Marketers should think more like engineers, says @AndrewTStephen

stephen-01At his inaugural lecture at Said Business School, Professor Andrew Stephen talked about the shiny new toy syndrome in marketing – whereby marketers rush after a new technology, or platform, or trend, in the hope that it will generate new business, or solve their marketing challenges.


We saw this with Pokemon Go, last summer, for instance. Many businesses scrambled to get a PokeStop near their stores, launched products related to the craze, or just generally joined the hype with their communications and advertising.


In his talk, Stephen argued that marketers would do well to follow the approach of other professionals who deal with innovations day in, day out: engineers. Specifically, he said that, when considering the adoption of an innovation, marketers should borrow the following three principles from an engineer’s approach to work:

  1. Focus on problem solving – Is there a problem that needs fixing? What is the cause of that problem? How does this innovation address that cause and help solve the problem?
  2. Adopt complex systems thinking – Which direct and indirect reactions will result from this action (of adopting the innovation)? What are the spill over effects of doing this?
  3. Understand the impact – What is, ultimately, the result of implementing this innovation? What are the positive and the negative outcomes of our actions?


I quite like this approach because it takes technology as a tool to enhance the company’s value proposition, rather than an end in itself. In a way, it reminded me of Mark Ritson’s views on marketing vs. digital marketing.


However, I can see two big challenges in applying the ‘engineering approach’ to marketing.


The first challenge is that many marketers do not have a technological background and, so, they may struggle to understand the potential and limitations of a new technology. This capabilities gap is famously discussed by George S. Day here; while Lee Quinn, Sally Dibb, Lyndon Simkin, myself and Mathew Analogbe have looked at it here. The point is that, without a good understanding of how a technology works, what it does and what it enables, we struggle to assess how it can solve a problem, or how it fits within the wider system.


The second challenge is that while engineers need to think, primarily, in terms of systems of ‘things’ (roads, buildings, and so on), marketers deal with systems of people. Some of our behaviours are influenced by expected utility and, hence, are relatively easy to model and influence. However, most are shaped by group norms, habits, beliefs and so on. This makes the analysis and, therefore, the tracing and measurement of direct and indirect impacts of innovation in marketing, much more complex than in engineering.


Still, it is a valuable suggestion, I think. And I shall encourage the marketers asking me about developing an app, using influencer marketing or, yes, doing something PokemonGo-related, to think more like engineers.


How do you guard yourself and/or your company against the shiny new toy syndrome?


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