It required careful cultivation as part of an internal effort from store floor to boardroom. "We have built a dynamic culture of curiosity and courage, and we encourage a fast test-and-learn mentality across the entire team," she says. "It is definitely a team sport, with ideas coming from team members at any level or rank."

I ask for the CMO's step-by-step so that we marketers might replicate her method ourselves. "When recruiting, we focus on 'raw talent' -- those who have the right mindset versus just matching to specific expertise in given functions," she says. Home Depot also actively recruits against specific criteria, looking for a balance between subject matter and unconventional thinking "to fuel the talent pipeline long-term."

Then, to nurture creativity within established teams, Ms. Mueller and her peers publicly reward risk-taking. "We have a very strong communications-based culture that keeps innovation and quality work in front of everyone."

For her part, the CMO recognizes team members on a weekly basis, and the company hands out a "Big Swing" award every quarter, which rewards a risky idea that helped the team learn, even if it didn't ultimately pan out. "This approach with staff feeds the group's curiosity, tests our thinking and fosters a culture of 'What if we tried this?' versus the legacy of 'We do it this way,'" she says.

In sum, here are Mueller's take-charge takeaways for growing innovation in your own place of work:

1. Recruit for risk-taking as well as qualifications.

2. Seek out ideas at every level.

3. Recognize and reward the risk-takers.

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