Overcoming the CEO Attitude: “We’re So Good We Don’t Need Marketing!”

I was talking with a friend recently who heads up business development for a small technology development company that specializes in solving really complex engineering problems.

She faces a big and not uncommon challenge: Her leadership team has the unfortunate belief that a) because the company’s problem solving skills are so unique, and b) because they’re so good within their specialization, they don’t need to invest in marketing. By extension, the supposition is that customers must inherently understand what the company does and know why they’re the right choice. Therefore, the logic goes, the company doesn’t need to work on their marketing strategy, or brand positioning, or what their value proposition is. (Feedback to the contrary and underwhelming sale figures be damned!).

From an inside-in perspective– that is, how people within the company think about the company– the reasoning is understandable. From an outside-in or customer perspective, it is clearly and dangerously flawed thinking.

What to do about it?

First, let’s dive into the underlying dynamic. We all know there’s often conflict between engineers and marketers at technology companies. Engineers want to push the limits of that can be done with technology, while marketers want to focus on what customers want and will buy. When well-managed, the tension between these two equally important and valid perspectives can be productive and lead to significant and highly desired innovation.

But when a technology-centric mindset invades how company leaders think and how business development happens, it becomes a big problem. When this occurs, company culture evolves within an often unspoken and rather insidious “if we build it, they will come” philosophy. This myopic perspective leads CEOs to denounce the need for marketing, or for that matter to reject investing anything to understand what customers think and want.

There are three likely outcomes in this kind of scenario when management puts technology ahead of customers: 1) The company keeps doing what they’re doing and may show incremental growth (usually in fits and starts), but clearly fails to meet expectations, 2) The company stagnates and dies without ever getting to root cause, 3) The company suffers from underperformance until investors or other power brokers demand new leadership and a more customer-centric mindset takes hold.

The other and much less likely outcome is for the company to get lucky, hit a home run with a new technology, and win success in spite of themselves. This fairy tale ending happens just enough, and is so seductive, that it can sustain a CEO’s self-deception that the company does not need to put customers first and does not need real marketing strategy. It’s kind of like the allure of slot machines – maybe the next pull will hit the jackpot!

The good news is that there is a way (besides deep pain!) to overcome a CEO’s dismissal of marketing as an unnecessary investment and the corresponding presumption (i.e. hope) that customers will just “get it.”

It stems from an often overlooked common ground: Both engineers and marketers fundamentally believe that with the right tools, any problem can be solved. The key is to leverage this powerful and shared worldview. This can be accomplished in several ways that I’ll cover in detail in a future post. One of the most compelling is to set up experiments in which management a) hypothesizes what customers know, and b) commits to taking corrective action if their hypotheses are proven wrong. Then you do the customer research to confirm or correct the hypotheses and bring the results back to the team. This approach seems to bypass egos and importantly, reframes the problem in a way that better matches the CEO’s more technical mindset.

Tell us. How have you seen the problem of company leadership denying the need for customer-centered marketing strategy successfully overcome?

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