The tug of war between marketing and R&D, and the pressure to deliver quick returns mean challenges to innovation are greater than ever. Robert Gray finds out how to get it right
In theory, marketing should work in harmony with research and development (R&D). But all too often an imbalance of power or lack of understanding between the functions results in discord - and it is innovation that suffers.
Creating the ideal conditions for innovation is no easy feat. In today's business climate, there are numerous potential obstacles to innovative new product development (NPD), and many companies struggle to make the relationship between their marketing and R&D teams fruitful. The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) last week acknowledged the extent of the problem by releasing a report on the subject, entitled 'The Creative Dilemma'.
James Dyson, founder and chairman of the eponymous vacuum-cleaner company, admits there can be 'tensions' between marketers and engineers in determining new products. The solution, he asserts, is to make sure marketers have a genuine understanding of the engineering challenges. 'It's very easy if you're in marketing to see the problems,' he says. 'But it is difficult to attach engineering value to them.'
Marketers' strong focus on consumer desires can have drawbacks. For example, insisting on as many consumer-pleasing features as possible can lead to unwieldy products. As Dyson puts it: 'A product can't do everything - it ends up too heavy with too many bits.'
Dick Powell, director of product design agency Seymour Powell, says that one of the major problems he encounters is marketers with a poor understanding of technical issues, as this can lead to inefficiencies in the NPD process.
He argues that many client companies go wrong by hiring consultancies to teach marketers how to innovate in short, intensive bursts. Powell calls this the 'sheep-dip' approach and believes that it is almost certain to fail.
If marketers have a superficial knowledge of technical and engineering issues, huge amounts of money can be squandered on developing unfeasible products. Equally, if the R&D team is too powerful, products may be developed that work well but fail because they do not meet a consumer need. 'The key is to have someone running the project who has a reasonable understanding of both sides,' believes Powell. 'If one party is too strong it goes wrong.'
Over the past five years Coors Brewers has run an internal change-management programme called 'Ideas and impact'. Its aim has been to improve the working relationship between marketing and the company's 80-strong technical centre.
According to Steve Price, Coors' head of product development, the functions are tightly integrated. He spent 18 months on secondment in the company's NPD division four years ago. All projects are led by marketing people, and about 70% of product development comes directly from an understanding of consumer behaviour, wants and needs.
Whenever possible, says Price, technical staff attend consumer focus groups in person rather than wait for an edited debrief. Recent developments such as Carling Extra Cold and Carling Fast Dispense - served in five seconds and currently being tested - have emerged through marketing and technical staff focusing on the consumer.
It is not always the most obvious consumer insights that lead to the best breakthroughs. 'Innovation requires the organisation to be brave,' says Price. 'You have to take chances. You have to allow the people you want to innovate to fail.'
Some companies are poor at innovation because they get their market research wrong. Understanding consumers is vital, but asking them what they want in terms of innovation can be pointless - ground-breaking products are not devised by focus groups. 'You have to be careful with market research,' argues Dyson. …