For those who like the quiet life, there’s a Chinese proverb/curse that will probably send a shiver up a spine or two; “may you live in interesting times”. Times certainly don’t get much more interesting than these, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Since starting Smithery two years ago, I’ve had a little phrase that I’ve referred back to whenever people ask what it is we do; Making Things People Want beats Making People Want Things.
Previously, I had been at PHD since 2007, and was Chief Innovation Officer. It was was just about the best agency job in town. Yet something bothered me about it; the things that marketing clients had to ask agencies to try and sell often weren’t fit-for-purpose.
Sure, they were OK, standard, mustn't grumble, average products, but nothing to write home about. And pretty hard to get people in the real world excited about. It was almost as if all the product thinking had been done in a bubble, ignoring the outside world as it exists now.
So I set up Smithery to help clients and agencies change the way they work around the things they make, from developing and spreading new strategic mindsets within organisations to product and service design, so that the end result becomes a lot easier to sell profitably.
From trying to make people want things, to making things people want.
It isn’t an either/or, it’s both, of course. It’s just that nowadays everyone does the former as a matter of course, and are much less inclined to do the latter.
Yet product and service development is one that should still fit firmly in a marketer’s role. How well marketers can actually fulfil that role depends on the organisation around them (which varies massively), but too often nowadays we find marketing practitioners so restricted that they simply become communications managers. The opening chapter of Mark Earl’s 2002 book “Welcome to the Creative Age”, shows it’s something the industry has been struggling with for over a decade.
Through the history of marketing, however, you’ll see that in its moments of greatest success, marketers have their hands firmly on the workbench of the business, nudging and steering the company’s output.
In his 2012 paper “McKitterick’s Conundrum, Alan Mitchell looks to John McKitterick, a senior marketing Manager at GE who, in 1957, wrote that “the principal task of the marketing function … is not so much to be skilful in making the customer do what suits the interests of the business as to be skilled in conceiving and then making the business do what suits the interests of the customer”.
You’ll find that same spirit again in Stephen King’s “Has Marketing Failed, or was it Never Really Tried” from 1985. And in numerous other places too. If nothing else, it should be worrying that this should be such a recurrent theme.
What’s the problem here, then? Some of it’s a brand problem, by which I mean, there’s a problem with how people think about ‘brand’.
There is certainly too much reliance on the brand persuasion model of brand management; as Mitchell concludes in ‘McKitterick’s Conundrum’, “The ‘division of labour’ within marketing – between ‘the product’, which met the customer’s need, and ‘the communication’, which met the firm’s need to persuade the customer to buy the product – has done brands more harm than good.”
Companies are all too ready to rely on constantly changing the communications, rather than address any fundamental product failings. It seems cheaper at the time, but it is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
But I also think there’s a data problem. Data is great for understand things about the past, or things about the present even, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the future.
Taking guidance than Peter Doyle’s from “Value Based Marketing” (2000), where he talks of three different types of consumer needs, we can examine this as three different types of wants; existing, latent and incipient.
Existing wants are pretty simple; we’re surrounded by them every day, on our supermarket shelves and smartphones. The common or garden consumption that makes up our daily lives. It’s simple for marketers to spot these wants, aggregate the data, and so competition is fierce.
Latent wants are the logical steps that aren’t far away; obvious gaps in the market that people can readily get to themselves. “I wish such and such a business would do this”. It’s the stuff that populates the ‘crowdsourced ideas’ sections of brand websites nowadays. So it’s still easy for the marketer to find and point to data that supports action.
Incipient wants are, for me, the most interesting territory for a marketer today. The things that customers have no idea could exist, but once launched can’t imagine how they have lived without it. The classic examples are alway the walkman, or the iPad, but there are other more everyday examples; insurance comparison websites, mobile phone maps, giant milky coffees that last you all morning in the office.
Yet there is no data available for Incipient wants. Which means that a marketer’s understanding of “things people want” becomes restricted to “things they used to want” (existing) or “things they want now” (latent). I’m looking forward to talking about ways around that at this September’s Ad Tech conference in London.
If marketers are to grab hold of the businesses in which they work, and continually create new, valuable products and services for customers and secure the long term future of the business, then they must walk carefully amongst old brand thinking and new data madness. We certainly do live in interesting times.
John V Willshire is Founder of Smithery, designer of Artefact Cards, and found on twitter as @willsh. John will be speaking in ad:tech London's Future Media & Technology Summit on 12 September alongside speakers from Heineken, Amnesty International, Spotify, Telefonica Digital, Microsoft, Living Social, BBH, Tribal DDB, Telegraph Media Group and OMD.
“Welcome to the Creative Age”, Mark Earls, 2002 - http://rivetin.gs/creativeage
“McKitterick’s Conundrum”, Alan Mitchell, 2012 - http://rivetin.gs/mckitterick
“A Masterclass in Brand Planning”, collected works of Stephen King (2007) - http://rivetin.gs/stephenking
“Value Based Marketing” - Peter Doyle, 2000 - http://rivetin.gs/peterdoyle