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Time for marketing innovation 2.0

While Pepsi, one of the world's foremost consumer brands, has acknowledged the signs of the times and is making the transition away from one-to-many mass-marketing to social marketing with meaning, marketing theory is struggling to catch up.

For the first time in 23 years, Pepsi has decided to not run any advertisements during the Super Bowl. Instead, the nation’s second-biggest soft drink maker is plowing marketing dollars into its "Pepsi Refresh Project," an online community that lets Pepsi fans list their public service projects, which could range from helping to feed people to teaching children to read. Visitors to the site can vote to determine which projects receive money. The program will pay at least $20 million for projects people create to "refresh" communities. Last year, Pepsi spent $33 million advertising products such as Pepsi, Gatorade, and Cheetos during the Super Bowl, according to TNS Media Intelligence, $15 million of it was on Pepsi alone. Ad time last year for the NFL championship game cost about $3 million for 30 seconds, on average. Pepsi spokeswoman Nicole Bradley said Super Bowl ads don't work with the company's goals next year: "In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement." Pepsi's remarkable decision epitomizes the new paradigms of marketing: Online instead of TV; many-too-many instead of one-too-many; engagement instead of advertising; sharing instead of broadcasting; movements instead of events; communities instead of campaigns.

While one of the world's foremost consumer brands has acknowledged the signs of the times and is making the transition away from one-to-many mass-marketing to social marketing with meaning, marketing theory is struggling to catch up and grasp the new realities. An article on "Rethinking Marketing" (by Roland T. Rust, Christine Moorman, and Gaurav Bhalla) in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review is the latest example. HBR deserves credit for recognizing the need to reinvent marketing, but the piece turns out to be far less radical than its title would suggest. The authors are putting the onus on the customer, demanding that marketers focus on the customer as the sole parameter of their efforts. In their eyes, this requires a shift from "pushing individual products to many customers" through the means of one way mass-marketing to "engaging individual customers in two-way communications,” building "long-term customer relationships" that provide value beyond one-off product promotions. Consequently, the authors argue, the marketing department needs to be reinvented as a "customer department," with the Chief Customer Officer replacing the Chief Marketing Officer, and "product and brand managers subservient to customer managers."

What a depressing read! First of all, the article rehashes existing concepts but doesn't really offer any kind of "rethinking." To engage customers in two-way, personalized communications rather than marketing individual products to broad audiences is a no-brainer, and after hundreds of books and thousands of best practices it has already become so commonplace in the field that it is hard to believe HBR considers this to be an original concept. It's like social media never happened. On which analog planet did the authors live in the past three years? The concept of radical customer focus is not entirely new either and has been well-articulated before (i.e. in the book "Chief Customer Officer" by Jeanne Bliss in 2006, and most recently, with a more anthropological spin, in "Chief Culture Officer" by Grant McCracken).

But aside from the lack of originality, I also substantively object to the concept itself. While the authors' emphasis on "customer profitability" rather than product profitability and a long-term view on value creation are in theory good intentions (and a response to the demise of the concept of shareholder value, as Roger Martin lays out in his essay on "The Age of Customer Capitalism," also in the HBR January issue), I don't agree with the conclusion to turn the marketing department into the "customer department." Embracing a naive belief in customer-centrism, the HBR authors downgrade marketing to a discipline of tactical execution when in fact this time of disruptive digital technologies and changing consumer behavior presents a tremendous opportunity for marketing to reassert itself as a key strategic function in the enterprise. An extreme customer orientation, as propagated by the authors, ill-conceives the legitimate and important customer perspective. Of course, it is paramount to understand customers' needs, of course companies need to ensure customer satisfaction, and of course CEOs always score when they tout the customer as their company’s raison d'etre. But that doesn't mean the customer is the measure of all things.

