Innovation is not just about developing new things, it’s about developing things that customers actually want – and there is a big difference, according to Emma Woods, chief executive of Wagamama.

Speaking at MCA’s Restaurant Conference last week, she told delegates that her educational studies and her work in marketing at Unilever had helped form her belief that “proper innovation can be a game-changer for growth”.

Woods said she was lucky enough to work for an organisation that over-committed to innovation. “You did it year in and year out and you got lots wrong, but it was actually the lessons you took from the innovation that you got wrong that really stuck with me,” she explained.

One of her biggest lessons was that when you ‘cried new’ when promoting an innovation, if it was not something that was not on the customers’ side or customer-led, “then your innovation was doomed to a very short life”.

Woods explained that while see sees almost all businesses in the sector being “extraordinarily innovative” when they start off, it’s the businesses that manage to maintain a drumbeat of innovation that stand the test of time. What’s key is not thinking about how we can innovate, but how do we stay innovative to drive growth?

For Woods, it starts with leadership. Leaders need to be really passionate about innovation and live it on a day-to-day basis. She noted various eating out brands that she admired for their drumbeat of innovation over the past five years: McDonald’s – for the work they have done around customer experience and their kiosks; Burger King – for the work they have done to innovate their marketing; and Greggs – who have quietly innovated proposition over the past five years and then came out loud and proud with the vegan sausage roll, she said.

Another important factor is the need to create and nurture an innovation culture. “Truly successful business don’t confine the prerogative of innovation to the marketing team,” she said. “This really struck me joining Wagamama. I realised I didn’t need to push the innovation agenda, I needed to nurture a concept called Kaizen. For us it means good change. Every day in simple ways we strive to be better than the day before,” explained Woods. “I see my job now as using my own personal passion for innovation to help lead and develop this culture further.”

Woods also spoke about the development of Wagamama’s vegan offering, such as its vegan katsu curry and eggs, and said that some of the best ideas have come from involving its team in ideas input. “It is living this idea and nurturing this concept of an innovation culture that is managing to keep our drumbeat of innovation going,” she added.