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Thomas Edison’s Success (and Failure) Proves Inventors and Marketers Must Join at the Hip
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Thomas Edison’s Success (and Failure) Proves Inventors and Marketers Must Join at the Hip

Guest Article

Sarah Miller Caldicott, Steering Committee Chairperson, The Edison Awards

We all know Thomas Edison as America’s great inventor, but CMOs should also view his marketing genius with awe. Famous for inventing the light bulb and holding thousands of patents, it was actually one of Edison’s early failures that taught him the vital relationship between invention and marketing. In 1869 he patented an Electronic Vote Recorder to tally votes in the Massachusetts state legislature faster and more accurately. To Edison’s astonishment, it flopped. Edison had not taken into account legislators’ habits. They don’t like to vote quickly and efficiently. They do like to lobby their fellow legislators to promote their viewpoints as voting takes place. (Not much has changed in 140 years.) In other words, Edison had a great idea, but he completely misunderstood the needs of his potential customers.

Edison realized that marketing and invention must be joined at the hip. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent,” he said. “Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” He realized he needed to put the customers’ needs first and tailor his thinking accordingly, despite any temptation to invent for invention’s sake. This mindset paved the way for tremendous marketing success. The six industries (and their offshoots) Edison pioneered between 1873 and 1905 are estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion today.

In putting customers needs first, Edison became one of the world’s earliest market researchers. He literally went to homes and places of work to analyze how people struggled in order to gain the insight he needed to invent products that could help them do it better, faster and more efficiently. He looked first for unmet needs and then applied science and creativity to fill them. Perhaps the only time American industry has ever operated on a concerted basis in this fashion was the period between 1939 and 1945, when the gathering storm of world war and its reality concentrated the combined creativity of industry leaders and consumers in a way it has not been seen before or since. Today, in trends like “marketing to the bottom of the pyramid,” we see that the free world still has huge consumer needs to fill, and Edison’s powerful approach can help us here as well.

The first example of Edison’s success using a “needs-first” approach to invention is one we seldom associate with him: Document duplication. The inkling of pursuing invention work in the insurance industry came to him while reading post-Civil War newspaper articles documenting the re-building of the South, and the tremendous demand it created for insurance policies. Edison got permission from insurance agents to watch their clerks at work. He saw that most of their day was spent hand-copying documents for each party to the insurance sale instead of selling insurance. Edison realized that if he could invent something that would save both the insurance clerks and agents’ time writing, they could all make more money. And who doesn’t like to make more money?

Edison’s first solution was the Edison Electric Pen and Press. Introduced in 1873, it could make as many as 5,000 copies of a single document. A few years later, his second-generation solution superseded the first by bringing a more automated process into play: The Edison Mimeograph Machine. He sold the patent for the mimeograph to the A.B. Dick Company, providing Edison money to invest in his new laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. The mimeograph machine is familiar to anyone over age 40 who remembers that mysteriously addicting smell emanating from the Principal’s office, where hundreds of take-home math worksheets were printed using funky purple ink.

In the marketing industry, Edison’s name and achievements are honored each year through recognition of outstanding product innovations at the Edison Awards. It will come as no surprise that Procter & Gamble took home the most Edison Awards in 2010 with five, dominating the Consumer Packaged Goods category. P&G has always put customer needs before “invention for invention’s sake.” Importantly, under the recently retired CEO, A.G. Lafley, P&G adopted an “open-innovation” strategy that boosted its new product success rate from a 10 percent to 50. “Open-Innovation” is one important cure for the “not invented here” syndrome, which often blinds marketers to products that did not originate in their own R&D departments. Open-Innovation allowed P&G to respond even faster to customer needs by inviting the scientific community to compete with its internal development folks for minimal financial investment. Mr. Lafley also received the 2010 Edison Achievement Award for his significant contribution to innovation, marketing and human-centered design throughout his career.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, the storage battery and moving pictures, was also one of the greatest marketers of all time. Beyond his mastery of bringing inspiration, perseverance and mental acuity to his work, he believed in the power of practical, honest market research to spur product innovation. And he put customer needs first rather than simply invent for invention’s sake.

Marketing success requires a quixotic blend of bravado and humility. Bravado in applying creativity to developing and promoting the product; humility in submitting marketing intellect to consumer research insights. The impact of having an Edison Best New Product Award® bestowed upon your innovation can be tremendous, reaching well beyond recognition by your peers and competitors and out into the world marketplace.

Marketers today seeking inspiration need look no further than the world-changing methods of Thomas Edison. I invite you to go beyond the history books. Read Edison’s own notebooks, written in his own hand — there are more than 3,000 of them archived at The Edison Papers at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Edison’s legacy offers us a marketing road map if we are intrepid enough to follow it.

• The 2011 call for nominations are now open at www.edisonawards.com.