The question in the title derives from the classic marketing thought piece by Theodore Levitt entitled Marketing Myopia. At the time it rocked not just the marketing world but the business world in general and has shaped business thinking ever since.

Published in the Harvard Business Review in July/August 1960, it is no less relevant today. I remember being excited about the concept on encountering it for the first time when doing my Masters in Marketing and I still am. It’s a foundational positioning model that I consider in some of my mentoring work. There are limitations to its applicability but it is still a sound concept.

By way of explanation, the famous piece starts with an illustration:

“The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves.”

“They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.”

The myopia referred to is a failing of definition by being too narrow in how you view the business you are in. Levitt urged marketers and business owners to stop defining themselves by what they produced and instead reorient themselves toward customer needs. This would ultimately define the business they were in on the basis of the most important stakeholder group that mattered – the customer.

An example of mistaken definition

Again by way of explanation, I made these points to one of the founders of Percolate about two years ago, mid way through my employment there.

I had questions around the business Percolate was in and how it was being defined. I framed my thoughts and feedback in the context of Levitt’s.

At the time (thankfully this has now changed), they defined their business as being in the supply of enterprise systems of record. They compared themselves to Salesforce for sales, Workday for HR.

In Percolate’s case, they were catering to marketers with a system of record for marketers. All of their marketing messaging and branding was centred on this key definition.

I questioned this fundamentally as a short-sighted and inward looking approach to marketing that focused on the needs of the company instead of defining the company and its products in terms of the customers’ needs and wants. It would result in a failure to see and adjust to the rapid changes in the market. My reasoning was as follows:

  1. The marketing record is the byproduct of a transaction and necessary for monitoring and tracking outcomes over time. But as a concept it’s not very inspirational to a typical user. It’s also the function of technology and by that virtue, product-oriented.
  2. It may appeal to an executive who wants to account for expenditure and effort in his or her organisation and you should appeal to this person’s needs in selling efforts. But to be successful you also need to focus on and inspire end users.
  3. Focus on end user input and how it is facilitated (briefing and planning necessary for creative work). Focus on output (execution of great creative marketing campaigns). Focus on how it makes them better at their job. System of Results might be a more appropriate positioning statement, especially in a SaaS world where usage is a major factor in retention and you need to go beyond the initial positioning focused around customer acquisition.
  4. Increasing pressure is being placed on marketers to be more creative and stand out. Creative work that can, will be operationalised, automated and performed by AI. Most creativity that counts, dealing with imagination and innovation that moves other humans to action, will remain with humans.
  5. Marketers are in the creativity business. Data skills are increasingly coming to the fore but that can be handled by machines. Products that help marketing customers manage their creative work and stand out, will stand out themselves. Doing more to spark creativity and collaborative features to aid collective creativity will stand out but it’s also what’s done on the service side and how you orient to enable organisational actualisation that matters.
  6. The Modern Organisation’s Hierarchy of Needs positions creativity and innovation as the pinnacle of organisational actualisation and all other layers as necessary but supporting elements – like a system of record.
  7. Focus the Customer Success service on helping customers achieve this level of actualisation. It takes the focus away from product and features which is always tricky and prone to disappointment (the difference between what is promised by sales and what is delivered post-sales often falls short).
  8. I would argue that all of the above positions the company proposition on uplifting and inspiring activities like enabling creativity, imagination, innovation, etc. This is the right way to position it, on the right activities, that will make humans stand out in a sea of machines. That move away from products and technology and onto human ingenuity. This will make all the difference as good positioning strategy should.

I didn’t share the above to dis Percolate. I wanted to share my original thinking and revisit it because I’ve been thinking a lot about this again recently. It keeps coming back like a bad habit. So many industries are faced with a fundamental re-evaluation of the business they are in because of rapid changes in the market. Much more so than the railroads faced back in the day.

Changes that are disrupting incumbent players and being taken advantage of by opportunistic startups that are positioning themselves in the right way.

What’s working and what isn’t?

It’s about getting creative with how you deliver products and services, leverage technology and position yourself. Getting creative with the very fabric of your business, its business model. That is what creates the Uber’s, WeWork’s and Air BnB’s of tomorrow.

My view on where Microsoft is (re)positioning itself.

And it’s not just startups. Microsoft is reinventing itself very successfully on the back of its new positioning. It’s why I am (back) here. It also goes beyond business models and touches on aspiration and effects culture which is what Microsoft has fixed led by its new CEO Satya Nadella. From an aspiration led vision to be “a PC on every desk” which was applicable then and worked well for them and the time, to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”. This latter is very much focused on the type of creativity we need to engender with employees and is reflected in its (re)positioning – in my view. How we help customers get creative is what I was arguing Percolate should do and what I think Microsoft is helping do more and more.

The auto industry is not doing so well. If you leave Tesla aside you will see an industry struggling to find its place in the new world and with reinventing themselves as they must. I’m not the only one to think so: Why Car Makers Are In A Death Spiral.

Since I’m working with the industry at the moment I am noticing first hand the lack of speed and imagination in doing the work necessary to reinvent themselves

I’ve suggested solutions (see below) – time will tell if they listen and how things pan out.

SaaS beyond Software – Automakers

The connected car vision is missing a few connections

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