The Role of Marketing in the Early Stages of Product Development

in the companies that we have worked with, marketing professionals are often not involved directly with innovation. They are involved prior to innovation by setting strategic directions, and they are involved after products are developed to take the product to market. Adidas likewise sets up small innovation teams composed of engineers and designers. Many of their outcomes do not see the light of day. Whenever they are ready to come to life, however, the inno­vation team is integrated with a marketing team. The teams typically unite smoothly because of their unified focus on the athlete—how to make a difference to the individual athlete, ways to innovatively reach and meet the athlete, recreational or serious.

However, there are also benefits to including marketers on the original innovation teams, not just after the idea is judged a “go.” In fact, many marketers do not even perceive that they have the needed skills for innovation and product development. During their studies for their MBA, marketers receive excellent training in how to solve problems, and they are well equipped to recognize ramifications of various solutions and strategies. in the early stages of product devel­opment, however, the issue is not to solve a problem but to define it, to recognize and understand the opportunity. Thinking in terms of the case studies used in business schools, business students are taught to analyze case studies, not to write them. Early product work is more like writing the case than analyzing it, of setting up the opportunity rather than deciding how to meet it, of identifying a problem to solve rather than actually solving it.

An emerging trend in business education is to require students to wrestle with ambiguous situations where the facts and issues are not neatly organized into a case study, to practice the kind of skills need­ed in the fuzzy front end of product development. But even if there is a person with a marketing MBA who is trained only to solve prob­lems and never to define them, even that marketer already has skills that are useful for early product work—skills that help define the opportunity to explore.

Marketers have been trained to study people, to think about why people purchase products. Marketers have learned how to identify segments of consumers, they have studied quantitative methods that describe large groups of potential and real customers, and they have developed measures of advertising reach, brand recognition, and pro­motion reaction. Traditional marketers’ practice of thinking about people is transferable to the type of research needed to identify and explore product opportunities. They just have to learn to see the problem differently, to be comfortable with uncertainty and missing information. They have to make decisions based more on insight and less on irrefutable fact, because the facts simply are not available at the early stages of innovation.

Another beneficial characteristic of marketers is that they tend to keep close tabs on business needs, even while they are busy in the field of understanding customers. When marketers are involved in the early development process, their constant attention to business perspective aids alignment of product and brand, of product and corporate strate­gy. Built in to the marketing discipline is an economic perspective, that consumers are economic agents whose purchases balance costs with benefits. Engineers have a keen mind toward what is possible, regard­less of need. Industrial designers bring in those strong forces that cause double-takes, such as beauty, and create features that ease implemen­tation and pleasure of use. The cross-functional synthesis of all of these perspectives leads to a workable and exciting solution.