Growth often comes from product innovation. And yet, too often we see innovation that happens in vacuum – where new products are developed without any significant input from marketing or external customer insight.
This can be especially common when it comes to tech companies. Some ignore the consumer when developing new products, perhaps agreeing with Jobs when he suggested that consumers can’t invent the future and so listening to them is fruitless. This internally-focused mindset (on the development of products) versus an externally-oriented mindset (on the needs of consumers) means that marketers, in many cases, have limited roles in defining the product pipeline or innovation strategy in these tech firms.
To explore this in more depth, I chatted with Jeremy Korst, President of GBH Insights, a marketing strategy and insights firm. Jeremy is a former CMO and executive with Microsoft, T-Mobile and Avalara, and currently consults with a number of CMOs across tech, CPG, retail and other industries.
Kimberly A. Whitler: Tell me more about your experience at tech companies and the role marketing plays.
Jeremy Korst: I first started my career working in product management for technology companies, and one of the things I observed is marketing often didn’t have a strategic seat at the table in terms of defining the product roadmap. There was limited up front research or customer insights applied to define the innovation roadmap, and in most cases, marketing was focused largely on messaging and promotion around new products as they were introduced to the market.
As I developed in my career and eventually transitioned into a marketing leader, I came to understand the importance of developing brand and product strategy from the outside-in, and why siloed development of products within tech companies can be a very costly and avoidable mistake.
Whitler: Every marketer is familiar with the four Ps of Marketing: Product, Price, Place & Promotion. In a CPG or retail firm, marketing is usually accountable for the overall business and intimately involved in shaping future products based on external customer and market insight. Why doesn’t marketing play the same role at tech companies?
Korst: The reality is that tech companies are often led by a strong technologist, and marketing is often underutilized or plays more of a support role. Essentially, one of the 4 P’s is often missing – Product. And this leads to suboptimal outcomes. Marketing peers in CPG and other consumer-oriented companies are more general managers in nature and have a more clear stake across the product life cycle, ensuring that strategic insights about their target customers are a foundation for product strategy.
There are several different factors that influence the role of marketing within tech companies. One is the company’s culture and mindset. Often in tech companies, the culture is product focused where smart engineers seek to develop technology innovations first, and then look for a target market — essentially a “build it and they will come” approach. Unless your engineers are omniscient, their hard work and many inventions are likely to go awry!
Other technology organizations can have a more demand generation and sales-focused culture, where the collective team is going after any and all leads without investing the necessary time to understand who their most valuable customers are. In both cases, the potential strategic role of marketing is underplayed and radical change is needed.
Whitler: What advice would you share with CMOs or marketers to successfully navigate a product or sales focused culture to increase the strategic role marketing plays within the organization?
Korst: CMOs and marketing leaders have to understand what type of culture they’re navigating to know where transformation is needed. CMOs and leaders have to lead change across a myriad of different areas to build a culture that’s more customer-centric and data-driven, and redefine the role marketing plays within their organization over time. Realistically, you’re not going to be able to change the culture overnight. That said, there are some foundational areas I recommend marketers focus on.
One of the most fundamental is creating a stronger focus on establishing brand as a primary, cross-company strategic asset that is used to drive overall company strategy and prioritization – not just a marketing tool.
Second, marketing leadership should ensure the company understands who are the highest value customers, and ensuring there is a disproportionate focus on those target customers across the company. There’s a tendency within tech companies to develop technology for technology’s sake, or hyper focus on the product, rather than listening to what your target customers actually need, or will need in the future.
By investing in external insights to better understand the competitive environment, target customer needs, and the overall customer journey, you can begin to uplevel and reframe the conversation internally, and start to pivot and develop a consistent brand and product strategy.
When I look back on my experience in large tech companies, one of the most common misconceptions I observed was a belief by product development teams that they “knew” what customers needed, regardless of what external insights were available. The focus was often more about being better than the perceived competition and increasing the number of features. But this approach often misses that mark for what their most valuable target customers actually need. Many engineering leaders simply don’t understand the value they can get by more effectively engaging the marketing colleagues to shape their innovation roadmap.
Whitler: Any other common misconceptions about marketing within tech companies you would point to?
Korst: One misconception is that many believe that “great products should market themselves”. In other words, it’s the engineering team’s job to create the products, and marketing’s job to go create noise about them. This leads to a belief that marketing doesn’t need to have a strategic seat at the table to shape future innovation.
Another misperception is the role marketing plays relative to sales. Many tech CEOs or leaders fundamentally believe that marketing’s main role is to generate new customers, or that marketing should only support sales or align with other outbound sales efforts.
To successfully navigate and overcome these misconceptions, marketers have to be careful not to get caught up in the near-term, tactical or more promotional aspects of marketing, and make sure they’re defining and evangelizing a holistic brand strategy.
Ultimately, if a strong marketing leader finds themselves within a 3P technology company that is resistant to moving from a product-centric to a customer-centric mindset, then it may make sense for that marketer to consider opportunities with companies who see marketing as a more strategic partner and business driver.