January 24, 2010

What is marketing?   Should younger engineers bother worrying about it early in their careers?  I was somewhat ambivalent about the whole client development aspect of the business myself, until I began to realize the efforts my managers were making to cultivate new business relationships.  In lean times especially, the people that bring work into the office are the most valuable.

Higher management can’t market the firm by themselves, however.  In an effort to activate the whole workforce in promoting the company, James Kent, the director of marketing and communications at my firm, Thornton Tomasetti, recently gave an office-wide presentation explaining good marketing strategies.

Marketing is “everything you can do to become the firm of choice in the hearts & minds of clients, the public and potential employees” he said.  Firms and individuals that effectively employ marketing “strategies and tactics to cultivate rewarding relationships with clients” will produce value for themselves and their clients.  The key to all that quotation really boils down to the inconvenient truth that marketing takes place everywhere, all the time.  In every interaction you are subconsciously scored by your client; you either gain or lose share.  Everyone on your team is responsible for marketing.

The realization that marketing fell on my shoulders, whether I wanted the responsibility or not, was kind of a wake-up call.  In the same way that my firm is counting on me to correctly perform design calculations, they need me to be a positive ambassador , so we’ll not only be considered for the next job, but win it.  Strangely, this focus on the client’s needs was not widely appreciated until a man by the name of Peter Drucker began studying and writing about management.  He felt so strongly about the importance of marketing in a company that he said:

“Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only these two – functions: marketing and innovation.  Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

Engineers are great at the innovation part, but that’s not always the case with marketing.  Betamax vs. VHS is a classic example.  In fact, it’s widely accepted that Betamax was the technologically superior video recording media.  However, Sony (Beta) lost the marketing war to JVC (VHS).  Apple is another great example for marketing wonks.  In both instances of the iPod and iPhone, Apple entered established markets.  To some extent their products had superior functionality, but the marketing sealed the deal.  Now we expect every consumer electronics entry by Apple to shatter the existing business model.

So far we’ve just centered on one aspect of promoting your business; there’s also subdisciplines of marketing such as advertising, public relations and media relations.  This allegory is credited to an advertising executive, SH Simmons:

If a young man discovers that his date is intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, and tells her so, he’s saying the right things to the right person – that’s marketing.
If the young  man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is – that’s advertising.
If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is – that’s public relations.
If someone persuades the newspaper to write a story about how handsome and brilliant the you man is – that’s media relations.

Not all of these approaches are created equal.  Boasters are not generally trusted at their word.  On the other hand, receiving a third-party endorsement is highly effective.  Ongoing studies about marketing over social networks appears to reinforce this understanding.

However, even the most competent engineers will need some resources to support their marketing effort.  Knowing positive facts about your company might well give you a starting point for conversation or put your client at ease when advertising a new service.  My company:

– Is a 550-person engineering deign firm, founded in 1956
– Employs 10% of all LEED AP structural engineers
– Built or repaired 13 of the world’s tallest buildings
– Has designed stadiums that together seat almost 1 million people

These facts are necessary advertising, but not sufficient in themselves.  There is no substitution for the human connection.  Firms and individuals that seek to make personal relationships with their clients will have a better chance of bringing in new contracts.  Young engineers that prove themselves to be capable of forming and deepening these relationships will themselves be rewarded.

In summary, consider marketing as a simple 5-part equation:

(1) marketing is about story-telling (telling the story of what you firm is, does, values, and stands for);
(2) Facts, not claims, are the most effective and compelling way to tell your story.
(3) But facts are not enough; you must also differentiate your story—and your firm—from the competition.
(4) Yet, always bear in mind that any story, no matter how well told, no matter how strongly supported, is a necessary but not sufficient part of good marketing.
(5) the part often overlooked is that your client will most remember not what you said, or did, but how you made him or her feel: Can I trust this person and this firm? Can I work with them? Do they have my best interests at heart? These are the elements that often separate engineers who get the job from those who don’t.

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1 Comment
  • I agree Ken 100%. In fact when I speak on career development, I stress the importance of networking and building business relationships, hence bringing in work. I believe this is critical to your career and should be done from day you graduate college.

    Thanks for the post.

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