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Turbochargers, Search Engines and the Marketing Imperative

Saab's innovation didn't extend to marketing Let’s think about innovators. Next time you’re stuck in traffic, look at the car ahead of you. On the trunk lid it’s likely to have a badge that says “2.0T.”  That means it has a turbocharged, two-liter, four-cylinder engine.  It means the engine is small, light, powerful and efficient. All the brands are moving to that – VW, Audi, Hyundai, Kia, Volvo, BMW, GM and others. It’s a hot trend in the auto industry.

Saab was the innovator of the small turbocharged engineActually, this was started by Saab in the late 1970s and for 30 years Saab made small, turbocharged four-cylinder engines. You can go back even further to a failed Corvair turbo in the 1960s, but that sold about three copies. Saab was pretty much on an island doing this, regarded as odd and quirky. (BTW, I’ve had one for years and it’s fantastic.) But Saab didn’t handle marketing very well, and now the company is gone. The company could not have prevented others from adopting this approach, but Saab was first, made many of the innovations and then failed for decades to win more than a tiny sliver of the market. Meanwhile, its innovation has become the new normal of the auto industry, and frustrated Saabophiles (it’s a real cult) are always sputtering: “Saab had it first! Saab invented that!” So what? The inventor went bankrupt and the innovation went mainstream. Whose fault is that?

Small turbocharged engines got me thinking about search engines (it’s the coffee). Years ago I worked at Digital Equipment Corporation. It was a very innovative company—an engineer’s playground—and in 1995 DEC invented AltaVista, an early and very powerful search engine. For a while AltaVista was popular and grew to more than 80 million queries a day, which was huge at that time. But the service lost focus, was loaded up with attempts at an online shopping portal, the simple interface got too complicated, marketing didn’t work, AltaVista passed through a series of owners and there was a failed IPO. Soon a little startup named Google took over the search market. I hear they may be moving into other markets.

I’m sure there are still some AltaVista cultists who look at Google and sputter “AltaVista had that in 1997! They invented that!” Again, so what?AltaVista

My point is pretty obvious and has been stated often, but being first ultimately means nothing if the innovation’s marketing is bad, or product focus is lost, or bad business decisions diminish the ability to compete in the market even if the product is great. If you’re an early innovator and you have something that works, you should hammer that point relentlessly – and the marketing and communications better be great. There’s an endless supply of essays and speeches about that. In fact, I think when I’m stuck in traffic sitting in my Saab I’ll search for them on AltaVista…..or, uh…..oh well.

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Dave Close

Dave Close

Managing Director at MSLGROUP

Dave Close has worked in technology and healthcare PR since the internet was a fishing accessory. His long view and appreciation of the absurd guide his opinions about business, life and coffee.

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