Innovation Perspectives – Operationally Smart Marketing

by Mike Brown

This is the fourth of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on “What roles do engineers and marketers play in an innovation setting, and what conflicts can arise based on their perspectives and approaches?” Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Mike Brown

Marketing and Engineering ConflictIt’s natural for engineers and marketers to be at odds over innovation.

Engineering generally focuses on internal perspectives related to conformity, efficiency, and the cost side of the income statement. Success is defined as just enough performance for the costs incurred.

Marketers, on the other hand, are natural customer advocates, espousing innovation and differentiation in the customer experience a brand creates. So while engineers target a threshold level, marketers want to maximize and create advantage from a customer’s brand experience.

Growing up in the B2B transportation and logistics business put me at the heart of this struggle. Our “engineering” group was called Operations Planning. Despite a different name, the challenge was similar: trying to balance a transportation network for performance and cost efficiency while maximizing customer value. In this type of organization, it’s clear engineering has the first veto on any product or service improvement innovations. This powerful position necessitates finding ways to meet engineers on their own ground to try bringing them along an innovation path.

To improve the odds of innovation success, we’ve employed an approach a consultant originally dubbed, “Operationally Smart Marketing.”

The gist of it is the best way to drive innovation in an operationally-oriented environment is for marketers to intimately understand all the roadblocks engineering will surface and then innovate around them. This strategy may seem to fly in the face of a customer-first marketing orientation. Yet it’s more proactive than holding strong consumer-oriented convictions that stand in the way of selling in and implementing dynamic new innovations that never benefit anyone.

Adopting an operationally smart marketing strategy starts with addressing four questions you’ll need to thoroughly explore with engineering:

  • What makes money in our business? Spend time to understand the engineering view of what drives profitability. Are there certain lower-cost-to-serve customers or markets? How do through put, density, product mix, geography, or other relevant operational factors in your business disproportionately drive profitability? These answers are a fundamental part of your innovation target.
  • What factors drive outstanding efficiency and operational performance? Understand critical steps in production or service processes impacting efficiency. What are the critical success factors from an engineering or operational perspective in driving peak performance?
  • How can customers contribute to efficiency and performance? The concept of high performing customers is intriguing, particularly in service businesses. Think about how Southwest Airlines manages a passenger’s experience to ensure it turns planes quickly. Are there things customers can do in your business to allow it to simultaneously operate more efficiently and provide higher customer experience value?
  • Is there anything else? This question comes from experience. Invariably after exhaustive discussions with engineers on the first three questions, when it appears everything has been covered, some other salient piece of information surfaces. It’s become apparent engineers often internalize so much of what they know, it won’t occur to them a deal-breaker fact they consider quite obvious is hidden to outsiders, so keep asking questions.

Doing a thorough job answering these questions creates a much richer understanding of potential constraints standing in the way of unbridled innovation. With all this knowledge, the creative challenge is clear: incorporate the constraints into ideation efforts. Force yourself to creatively address what customers are looking for from your brand. Keeping your original customer experience innovation goal, think about how you can work in and around your business constraints to best deliver value.

While this approach isn’t always successful, it at least opens the door for marketing to create a dialogue with engineering about improving a brand’s customer experience value. With the conversation started, it also provides an opportunity to potentially help engineering think about some of its own processes in innovative ways, further adding value inside the organization. And ultimately, being able to talk with engineering on its own terms will earn respect and open doors when you need to push harder to make innovation happen.

You can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on “What roles do engineers and marketers play in an innovation setting, and what conflicts can arise based on their perspectives and approaches?” by clicking the link in this sentence.


Mike BrownMike Brown is an award-winning marketer and strategist with extensive experience in research, strategy, branding, and sponsorship marketing. He’s a frequent keynote presenter on innovation and authors Brainzooming!

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