Commercializing a business in an emerging field is a messy enterprise. No matter how systematically the process begins, charting a new course inevitably involves throwing stuff against a wall to see what sticks. In such instances when you cannot control the outcome, focus on what you can control: marketing.
Foundational to the successful launch and longevity of an idea, initiative or institution, marketing is not something you can ever check off the list or fully delegate to someone else. As David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, once said, "Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department." And in the case of ecopreneurs or social innovators, there is no marketing department -- just you and your big idea.
Launching my company in 2005 with a crude business plan and no start-up capital, I was armed only with the certainty that it would work because the world needed it to work. Lacking the know-how for selling my original ideas in a region considerably lagging in sustainability, I went on a crusade to find a low-cost, credible strategy for promoting my concept, starting with the book "Marketing for Dummies." (The bright yellow volume still sits on my bookshelf to remind me how far I've come.) Today, my firm advises clients from clean tech startups to NGOs and Fortune 500 companies on how to bolster their brands and distinguish themselves from the competition through profitable sustainability strategies.
I continue to be surprised by how gifted people -- from inventors and researchers to scientists and policy experts -- struggle when it comes to communicating and packaging their ideas for commercial appeal. This failure in marketing not only limits the individual, it also harms society because it renders potentially world-changing ideas and technologies ineffective. In preparing to speak on this subject for a recent conference, this occurred to me: It's not the average Internet marketer most in need of marketing advice -- it's the average genius.
Ingenious Marketing vs. Marketing Genius
AMC's "Mad Men" is now in its sixth season, and Don Draper is back at masterminding campaigns to tantalize and cajole consumers into purchasing products that may or may not deliver on their promises. I'm not saying that real-world advertising executives are as manipulative (or charming) as Draper, but I have enough friends in the field to understand advertisers' priorities. They are paid to create campaigns that sell products. It's what they do.
Genius, on the other hand, is much a tougher sell than a consumer product. Genius embodies truth -- or at least a potential for it. It is complex and promises no immediate gratification. Such traits tend not to have broad appeal. (Think satellite TV: 800 channels and about 10 of them would qualify as "smart.") Therefore, marketing genius in today's media environment requires a more nuanced approach than ingenious marketing does.
Practically speaking, you're dealing with a vastly different budget. Ingenious marketing is expensive. A 30-second spot on this year's Super Bowl cost $3.5 million, a sum that many consumer products companies now consider a necessary expense. Fortunately, a Super Bowl ad would be ineffective for marketing genius to the people that would care. The method for disseminating ideas would look more like the peer-review process that scientists and academics undergo to publish their research. The problem there, however, is that this lengthy and closed process prevents the flow of ideas to a wider public.
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