Let me tell you a story about peas -- more specifically, canned baby peas. While working for a semiconductor company in the 1970s, I had the opportunity to support a customer who developed industrial control systems for automating processing plants. He had a problem with one of our single-board computers used in a food processing factory.
We solved the problem, but in the process, I had the opportunity to tour the packaging line. Peas and liquid were metered into cans, which were then sealed and loaded into a giant retort canner. At the end of the cooking time, the cooled cans were sent through a labeling machine that applied product labels to the cans. I was shocked to see that the same peas, from the same process run, were having two different labels applied. One label was plain white paper with a cartoonish figure and the words "baby peas." The other was a beautiful silver foil with embossed letters that said "petit baby peas."
Now, I had often purchased the foil-labeled peas in the past. They were literally right next to the baby peas with the white paper label at my supermarket. What was the difference? Why were my peas priced double the other peas?
The answer was profound. I wasn't buying peas. I was buying a mental image of who I was and how I fit into society. The silver foil-labeled peas were man's peas. The white paper-labeled peas were for kids.
So marketing tells lies -- falsehoods -- things that serve to convey a false impression. Those are pretty strong sentiments that seem to damn marketing professionals.
Before my marketing friends hang me in effigy, however, we should note that, during the specification of an engineering product, a company's marketing team often finds itself in the role of a conduit for misleading or just plain false information to make its way from prospects to the engineering group. Some companies' marketing departments interpret prospect data to arrive at product requirements -- both positive and negative requirements. The question: How do we tell the essential truth from the "mushware" that inevitably comes along for the ride?
Like a great many things in engineering life, sorting the information into bins is the first step. But there is an important message that goes with this sorting: Don't drink your own Kool-Aid. Another way to look at this is to break everything down into objective measures. It may be easier to get to the essence of discerning fact from fiction by listing a few commonly used phrases.
I'll bet that you have heard this one: "Our products are [unique, revolutionary, cutting-edge, leading-edge, bleeding-edge]." When it comes to tangible qualities, this is mushware, pure and simple. Every person who hears this platitude should ask, "As measured by what?" Absent a statement that provides a quantifiable measure, statements like this should be approached cautiously (if at all). What they actually mean to me is "This product isn't actually ready for prime time, and we really hope you'll debug it for us." This may seem harsh, but it's all too real. A favorite tool for me is a red marker. I'll go through a product description and mark through all similar statements that are not backed up by objective measures. The more red, the more problems.
Then there are statements like "We developed our product with your business in mind." Another dose of mushware. How would you determine whether or not the person making this statement is telling the truth? And what is the truth?
These two examples may seem overly simplistic, but they illustrate the sort of mistruths that are propagated, sometimes by accident and sometimes by an inability to accept truths that create cognitive dissonance. It is your marketing team's job to figure out who the customers are (and will be), how to convey product information, and how to stake out a position in the prospects' minds.
Quantifiable, verifiable, and intrinsically fair -- these need to be the objectives of getting at the true facts used to drive engineering development. The way to get there is by using engineering principles. Now, marketing professionals are just that -- professionals. As engineers, we can work with marketing to ensure that the right followup questions are asked to guide us during the product specification and development phases. The purpose of our questions is to ensure that the product meets the customer needs. Marketing's purpose is gain answers for us in addition to determining how the product will be branded, positioned, and sold.
My past experience tells me that working with marketing to define a useful product and to then use that product specification to steer marketing interaction minimizes risk. The hard part is maintaining an objective viewpoint -- especially as an inventor or developer. Nevertheless, your company's future and your continued employment may well depend on your ability to remain fact-based.