The January/February 2011 edition of The HUB Magazine features a fascinating article, Edison Illuminated, which was interestingly written by SARAH MILLER CALDICOTT who is a great grandniece of Thomas Edison.
Turns out, Ms. Miller is a marketing veteran and co-author of Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business SuccessInventors and marketers must be joined at the hip. As such, below is the article which essentially provides the following message and twist on marketing:
Thomas Edison, known in history books as the man who invented the phonograph, the light bulb, the storage battery, and the movies, stands as one of the greatest innovators of all time. But few business aficionados realize that Edison also possessed a marketing genius that would be the envy of any chief marketing officer today.
Edison received a record-breaking 1,093 US patents and 1,293 international patents over the course of his 62-year career. The six industries he pioneered between 1873 and 1905 — and their offshoots — are estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion today.
But beyond his achievements in bringing inspiration, perseverance, and mental acuity to his work, Edison believed in the power of marketing and market research — particularly what we would know today as ethnographic research — to drive innovation success. He believed that satisfying unmet customer needs spelled victory in the laboratory as well as in the boardroom.
Several of the approaches Edison used to market his products broke the mold of business convention in his day, and continue to offer inspiration to us as 21st century marketers.
Learning From Failure
Edison’s first commercial failure re-wired his approach to marketing success. At the tender age of 22, Edison’s first patented invention — the Electronic Vote Recorder — became a catalyst that taught him the basic relationship between invention and marketing.
In 1869, Edison created a mechanical device for the Massachusetts legislature that allowed each official to tally his votes rapidly and accurately. Thinking that this electronic approach to voting heralded the wave of the future, Edison was astonished when it flopped.
Why? Edison had not taken into account the legislators’ needs or their actual voting habits. He’d failed to realize that legislators don’t like to vote quickly and efficiently, preferring to lobby their fellow legislators and promote their own viewpoints about the vote as it took place. (Not much has changed in 140 years.) With the Electronic Vote Recorder, Edison had a great idea, but he completely bypassed an assessment of the needs of his customers when inventing it.
Through this painful example, Edison realized that marketing and invention must be joined at the hip. He came to realize that — without a reality check on how an invention could be incorporated into real practice — all the marketing genius in the world wouldn’t muster success. A famous Edison quote remains one of my favorites: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent … Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
Edison realized he needed to put the customers’ needs first and tailor his thinking accordingly, despite any temptation to invent for invention’s sake. This shift in Edison’s mindset paved the way for tremendous marketing and innovation success in the decades that followed.
The first example of Edison’s success using a “needs-first” approach to invention is one we seldom associate with him: Document duplication. The glimmer of pursuing invention work in the insurance industry came to Edison while reading post-Civil War newspaper articles recounting the re-building of the South, where the war’s devastations had created a tremendous demand for insurance policies on homes, buildings, and factories.
Recalling his painful failure with the Electronic Vote Recorder, Edison received permission from a few insurance companies to watch the agents and their clerks at work. Edison observed that most insurance clerks spent their day hand-copying documents for each insurance transaction — often involving pages and pages of paperwork. As the agents brought in more and more new business, the clerks remained bound to their desks trying to keep pace, yet often fell behind.
Edison’s elegant solution to the insurance industry’s paperwork crunch became known as the Edison Electric Pen and Press. Introduced in 1873, it could make as many as 5,000 copies of a single document. The electric pen — powered by a small motor — made perfect perforations in paper while the clerks were writing. (A process much like a tattoo artist using a stylus would employ today.)
After finishing a complete page, the agent or clerk would use a roller to press ink into the perforations, squeezing it through each small hole and forcing it down onto a second sheet of paper underneath. In this way, the upper sheet became a stencil to generate as many copies as needed, simply by repeating this process.
A few years later, Edison’s second-generation document duplication machine superseded the first by bringing a more automated process into play. Called the Edison Mimeograph Machine, the “copying” phase of this invention operated through the use of a rotating drum rather than an ink roller. Edison sold the patents for the mimeograph machine to the A.B. Dick Company, still a major player in the world of document duplication today.
Edison’s mimeograph machine is familiar to every reader over age 40. Remember that oddly addictive smell emanating from the principal’s office, where hundreds of student worksheets were printed using funky purple ink?
Seeing is Believing
Edison realized that the power of belief engendered by consumers’ ability to see something in use before buying it would prove a crucial ingredient to driving the success of his new inventions, as well as root his brand name in the minds of customers.
Edison employed product demonstration as a pivotal marketing tool in his launch of the world’s first alkaline storage battery. Painstakingly crafted by layering iron and nickel wafers 1/16th of an inch thick, these teeny metal sandwiches were packed together in columns several inches high.
Surrounded by a protective metal housing, the resulting product was an industrial-looking item about the size of a large thermos. Realizing that this would not be the most visually appealing means to entice a customer to use his new battery, Edison took another path.
Shortly after launching his new alkaline storage battery in 1905, Edison hit upon the idea of working with his famous friend and colleague, Henry Ford, to begin marketing the battery in Ford’s Model T automobiles. Edison created a print campaign as well as a series of moving picture sequences showing Edison and Ford together, driving around in the Model T. These images inspired the public’s trust in the new technology, and brisk battery sales ensued.
Edison later created a contest not dissimilar from the cross-country stress tests made famous in modern times by the Sears DieHard battery. Edison drove different automobile brands thousands of miles using his battery, proving that it could be successfully used in heavier equipment — even trucks and farm machinery — that required high endurance.
Together, these marketing campaigns proved highly successful. The battery came to have 1,001 uses, and eclipsed all of Edison’s other inventions as the most profitable.
Marketing success requires a quixotic blend of bravado and humility. Bravado in applying creativity to developing and promoting the product itself; humility in submitting our desires to race forward with ideas rather than bow to the wisdom of consumer insights and customer needs.
Marketers today seeking inspiration for their efforts need look no further than the world-changing methods of Thomas Edison. Delve into the history books, and consider the genius of America’s greatest innovator as you plot your next bold marketing move.