The Press, October 2006

"Marketing is what you do when your product is no good," American inventor Edwin Land once said, reflecting the view of many fellow innovators. This scepticism is not surprising given popular perceptions of marketing. But as technology based businesses become more and more central to New Zealand's economy, it is a misconception that needs to be challenged.

These attitudes come from the fact that much of what passes for 'marketing' is often of little interest to technologists. What gets media coverage is typically the latest clever television commercial or promotional gimmick, consumer marketing campaigns that are often irrelevant to the average technology company trading in tough international business-to-business markets.

But marketing can have an enormous effect on the success of a technological innovation, and have little or nothing to do with promotion.

As many a frustrated engineer has seen, the best product technically will not necessarily triumph. That's because what product is judged 'best' is in the eye of the consumer. This view is formed not just from the consumer's experience of your product, but who else is using it, how they buy it, who from, the level of change required for them to adopt it, how well it is supported, how it is priced, promoted and so on.

Marketing's role is to try and understand this whole experience and help to make it as easy as possible for a customer to buy your product. Easy for them to become aware of it, understand it, find it, buy it and use it.

The process of making it easy for customers differs fundamentally from consumer to technology marketing, something not always recognised by either technologists or marketers. For consumer marketers the challenge is more about making people aware of their brand, for technology marketers the task is more fundamental - simply getting customers to understand their product and its unique benefit.

This is because from a customer's perspective a product like a soft drink is much simpler than the average technology-based product, such as a sophisticated piece of electronics. We typically understand consumer products instantly and are familiar with the benefits they deliver.

Technology products are usually new and complex and therefore far more difficult for the buyer to understand. An engineering team with a huge amount of skill and experience will typically spend years making their product. Behind the functionality of the product there can be immense complexity and cleverly engineered solutions.

For the marketer it adds another layer of complexity. Unlike baked beans or basketballs, the customer can often not instantly understand what a technology product does for them. So before the process of awareness raising begins, the technology marketer must articulate what the product does for the customer and what unique benefit it brings.

Here's a real live example from a New Zealand software company. According to their website, company X provides "a comprehensive suite of scalable, and cost effective end-to-end business management solutions specifically designed for mid-sized businesses." Basically it is software that helps with your accounting and a few other related tasks. They fail utterly in telling you what it does and why it is unique.

It is difficult to even understanding what the product is. Imagine if Watties promoted "metallically enclosed legume-based sustenance." They wouldn't sell too many baked beans.

Technology companies too often take a consumer marketing approach - jumping to promoting their product without really answering some key questions. They start selling their products without bringing them into the customers' world. It is a tragedy when brilliant technological innovations fail because they don't make it easy enough for the customer to understand what they have to offer.

The fault of course is not simply with technologists. Marketing companies haven't traditionally been good at providing a valuable service to technology companies. They have attempted to use the techniques common to consumer marketing - telling the story rather than first understanding what that story is - with predictably poor results.

When marketing technology it might be fun to charge off to Asia for a trade show, or get a funky new brochure or website made, but without a solid foundation to your marketing the chances of success are greatly reduced. Technology companies need to forget any thoughts of promotions until they are able to answer some key questions:

  • What do you really do for your customers?
  • What's unique about you and how can you make the most out of it?
  • Who needs you the most and where do you have the greatest opportunity?

Marketing doesn't need to be an irrelevance for technology companies. Instead of empty hype, it should be used as a tool to clarify the best way to get more people using your product. Marketing then becomes a way to help prove that your product is good.

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