Historically, there has been a clear division between marketing communications and PR in the industrial sector and in the technology sector.
Technology brands searched for PR professionals and agencies that understood the landscape, had the right relationships, and could move fast enough to capitalize on windows of opportunity measured in weeks or months. Industrial brands were generally more conservative and skeptical of the “hype” and “noise” they associated with technology marketing. They had longer news cycles and often didn’t have the budgets — or the stomach — to support the aggressive campaigns common in the technology sector.
Now, however, with connectivity and digitization on the rise, industrial brands are being forced to think and act more like technology brands. They are increasingly asking themselves how they should prepare for a future in which their products are judged as much by their intelligence and ability to share data — by their technology — as their reliability or cost.
This evolution is largely being driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), which is being touted as the next technology macro-trend. The promise of IoT is to bring new levels of visibility, intelligence and control to everything from manufacturing to healthcare to transportation. Yet, it is also being hyped so wildly and defined so broadly that it risks becoming meaningless in the market.
Should industrial marketers ride the hype and risk losing credibility or maintain their current path and risk losing out on future opportunities? Will the IoT change the world as we know it or will it fail to materialize in any way that resembles the current hype?
Unfortunately, if we wait for that question to be answered it will be too late to act. And, if we manage properly, it almost doesn’t matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The same could be said of marketing.
Regardless of how quickly the industrial IoT evolves, there are clear benefits to industrial companies beginning to think and act more like technology companies. And, significant risks if they fail to do so. There’s little doubt that in almost every industry, smarter processes and systems enabled by integrated intelligence, connectivity and data sharing will drive competitive advantage in the near future.
Should you immediately begin tirelessly promoting your support of the Internet of Things? Probably not. Should you start to find ways to incorporate some of the core principles of technology marketing into your integrated marketing and communications programs? Definitely. Here are three to consider:
Create and communicate a compelling vision.
The best technology marketing has always been able to present a compelling vision of the future, even if a brand’s current solutions don’t fully support that vision. Purchasers understand that technology evolves. When they invest in a new software platform, for example, they are investing as much in the vendor’s vision — and their ability to execute on it — as their current solution. Once they make that initial investment they are far less likely to switch to a competitive solution, even if the competitor is faster to market with new features, because it means walking away from their initial investment.
This is why thought leadership has been so prevalent in the technology sector. It allows an organization to create a compelling vision for the future that aligns with the capabilities of their solutions without selling too hard in the early stages of the purchase process.
The expansion of technology in industrial systems allows industrial brands to follow a similar path. What does the future warehouse or building or refinery look like? How does technology enable simpler management, greater productivity or improved customer service and what are the major steps in the evolution to get there?
If you can answer those questions in a credible, non-promotional way that aligns with your market’s business drivers and feels achievable (no small order, I know), you strengthen your position in the market and predispose prospects to your current offering.
Trade confidentiality for transparency.
Often, the biggest challenge in communicating a compelling vision is internal fear about sharing too much with competitors. That concern shouldn’t be underestimated, but it has to be balanced against the risk of keeping information from the market that they need to make decisions today. The more your products depend on technology, the greater that risk as buyers need to understand how that technology will evolve in the future.
You may be confirming for competitors what they likely already suspect, but you are also getting out in front of them and forcing them to react to you. As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has said, “If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”
The “safe” approach of “keeping our cards close to our vest,” becomes less viable as purchases become more dependent on technology. For most organizations, this will take some internal selling, and it’s not too early to start planting the seeds now.
Embrace the ecosystem.
I know, ecosystem is one of those overused, hollow-sounding buzzwords technology marketers use to make their solutions feel bigger than they are. But it has meaning in a connected future. As devices and systems interconnect and communicate, it’s no longer enough to understand your customers and their application; you now also have to understand the environment in which your systems operate. What management software will ultimately be controlling them? What other equipment will they need to communicate with? Are there partnerships or alliances that are mutually beneficial, even with companies that may in the future become competitors?
Technology companies are notoriously interdependent and that interdependence is now seeping into every other industry. Working with companies with complementary offerings, particularly in the early stages of technology evolution, can enhance credibility and increase your presence in the market.
It’s a scary time for industrial marketers. Not only are they, like everybody else, having to navigate a rapidly changing communications landscape, many will have to help drive a transformation of their company culture and marketing organization structure while presenting a new, more dynamic face to the market. Taking a page from the technology playbook can help in managing this transformation and positioning the brand for the future.
This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s Technology Issue in November 2016.