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  • Michael Kerman

Marketing and Innovation: An Under-Valued Partnership

I was delighted to read Denise Lee Yohn’s an article in HBR entitled “Why Great Innovation Needs Great Marketing”and finally see someone reinforce such an important linkage. However, I finished the article and felt uneasy - there was something incomplete or missing. It took me a while, but finally I realized that the article had two main shortcomings and having spent more than 20 years in high technology and marketing, I'd like to share my perspective.

First, I couldn’t help but think that the article confused marketing with the product product management. Every product-centric organization, regardless of whether its focus is B2C or B2B, has some function that is responsible for:

  • Building trusted relationships with prospective customers

  • Understanding their overt and latent needs, preferences and desires

  • Capturing all of this in “use cases” that can be shared across development and other functional areas

  • Working with development to design and implement product capabilities that address the use cases and customer needs

  • Working across functions to ensure the company has the proper capabilities to support the new offering once it is released. For example, does tech support have the right training? Does support and customer service have replacement units? Has the return/refund process been clearly defined?

These are typically the responsibility of the product management organization. This can be contrasted with the traditional marketing organization which is responsible for the messaging and promotion of the product, leveraging the full marketing mix (events, PR, collateral, events, etc.) to acquire and retain customers. It is important to distinguish between these two functions.

The second issue I have with the article is that it didn't dig deep enough. Yes, it identified that marketing isn't as closely linked to innovation but why is that the case? Without understanding the root-cause of this gap, it is impossible to resolve. Here are some reasons based on my first-hand observations:

  1. Lack of Customer Engagement. Most marketers have little engagement with their customers, with the exception of some webinars or events. Ask a marketer how many customers they’ve visited or spoken with in the past week or month and you’ll be surprised how low it is (In this case, I mean really spoken about detailed use cases, the customer's priorities and direction, etc.). Customer-facing executives should encourage marketers to get out in the field and develop a more intimate, live understanding of their audience.

  2. Lack of Technical Acumen and Product Depth. While it is changing (as all companies become technology companies), many marketers lack a solid technical upbringing and detailed knowledge of their company’s offerings. As a result, they are often reluctant to get out in the field and interact with customers. To be included in innovation, marketers need to show they have the technical “chops” and passion to have a seat at the innovation table… or whiteboard.

  3. Staffing Levels (or lack thereof). The author touches on this early in the article, but it is definitely worth re-stating. Many organizations (especially small-to-medium businesses) have under-invested in their marketing departments. Whereas other functions (finance, sales, development) have been afforded the opportunities to specialize, many marketers still where multiple “hats”. As a result, many simply lack the time and bandwidth to take an active role in innovation because they’re already working at 110% of capacity dealing with everything from events to executive presentations to videos and so-on.

  4. Marketing Leadership Itself. Some of the responsibility for having marketing become an integral part of innovation falls on the marketing leaders. It is essential that marketing have a strategic seat at the proverbial executive table and not be relegated to simply creating content or running campaigns in a shared service-like model.

Despite these issues, I agree with the authors many assertions, most notably that:

  • Marketing isn't involved early enough

  • AI, Machine Learning and similar advanced technologies are not a replacement for human interaction and insight.

Even after all these years and improvements in research and user-centered design, the failure rate for innovative offerings remains quite high. Greater involvement from marketing is a key way to improve the success rate and deliver better market performance.

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