It has been a decade since Fast Company launched its Most Innovative Companies list, which is one among many, sought-after innovation accolades that have emerged in recent years. The prize for landing on an innovation list is, of course, being seen as a company that is transforming the economy, and in many cases society.

During the mass-disruption era of the last decade, it was upstarts that were leading the charge around innovation. Yet those startups — Uber, AirBnB, Netflix — have transformed into bonafide behemoths. Even on the Fast Company list, big players dominate the top 20: Apple, Netflix, Tencent, Amazon, CVS Health, Nintendo, and Instagram, among them. 

That’s not to say innovation comes easily to large companies. Earlier this year, Innovation Leader asked 270 corporate leaders about the most common obstacles to innovation in large companies. Topping the list was politics, turf wars and lack of alignment; cultural issues; and the inability to act on crucial signals. Other issues noted were lack of budget and strategy/vision. These obstacles are relatively expected and likely contribute to a perception that large companies are slower to innovate among the broader public. 

The question then is how do Fortune 500s — the traditional, behemoth corporations —embrace an environment that pushes forward innovation and communicate that with stakeholders? 

The way many of tech’s largest players are doing this is by making innovation one of their core values. For instance, Salesforce, PayPal, Microsoft, Amazon are among the tech companies that do this.

“We use the word to describe technological advancements, new approaches and strategic opportunities that allow us to reach and serve those who are underserved by the traditional financial systems across the globe,” says Franz Paasche, PayPal’s SVP of corporate affairs and communications. He points out that since becoming an independent company in 2015, one of the payment company’s biggest innovations has been its approach to partnerships. (The platform is now considerably more open than it previously was.)

“Innovation can be hollow without context and framing,” warns HP CCO Karen Kahn. Beyond technology innovations, HP has become a champion of diversity and inclusion “as the engine of our innovation.” While former HP CMO Antonio Lucio had been a driver of initiatives like the diversity scorecard, the company’s CEO Dion Weisler has also made a point to publicly say  the company expects its vendors to make gender and racial diversity a priority or risk losing their business.

“When CEOs and other leaders talk about innovation, they need to make it clear it will be more like a daily exercise regimen — part of the way things are done here, from now on,” Innovation Leader editor Scott Kirsner noted in the piece.

Honestly, we try limit our use of the term and instead focus on demonstrating how technology works 

While CEOs can certainly generate headlines that draw attention to a company’s innovation initiatives, customer stories also help spotlight impact.

“I’m always surprised by how little focus there is on customer success,” says Joe Ciarallo, senior PR director at Salesforce. “At Salesforce, it is core to our DNA to lead with customer success stories versus just product stories when we’re highlighting innovation.”

This is the tact that Salesforce takes at both its marquee event Dreamforce and its Salesforce World Tour. 

“Events and video content are not just about how [customers are] using Salesforce to transform their business, but they go even deeper into who they are, what is their reason for being and what impact they want to make not just in business but within their community,” Ciarallo explains. “All that said, the best way for brands to tell their innovation story is to actually have their customers and partners tell them.”

Meanwhile, eBay’s VP of communications Brian Nelson cautions against bigger companies using the word ‘innovation’ too lightly.

“People won’t laugh harder at a joke just because you tell them it’s funny,” he explains. “Telling a story of innovation is no different. Honestly, we try limit our use of the term and instead focus on demonstrating how technology works in service of the customer by improving the shopping experience.”

For example, eBay showcases new products — or even concepts that may never become consumer experiences — to demonstrate the ultimate impact on the customer.

Alex Hunter, managing director at the Bulleit Group, says for Fortune 500 companies innovation doesn’t necessarily need to run through the entire organization. Instead, he often works with individual business units that are tasked with spearheading innovation initiatives.

“Often we’re treating those relationships like our relationships with startups,” Hunter says. “We’re prodding them to move faster, make quicker decisions, use more aggressive language.”


Managing the Reality Gap

C-Suite executives are generally aware of the impact of innovation on their businesses. For example, a recent Accenture report that included a survey of 1,500 executives across 12 countries and 11 industry sectors found that 54% of large companies expect that “new businesses” will generate more than one-half of their revenues three years from now. Yet for established companies, the reality showed paints a different picture —  the report also found that just 6% of companies were “sufficiently innovative.” (The report considers ‘innovation excellence’ to be a company for which 75% of current revenue comes from business activities that began in the last three years.) 

And the lists, for instance like Fast Company’s and others like World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers and MIT Innovators under 35, give organizations added visibility around ambitious and lofty innovation imaginations that perhaps don’t have the immediate business impact yet.

“The people we represent are those working on technology that most think is impossible, yet we think it's inevitable,” says Bulleit co-founder Kyle Arteaga. “These awards are validation that our sentiment within certain key audiences is starting to change.”

But given the overuse of the term, journalists have become somewhat skeptical when companies go into overdrive in pushing an innovation angle without the growth metrics to support it. Six years ago, Leslie Kwoh’s Wall Street Journal column “You Call That Innovation” lambasted companies for touting “monumental change when the progress they’re describing is quite ordinary.”

“The situation has only gotten worse over time,” says the Hoffman Agency’s CEO Lou Hoffman. “Too often companies believe innovation and change are synonymous. They’re not synonymous. Changes within companies happen on a daily basis. True innovation – when the gap is massive between what was and what is now possible thanks to the innovation – is a rare occurrence.”

He recommends, for instance, to give journalists behind the curtain access to observe the innovation for themselves rather than inundating them with buzzwords and marketing-speak.

“Another approach to lifting the innovation story is to use the folks toiling in R&D as spokespeople,” he adds. “By default, they bring realness to the painful exercise of invention.”

Saleforce’s Ciarallo says for Fortune 500 companies, in particular, the urge to show innovation should be measured — but the bar to be innovative shouldn’t be as high as it is for startups.

“The opportunity is to show how innovation can be incremental at first but impact the bottom line over time,” he says. “When you want to publicly release a new business metric, it’s simple but important to stop and think about if you’re ready to be asked about that metric or have to report on it every quarter.”