The truth is less simplistic than a "customer happy, all good" approach would suggest. In addition to their customers, businesses have other stakeholders to serve: investors, employees, the community, and the broader public, as well as future generations and other constituents that are indirectly affected by the externalization of a company's business. In fact, one could argue that the customer's demand is mostly short-term, not to say shortsighted, whereas the corporation can and should pursue a long-term perspective on value-creation that combines individual and social value, even if the latter may at times actually conflict with what customers want. Reducing the role of the company to just responding to customer needs drastically limits the critical role businesses can play in society, and it hampers companies' capability to drive real change. When it comes to innovation and marketing (according to the venerable Peter Drucker, these are the only two basic functions of an enterprise, and – if I may add – in good marketing organizations they are one and the same), companies should be empathetic to customers (that is, "Wired to Care," as Dev Patnaik put it in his book) but not reactive. Innovation--truly disruptive innovation that moves entire industries forward and gives our lives new meaning--never happens by just meeting existing customer needs, nor by anticipating unmet customer desires, as the apostles of customer research would like us to believe.

Don Norman, author of "The Design of Future Things," among other books, and a long-time advocate of the business value of design, recently shocked his peers by coming to a similar conclusion. In an outburst of self-criticism, he belittles the impact of observational design research (or "ethnographic research") on innovation. In his eyes, design research may propel incremental innovation, but the only true driver of game-changing disruptive innovation remains technology: "Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs." Design research studies how people live, seeking to unearth unmet needs but Norman insists "Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors." To support his point he refers to a list of inventions that all occurred without customer research: the airplane, the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the television, the computer, the personal computer, the Internet, text messaging, the cell phone." You might add the iPod and the iPhone, both creations of a company that famously refuses to conduct any customer research. The old Henry Ford line comes to mind ("If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses") and along with it the provocative question: Can customers look beyond their individual needs? Can we rely on them to recognize what's good for society? Can we expect customers to dream up future products and services? Can we even expect them to know what's good for them now? Unlike Norman, Roberto Verganti would not categorically say no. A skeptical design thinker, Verganti, in his book Design-driven Innovation, emphasizes the need for "interpreters" (who can be designers but also any other species with an interdisciplinary mind- and skill set) to "radically change the meaning of things."

Both Norman and Verganti herald marketing as a creative discipline. If marketing lives up to its mission--creating innovative products and services and finding meaningful ways to make them valuable for customers and society at large--it needs to be a step ahead of customers. Customer research can inspire and validate but it can never replace the inventiveness and ingenuity of excellent marketing. Marketers who rely only on research to back up their decisions may yield good enough results with good enough tools. That's fine. But if you set out to "rethink" marketing, you must shoot a little higher.

The rest of the marketing thinkers do not do much better. In a way, the HBR article is indicative of a lack of vision across the industry. Since Malcom Gladwell's "Tipping Point," there has not been one single book exerting comparable influence on the profession. CMOs' by-lined articles in industry trades usually play it safe and state the obvious. The myriad social media consultants who have popped up over the past few years, as well as marketing expert bloggers, boutique agencies, and industry outsiders are all preaching the social marketing gospel to the choir (or to those few remaining on the other side of the "new digital divide") in their publications. Even at conferences such as SXSW, next, the Conversational Marketing Summit, or Marketing 2.0, which are usually ahead of the digital curve, marketing thinkers have been beating a dead horse this year, more or less citing the same set of principles, practices, and case studies. At next09 in Hamburg, Get Satisfaction's Lane Becker, who spoke before me, and I were cracking up when we realized that we were referring to the same case studies in our presentations, the usual marketing 2.0 suspects: Zappos, Skittles, Best Buy, Starbuck's My Idea, Threadless, and so on.

As we are entering the new decade, it appears as if the marketing discipline, after undergoing a mesmerizing major transformation in the past two to three years, is facing stagnation. This often occurs when pioneering concepts are fully absorbed by the mainstream: Social marketing is on the way to becoming the marketing, as social media is becoming the media (it is always a sign of broad adoption if adjectives are dropped). Authenticity, engagement, meaning, communities, social, conversations, transparency, etc. – they're all accepted across the industry and widely implemented now. What then is the next frontier for marketers? What will be the next big marketing innovation?