The personalized balloon: Greetz’ successful innovation

By 5 December 2019Blog

The personalized balloon: Greetz’ successful innovation

Towards the end of the year I talk to various organizations about their goals and challenges for the coming year. Wherever I am, one challenge is mentioned by every company: how do we make sure that innovation is supported by the entire organization and not just by the innovation team?

The reason why this is so hard is the fundamental difference between managing innovation and optimizing growth. During his presentation at the Lean Innovation Summit on November 12th, Strategyzer’s Alexander Osterwalder hit the nail on the head: it’s the difference between exploring and exploiting. The difference between pioneering and optimizing. A startup should pioneer, take risks and radically innovate for a chance at survival. In an established company, however, management focuses on optimizing products and processes in order to minimize risk and maximize profits. That’s why in those cases, innovation is mostly incremental.

Recognizing the difference between exploring and exploiting is the first step for any organization to become more innovative. We can’t expect people to become pioneers when management, in the meantime, is asking for KPIs and holding people accountable for business cases. Employees will then opt for the safest route. Pioneering and true innovation can only happen if the preconditions are right.

“Recognizing the difference between explore and exploit is the first step for any organization to becoming more innovative.”

One of the coolest innovations that I have been a part of – and where the preconditions were just right – was the development of Greetz’s personalized balloons. The idea for personalized balloons was born after Greetz successfully introduced personalized drinks for Father’s Day. Beverages were one of the categories with the most potential for Father’s Day, but there weren’t any options for personalization yet. Luckily, the personalization of bottles wasn’t so complex at all and we were live within three weeks. It gave the category an enormous boost: the category as a whole grew 30% compared to the previous year.

The customer obviously was very happy about the personalized gifts and the sales boost that came with them, so naturally, we wanted to repeat the same “trick” in other categories. Balloons were one of the biggest categories at that moment but didn’t yet have the option for personalization. Unfortunately, personalizing a helium balloon was much more complex than slapping a new label on a bottle, but all the preconditions were just right:

  • The brand had a clear vision for the product;
  • We had room to experiment and fail;
  • And we completely went for it when we found something that worked.


Clear vision

Autonomy in their work makes people happy. “When people don’t experience autonomy, it can induce a lot of stress, but too much autonomy and no structure can be equally stressful,” says Wendelien van Eerde, associate professor of leadership and management with the University of Amsterdam in the Dutch paper de Volkskrant. A clear vision provides the much-needed structure for employees to make autonomous decisions.

A clear vision provides a structure for employees to make autonomous decisions.

A personalized product by Greetz is delivered the very next day and makes quite the impression on the receiver. For me, the balloon is the ultimate Greetz gift: a huge box is delivered and when you open it, a balloon pops up.

The personalized balloon had to offer the same experience. We found and thought of all sorts of things, but nothing quite worked the way we wanted it to. There were inferior little balloons on a stick or sad balloons that were weighed down by the personalized sticker. There were balloons that you had to order by the hundreds and required a waiting period of weeks or even months. It became very clear, very fast, that we had to go back to the drawing board.

Room to experiment and fail

Quality exploring takes time. You have to (be able to) leave the beaten path and not give up after your first setback. It’s important to realize that this is not something that you can do besides your daily work, this is your daily work.

You have to do thorough research to be able to innovate.

One colleague was given the freedom to fully focus all her attention on this quest for a limited period of time. Despite earlier disappointments, my colleague kept looking and found a British company that had a balloon that we had never seen before. She convinced this company to send us a balloon exactly how it came out of the printer. Once inflated, we knew for sure: this was our balloon!
Further investigation led my colleague to the inventor of this balloon. He created a test run for these balloons in order to convince the world’s biggest balloon manufacturer to start producing them on a larger scale and was in the middle of this process. Nobody had this product yet and we were able to get exclusive rights for the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. We knew then that we had something very special on our hands.

Go for it

Once you find what you’re looking for, management also has to have the courage to invest and to go for it. This means scaling up. Taking a multi-disciplinary team and making a bee-line for your goal and going all out to make the introduction a success. There is no way back…

To be able to scale people from all disciplines were made available to realize our goal.

Valentine’s Day was around the corner and that year’s Greetz campaign would focus on balloons, so we figured this was the perfect moment to introduce the personalized balloon.

With the deadline and Saint Valentine in clear sight, people from all disciplines were made available to realize the personalized balloon. We flew to London to meet with the inventor, visited printer manufacturers to test the balloons with their machines, and made sure that the first production run was immediately shipped to the Netherlands. At the same time, we developed the designs and prepared the IT systems and the production lines. Even before the balloons rolled (floated?) off the conveyor belt, we decided that they deserved some screen time on tv. Not in the actual commercial, but in the tag on (you can see the balloon float into the screen around the 29-second mark).

After all those months of hard work, we went live just before Valentine’s Day. As we expected, the personalized balloon was equally successful as the personalized bottles.

On February 13th, 2015, I was glued to my screen to check the reports and ensure that we had enough production capacity to actually produce all the ordered balloons before the last truck arrived. We had war-room meetings every hour to see where we could optimize. Thanks to the full dedication of the team, the last balloon was inflated just as the last truck of the day was about to leave. Luckily we were able to convince the driver to wait a couple of minutes so that all balloons with their lovely messages could be delivered on time.

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