Innovators and marketers

The marketer’s vs. the innovator’s approach to innovation

“Business has only two functions — marketing and innovation”, said Peter Drucker, and he was right, although I would reverse the order, as innovation must create the products to be marketed. But helping marketers with innovation has shown me that marketers think like Drucker, with marketing being primary and innovation secondary.

Although my company’s innovation expertise is why marketers approach us in the first place, they still feel compelled to tell us exactly how we should run an innovation event. While we’ve learned to cope with their constraints, it’s frustrating because they would get better ideas, and better results, if they followed our advice instead of forcing us to agree on suboptimal project parameters.

Different worldviews

Marketers think in terms of competition — their goal is to get a bigger share of the pie by winning out over others. Innovators, however, embrace cooperation and focus on the right thing to do to make things better, more valuable, and more meaningful, rather than focus what their competitors are doing. Their goal is improving their customers’ lives, the market in general, and of course their own company.

Different language

Marketers love to use business- and marketing-related jargon and buzzwords. Because they see business as a competition, they frequently use military and sports metaphors. Innovators, on the other hand, prefer to communicate in everyday language. They try to minimize, or at least translate, any innovation-specific terminology and instead choose simple, common words.

Different attitudes to innovation

Marketers see innovation exercises as something unpleasant to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, but necessary every other year or so in order to plausibly claim to be “innovative”. They think they should instead be doing the important, real work of marketing. During an innovation workshop, they will email, make phone calls and even attend meetings. Innovators enjoy innovation, and focus on the project and the task at hand. They dedicate as much time and effort as necessary to achieve great, meaningful innovation.

Different time commitments

Because they see innovation events as an unwelcome distraction or even a chore, marketers don’t want to commit time to an innovation project. They want innovation projects to be as fast as possible, often cramming it all into a single day, and sometimes even trying to do it in short meetings over several days. In contrast, innovators realize that good innovation takes time, typically 3–5 days for an innovation project, and are willing to take longer than that when it’s needed.

Because they care about fast results, and the form of those results, marketers want to rush to develop idea concepts, and then spend a lot of time writing up those idea concepts in their preferred templates, which leads to rigid, formulaic idea pitches. Innovators emphasize the front end of the process, gathering information and exploring the challenge, knowing that it will lead to better ideas, which in turn makes pitching those ideas much easier.

Different scope

Marketers often want to pursue multiple challenges in one innovation project, aiming to create the “egg-laying wool milk sow”. For example, they might want to produce ideas for new products, promotional campaigns, and channel & trade product presentation all in one innovation event, and while the results from this approach are all over the place, none will send anyone over the moon. Innovators try to focus on the most important challenge they have identified after thorough exploration of the challenge. Because they are more focused, the resulting ideas are more meaningful and better.

Different approaches to ideation

Marketers equate ideation with brainstorming and may never use any other creativity techniques. Sometimes teams are left alone to “brainstorm for ideas”, or they may be led by an “innovation facilitator” who’s good at “marketing speak”, but who lacks innovation expertise. Innovators instead work with innovation experts who couple innovation know-how with innovation project experience. Such a professional will, for example, know to how to use powerful creativity tools and dedicate enough time to generate a large number of raw ideas, as well as enough time to find the great ideas among those raw ideas and develop them.

Different agendas

Marketers talk big about wanting bold ideas that create a new paradigm (or whatever the buzzphrase of the week is). But their failure to commit the time and money necessary for the creation of such ideas shows that they’re happy with incremental improvement. And the ideas they create are “safe” ideas that break no new ground. Perhaps they’re afraid of losing face, or of changing a system they’re comfortable with. Whatever the case, what they say they want, and what they actually do, don’t match up well. On the other hand, innovators push hard for revolutionary ideas, knowing that even if they fail, the process of failing will still create meaningful innovation.

P.S.: Of course, I’ve been extreme in my contrasts here. Both marketers and innovators exhibit a broad range of behavior. But just as innovators, when they need marketing, turn to and trust marketing professionals, so should marketers turn to and trust innovation professionals. But until that happens, marketers who tell innovators how to innovate will continue to get mediocre innovation.

Would you want to find out how to do better innovation projects? Contact us to learn more about X-IDEA, our systematic innovation process method that plays on energetic logic and structured magic. Then let’s co-create a better innovation project with better, more meaningful ideas for your chosen innovation challenge.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article was originally published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 19 March 2015.