When Joan the cavewoman rubbed two sticks together and made fire for the 100th time, she groaned. All she wanted was for the sticks to light up digitally and tell her tomorrow’s weather forecast so she’d know whether to pack an umbrella for her hunt.
Throwing them into the flames and cursing, she dreamed of a day when humans would have sticks with interactive user interfaces, before falling into a wild and fantastical dream about a world filled with walking cars, super-speed toothbrushes, self-lacing shoes and smart sex toys.
Little did she know that she was actually dreaming about 2019’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which saw hundreds of thousands of marketers and tech enthusiasts descend upon Las Vegas to find out what the next big thing in tech might be (or at least play around with some cool gadgets).
Skin printers, artistic robots, bendy phones, shape-shifting TVs, breath-test gadgets that tell you what to eat, clever doorbells and, yes, a ‘smart’ plank of wood called Mui; this year’s tech on show ranged from ‘wow’ to ‘why’ to ‘WTF’. And again the global event has sparked the debate around what is actually worthwhile innovation and what is just tech porn.
Lora DiCarlo’s hands-free robotic dildo, which CES crowned the winner of this year’s innovation award (before stripping it of its title and banning it from the trade show altogether for being “immoral, obscene, indecent or profane”) is perhaps a rare example of how to achieve both.
But amid the noise, the hype and people watching porn on VR headsets (which apparently was not judged to be indecent), there are always genuinely fascinating and game-changing innovations at CES. They can come at both a macro and micro level, and have life beyond the innumerable short-lived big-bang PR moments that marketers and innovation teams are often pressured to create.
As we have seen time and time again, turning the shiny and the new into a meaningful consumer proposition is a whole different ball game – especially when people are becoming increasingly apathetic with technology unless it actually adds value to their lives.
The frequent missteps and damp squibs that litter the history of product launches and marketing gimmicks are testament to the fact that brands don’t always get the process of innovation right. But there are questions marketers and their colleagues should be asking themselves about how they approach new product development that should be able to reduce risk and maximise the chance of success.
How are ideas born and what does it take to get them to market? Where are the disconnects between internal priorities and customer needs? How aligned are the marketing and technology teams when developing consumer-facing innovations? And who, if anybody, has the greatest influence in the decision-making process?
Most importantly, what does success look like when it comes to cutting-edge innovation in the field of consumer technology and how can brands make sure they don’t have tech turkeys coming home to roost?
As the old business school saying goes, people want to buy a hole, not a drill; and if they want that hole to be an inch in size, a half-inch drill won’t do.
The same applies to all technology. Sometimes those drills look like smartphones, voice assistants or wristbands that can control your temperature, but it is the job they perform for the customer that matters.
Take, for example, Pizza Hut’s chatbot, known as DealBot. It sounds simple and chatbots aren’t especially new, but it is also a solid example of how marketing and technology teams within a businesses can work together efficiently to serve the needs of customers without having to look too far or waste time chasing trends that may or may not take off.
“The DealBot was an example of a marketing challenge we had. The tech team found a solution to it and then the marketing team marketed the innovation and technology,” explains Stephan Croix, chief sales and brand officer at Pizza Hut.
“You can go at innovation from two angles: first of all what consumers want and the trends you can extrapolate from the consumer data. That is a marketing-led task. But you can also look at what the technologies available to the business are and the consumer experiences that could translate into.
“The only way to truly be successful is to have those two teams collaborate in an ongoing way in order to find the best answers to the questions.”
For a company as large as Pizza Hut, Croix says it is crucially important that everyone is measured on the same scale to help the business move at the same pace and in the same direction. This is why the marketing and technology teams, for the most part, work to the same KPIs: customer acquisition, conversion and retention.
“Holistically, and this is really a factor that drives success, everybody and everything ladders up to the same KPI and brand vision,” he says. “This is to ensure all the work helps us to build the same customer experience.”
There is, Croix admits, “healthy friction” between the two teams. For example, the UX team would typically want to reduce the number of steps in a customer journey to make it as seamless as possible, while the marketing team wants to collect more information about consumers.
But he says this friction is “essential” to drive innovation further.
The only way to be successful is to have the teams collaborate in an ongoing way to find the best answers to the best questions.
Stephan Croix, Pizza Hut
On the flipside, Vodafone’s marketing and technology teams work to very different KPIs, as brand director Maria Koutsoudakis explains: “Ultimately, profit is owned by the tech team. We work hand in hand to make sure we come up with the right insights and marketing plan but ultimately the P&L sits with them.
