Marketing – Is Its Job to 'Serve' or to 'Create'?

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by: Idris Mootee

The idea of "customer orientation" comes up almost all the time during my meetings with clients. It is generally define as an organization culture in which all executives and employees are committed to the continuous creation of customer value of delivering on their needs.

Being the organization’s culture, a customer orientation is necessarily cross-functional and thus radically different from a marketing (single-function) orientation. Many organizations are very familiar with this concept but acting on it is a different story.

The whole idea of ‘marketing’ has always been closely associated with discovering what customer wants and needs and then delivering in them in the most economic fashion. The "how" (meaning the product, service or experience itself) is secondary and considered outside the domain of marketing. They are under the domain of product development or distribution or operations etc. Under this definition, marketing’s function is to serve customer. This is true today and will always be so.

But is that enough? That point of view is changing and is somewhat outdated. The new view is marketing is about "creating" customers and markets through innovation-the creation of innovative new product or service concepts. That is a very different approach. When I was taking with the Apple marketing folks a few months back we (Jeff Faulkner and I) were asking them the question about what they were trying to do, "Is it the thing or the thing about the thing?" For Apple, it is always about the "thing". Innovative products and services have the potential to engage customers’ heart, minds and imagination. Apple is no question the master of product innovation.

Innovator has its set of challenges. From 1993-1998, part of Apple’s strategy was create a market for portable handheld pen computers. Unfortunately, they spent most of that time working on a problem that didn’t really exist for consumers (that market was ultimately stolen by PalmPilot). Apple’s team focused to tackle the biggest challenge in pen computing: high-level handwriting recognition. Newton would be the first hand held computer people could write on directly just like they use pen and paper. From anyone’s scrawl, the computer would extract the standard ASCII characters computers need to work with. This posed a massive challenge in pattern recognition (with computer power available at that time). Since every user’s handwriting is different, the Newton would need to learn the particular way its user wrote each letter and number. This was a big task. If it got all the letters in, say, the word "works" right, Newton would compare that string of letters to words in its 10,000 word native memory. If the word "works" was stored there, Newton would find a match and "know" the word. When the Newton Message Pad was launched in 1993, it was disappointing. I was one of first customer and I still have one on my desk today.

Then came Jeff Hawkins (Pailm Pilots) with his Grafitti language, he redesigned the alphabet, turning centuries-old letters and numbers into single-stroke symbols that mostly kept the look of the original characters. Suddenly the computer had only one master rule to follow. The rest is history.

12 years later, Apple strikes back. This time with the the advantage of multi-touch screens that allow users to "glean much more information about a user’s actions" than from conventional keyboards. This new utility of offering a multi-touch capable display which can process multiple figures and gestures to provide additional information. iPhone’s multi-touch screen will be part of a platform for a series of new devices that will come to the market in the next 24 months.

The conclusion is that "customer orientation" is not enough, innovation is necessary to deliver better value for customer. Innovation requires not only imagining market, but also managing three types of risk associated with it:

1/ Technology risk (Will it work?)

2/ Customer risk (Will they buy and can they use it?)

3/ Organization risk (Are we tackling the right problems or do we know what jobs we’re trying to help users to do?)

There is more to this, the shift means moving from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, or from marketing tactics to business strategies. So here is the interesting one. How many marketing executives are ready to take on these new tasks?

– From VP Marketing Communications to VP Customer Engagement

– From Marketing Campaigns to Product/Service Innovation

– From Awareness (Mass Media) to Advocacy (Social Media)

We need to move from "Customer Orientation" to "Innovation Orientation". The rationale for an innovation orientation partly because of social technology and social networks now has the power to create markets and customers. A client (she is a very sophisticated CMO of a large organization) asked me last week over a Mexican dinner why my company’s focus is on digital innovation and not just innovation in a broader sense. That was a good question. My answer to her was that emerging technologies have far reaching effects on both consumer behavior and marketing economics. Many of today’s innovation are powered by emerging technologies and social networks. Expect more to come.

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