Interview with Jean Gaudreault | Innovation at Garant: investing upstream, rather than repairing downstream
In 1895, Télesphore Garant forged his first farm tools in the village of Saint-François-de-la Rivière-du-Sud. Today, the company Garant still operates in the same location, and has grown into the largest manufacturer of non-motorized gardening, construction and snow removal tools in Canada.
Jean Gaudreault, who has been charting the company's course since 1996, has made innovation his main weapon against the competition. The BrandBourg team has been working with them since 2006 to ensure the continued relevance of the Garant brand in all its segments and for all of its target customers. We spoke to him about the relationship between innovation, branding and research.
BB: Jean, innovation is at the heart of your business strategy. How important is innovation in 2021?
JG: For us, it's still a question of survival. When you have a business, you get up every morning to go to war. It is important to choose your weapons. In our case, you have to understand that we are making a commodity product, manufactured all over the world. It is impossible to compete with emerging countries on the basis of price. At Garant, we have decided to fight using innovation as our weapon – to continually reinvent ourselves in our products, our ways of manufacturing, distributing and selling them. It is such a core value to us that one of our mottos is “Innovate or Die.”
Innovating is necessary to support growth, especially when you already have significant market share. It leads you to explore new niches, new product lines, new categories to fuel growth. And when you replace products that have reached the end of their life cycle, that have been copied or whose margins have been eroded over the years because of new value-added products, innovating allows you to improve the profitability of your business.
Innovating is a way of asserting your leadership. If you are the leader of your category, you have to act as such. Your customers expect you to add value and develop interest and demand for your products.
And finally, innovating is very motivating. We are in a time when the people we hire need challenges; they don't like routine. Innovation is a great source of motivation and pride for our people, and it goes beyond new products. When we entered Manufacturing 4.0, we changed a lot of things; we brought a lot of innovation to the factory, and people liked it. Innovation motivates, it challenges, it nourishes. It is a great tool for attracting and retaining the workforce.
BB: You recently joined the ranks of Entrepreneur-Coaches at the Beauce School of Entrepreneurship (EEB), and led a 24-hour workshop on innovation. Your message was mainly about the importance of investing upstream rather than fixing downstream. What do you mean by that?
JG: There is no point in developing new products if they are not in line with the needs of the market or if they are not consistent with your brand. You must therefore take the time to define the parameters of your brand; understand the needs and expectations of users and customers, and validate that your innovation projects are working. Otherwise, you set yourself up for disappointing results and you risk ending up in remediation mode rather than development mode. And that is very expensive, because it took you months and months to develop your new product or service. If you're the head of a manufacturing company, you've probably invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment. Ending up with a product that doesn’t sell is catastrophic.
A brand with well-defined parameters allows you to base your innovation on the “for whom” and “why” rather than simply on product attributes. “Making it easier” is the fundamental idea that feeds Garant's brand promise every day. Whatever the task at hand, we are convinced that there is a way to improve its execution in terms of efficiency or ergonomics by using classic or new materials as well as by adapting the tools to today’s realities. That leaves a lot of room for innovation.
In addition, we are very fond of validating with users. There is nothing better than talking to home gardeners, manual workers or diggers to understand their needs and expectations and to make sure that the products we develop for them meet their performance criteria. Each year, we easily meet around 100 hobbyist and professional users in different segments to present our innovations at various stages of development and get their feedback. This approach allows us to move forward confidently throughout our process of innovation and customer retention.
BB: Garant is recognized for its openness to doing research beyond the beaten path. How does this help you develop better products?
JG: Whenever possible, I believe it is important to meet users in a context that promotes discussion and enables as much learning as possible. Over the years, we have met with amateur gardeners in their yards and visited their sheds, to better appreciate the contexts they live in and identify opportunities for the development of new tools. We carried out studies in store, on private land, in nurseries, even at a pool specialist – because we needed to test our brooms on different surfaces, including paving stones and treated wood, and that particular retailer had all that under the same roof.
We even tested axes in a lumber yard in Beauce, with experienced lumberjacks, accompanied by ergonomists who filmed their every move! Needless to say the study included a budget for mosquito repellent!
BB: Innovating also means developing your brand at the same time as your products. We recently had the privilege of supporting your team in their project to revitalize the Garant PRO SERIES brand. What did you mainly want to accomplish with this project?
JG: We make world-class products. Our products for professionals in particular are designed according to the highest standards of durability, performance, safety and ergonomics. We wanted the Garant PRO SERIES brand image to reflect this, and for the brand to clearly communicate this vocation.
Again, we did not rely on our personal preferences. We took the time to consult with manual workers in different fields throughout the rebranding process to ensure that the new identity allows us to gain visibility and impact with our professional customers.
BB: In conclusion, what would you say to entrepreneurs and executives of manufacturing companies who believe that branding or research only applies to large manufacturers who mass produce consumer products?
JG: Assuming that all companies can and should innovate in all their activities, I would like to tell them: “Don’t practice in front of your audience.” Take the time to do your homework in order to get a good feel for your brand and understand the needs and reality of your customers. And get support from branding professionals. It is an investment that will allow you to maximize the commercial potential of your innovations while saving you time and money in the long run.
What’s expensive is getting it wrong. Once the product is launched, it’s too late to do any research. That’s because it is no longer research, it is observation. And sometimes it hurts. We paid the price to learn that. When I joined Garant, we did very little validation, or if we did, we validated internally because we believed we had all the answers – and we took some hits. Today, I am proud to say that all of our new products launched in the past decade have been very successful.