“At the very top level we own the brand health and consideration measure, while their job is to deliver the sales numbers. We’re an important input to their KPIs but we have separate KPIs so we know the role we play in the overall customer journey.”
Because the marketing and tech teams work closely together, when it comes to customer research and insight, Koutsoudakis says the biggest barrier is not whether the proposition meets customer needs but is instead the prioritisation of propositions across different segment teams, which the brand team then has to coordinate across Vodafone as a whole.
“We may need to make priorities across segments, which the segments themselves don’t need to make,” she adds.
But Koutsoudakis says Vodafone’s biggest opportunity at present is less to do with the tech team and more in understanding that all customer opportunities are not necessarily solved through new innovation.
“When you get under the skin when you’re chatting to customers, their anticipation of technology or involvement in technology is actually quite low and there are very few who create a lot of noise around it,” she says.
“We have plenty of product and a lot of options for our customers; my marketing challenge is to identify it at a more micro level and match those audiences to the right product, rather than product to our audiences.
“So it’s finding customers and curating a version of Vodafone that best meets their needs and presenting that to them. It’s marketing from customer need rather than proposition and finding the balance between the two.”
Innovation leading the way
You only have to look to the beauty sector to see where technology and marketing are working hand in hand to make waves in consumer-facing innovation, with augmented reality in particular playing an increasingly big role for a number of big players.
As the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oréal is looking to lead the way on the innovation front – and is proof that innovation is most efficient when the marketing and tech teams work together.
“Our marketing and insights teams are fundamental in identifying consumer needs and helping to position the value of a tech solution,” L’Oréal’s chief digital officer for the UK and Ireland, Sam Crossman, says.
“They are experts in their products and consumers, and work very closely with us on all tech projects. Teams are being trained on agile ways of working, and we’re learning from startups, to bring this approach to our business.”
As part of its digital transformation, the 110-year-old business acquired augmented reality beauty company Modiface in 2018, which allows people to visualise different make-up looks and hairstyles on themselves.
Crossman says there are usually no more than five big tech innovations being worked on at one time in L’Oréal and that it normally looks for one or two brands to pilot new innovations. As the business becomes a more agile these projects are being completed in weeks and months rather than years.
“The marketing teams are involved throughout. They help shape the proposition, and align to a campaign or a key business strategy,” he says.
“Our brands are building closer consumer relationships and maximising their engagement with them. Technology and marketing go hand in hand to enable our teams to pick up trends instantly and transform them into product innovations.”
Rival beauty business Coty, which owns make-up brands Max Factor, Rimmel and Bourjois, is another player looking to be at the forefront of innovation.
All of this takes place within Coty’s in-house ‘digital accelerator’ Beamly; however, Tariq Khan, the brand’s vice-president of consumer experience, says the marketing team has a “massive” influence when developing new tech like this.
But there can be barriers, as Kahn explains. “The martech space is a bit of a weird space at the moment. There are people that are very good at technology and then there are people that are very good at marketing. The people that can cross that language and speak about both, there’s more of them coming into the market but it’s been historically a place where companies have relied on agencies more to bring in people.
“Now there’s starting to be a bit more evolution of that skillset where people are able to speak from a technology point of view and understand how that overlays into marketing objectives. If you’ve got a common language, which is understanding the problem, it means you can try and work together and make sure the marketing objectives align with what we need to do from a technical point of view.”
If you’ve got a common language of understanding the problem, you can work together.
Tariq Khan, Coty
For better and for worse, technology is transforming our world at an alarming rate. But it is so often out of touch with reality and many marketers are guilty of being seduced by change and racing to be at the forefront of innovation.
When you are inside the fairground, it can be difficult to see past the flashing lights and hear above the noise. And while it is important to be vigilant and anticipate change, it is perhaps more important to remember that the needs of consumers, of human beings, are often much simpler and easy to fulfill than we might think.
This is why it is so vital that marketing and tech teams work together, so everything they do is in reaction to, and reflective of, changing consumer behaviours and needs. Both must be one step ahead of the consumer but neither can be a step ahead of the other.
The closer the two align, the less likely you are to find yourself staring at a smart plank of wood asking it about the weather, and the more likely you are to find a happy customer with a pizza and some spare change thanks to a very helpful chatbot and seamless app experience.