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The Gap’s Kyle Hermans on Brand Innovation

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This is the first in a series of excerpts from my interview with Kyle Hermans for the forthcoming book Brandaide–A Blueprint for the Brand CEO. Conversations with Kyle offer a rare glimpse into how brand innovation is facilitated. Kyle is Director of Global Brand Innovation for The Gap Brands. Kyle has travelled the globe facilitating teams to solve problems, crafting solutions, and maintaining relevancy to consumers. Kyle facilitates brands and their leaders to reach creative breakthroughs, and to innovate.

The word “innovation” is tossed around a lot. So I dared to ask Kyle…

Q. What does it really mean “to innovate?”

To innovate means to create something new that may have not been made before, and that’s providing a service, product, or a way to make life easier. It’s identifying a way to help society and the environment function more smoothly. The word “innovation,” and the action “to innovate” are two different things.

Q. How so?

Innovation is that thing that you hold in your hands, that you see in front of you. When you’re sitting at a desk and you pick up the pen or you pick up your mobile telephone, that is now fully formed and has a use, that to me is what I would call an innovation. The innovation is the end result of a creative journey.

Q. Which can be an arduous journey?

To innovate is to be on the pathway to create that thing that people behold and that fulfills a real need. You are questing for something new, questing for a break through. The participants have decided to take a very dangerous, arduous, fear-ridden confrontational, anxiety-ridden journey. It’s a lot like going to the dentist, certainly for a kid, and even for an adult.

Q. That’s a scary comment. Is the innovation process really like a trip to the dentist?

I think creating something innovative is as exciting and as anxiety-ridden as going to the dentist, because you’re going into scary unknown territory. It’s full of excitement. You know you’re going to have a positive result on the other side, but you see and feel these things. You hear things. And what comes up is new and can sometimes be very confrontational because it’s not what you expected it to be. If the outcome is what you expected, that means incremental results. The results of the innovation process are likely to be the unexpected outcome. By definition, innovation embraces the new and unexpected. However, something new and different can place us on the very fine line between excitement and anxiety. Excitement and anxiety have very similar body reactions, but one is very uplifting and the other can be quite stressful.

The dark night of the innovator is when you find wondering, “Where I am, what am I doing, what is all this stuff around me; where does it apply, how do I do something with this?”Kyle Hermans

Q. Isn’t this fear of the unknown? When one challenges one’s fears and steps into them, the fear tends to dissipate. And it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be, right?

That’s true. When we are in the process of innovation, and we’re going to come up with something amazing, I say: “You’re going to confront your fears, you’re going to confront the unknown, and you’re going to confront things bring about the dark night of the innovator.” There is typically a mini freak-out session. When I say, “Describe that,” people say, “Well, I’m feeling fearful.” So I say, “Fear is false evidence appearing real.” You know, when you see a frightening, a big animal balloon sitting in your dentist’s chair, then you go, ah, that’s cute. And it takes your mind off of it. You have to bypass the way you think it’s going to go based upon images and situations from the past. You must be able to put those aside and say “I know that happened then, but that’s not going to happen now.” And I’ve got to step forward past the imagined outcomes.

Q. Our past comes into the room with us, whether it’s emotions, beliefs or a judgment. Doesn’t this process mean putting those things aside in order to be create a new vision?

100%. And I would add that “to innovate,” means to answer an articulated need that brings about a different type of a service, product, or system to a customer, or to a user who is… who is looking to solve the conflict that they’ve got going on inside of them and— or inside of the job that has to be done. And through that, that innovation will finally find a home. But for the innovator, to innovate means you’ve got take an exciting journey, to really force yourself to think differently and create something new, that hasn’t been created before.

If the outcome is what you expected, that means incremental results. The best results of the innovation process are likely to be the unexpected outcome.Kyle Hermans

Brands must innovate or face irrelevancy, or worse, extinction

Q. 20 to 30% of today’s Fortune 500 companies won’t be around. Remember Kodak? What happened?

Kodak was a brand that we pitched to, for a period of 12 to 16 months. We recognized that things were showing up that would dramatically affect the way that their industry was going to operate. And they expressed back to us that they had a handle on it. In their mind, they were communicating with their customers. Kodak couldn’t see it coming. They did not embrace digital photography in time, and the Kodak moment is no more.

Kyle works the process

Q. What does the process “to innovate” look like?

I want to dance with the client, to partner with them, to express whatever the metaphorical music that exists. Whatever the cry is from the market, or from the opportunities they are confronting; we need to dance together. My roll to be that 30,000 foot view, that different set of eyes and ears out there saying, “While you stay deep in your content, and are figuring out what you need to do, I can help guide you to a new space.”

The first phase is, “What is the business question that I’m trying to solve for my brand, for my company, what is the business question?” That’s typically operational, tactical, strategic. It can be a big hairy audacious goal for the brand, something that is more internal, more company focused, operational in nature. The other is “What is the customer question I’m trying to solve?” Something will have come up in the market–there’s often trends, a need that starts to surfaces, or a new behavior or language, something that’s in conflict with the behavior that we are accustomed to. And that can be often identified as an unarticulated customer or market need that’s looking to be solved.

Q. Isn’t the unarticulated need key to identifying where relevant differentiation for the brand exists?

Very much so. You will be surprised, in the top 100 of the Fortune 500 around the world that I’ve had the privilege of working with, more than half of them do not create things with the customer need in mind. Some of them don’t even have a solid current dialogue with their customers. They have a very old dialogue with their customers–their market could be even more than six, seven years old. So they’re still selling to a customer that they may have had some interaction with, some real tangible interviews, connections, meetings years ago. Some really big brands just haven’t done that for a very, very long time.

Q. What kind of conversations lead to breakthroughs?

A brand can have a closed dialogue with the customer which is, “Hey, Cheryl, do you like the red or the blue option?” And you might say the red option, which is very narrow. This approach leads the customer towards an answer that you’re hoping they will give. The other more relevant approach is to say “Hey, Cheryl, tell me about your world and capturing your moments.” That’s a very open conversation, because you can’t really lead where that customer is going to go. You’ve planted the seed specifically around what you are looking to discover. There’s a big difference in the way you are communicating with the customers.

These new breakthrough brands will come from successfully tapping into the current customer need to feed their own voice into the products they are going to be buying.Kyle Hermans

Drawing back to the likely demise of 20 to 30 percentage of the Fortune 500 brands in the years ahead, I see that being the result of two things. First, brands must embrace the Internet. Second, and because customers are so vocal now, if you are not communicating and listening to your customers you have a problem. Go into any social media forum, blogs, articles, magazines, online magazines, which is just opening a dialogue, and you can see that people are expressing ideas and really giving away content. They’re expressing what it is that they need and want.

Q. That is having the courage to ask the questions of your customer, and listen.


Q. Does the innovation process work for younger brands?

Because of the internet and how fast one can tap into a global platform, the power has been taken back from the really big brands. There’s a lot of money and marketing power being handed back to the individual sitting at home. If they can figure it out how to communicate and get a good business model going, they can could potentially have the same impact as a very huge brand. These new breakthrough brands will come from successfully tapping into the current customer need to feed their own voice into the products they are going to be buying.

In our next installment: Breakthroughs come from the conflicts in what the customer is saying. Read more: Kyle hangs out with consumers– from Thailand to UK.

Originally Published: July 21, 2014. Updated: March 31, 2015.

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