The Marketing of Marketing, Not Innovation

The seeds of serious innovation are falling on the barren grounds of corporate cultures focused on "results" rather than research

veryone, it seems, is cutting back on basic research -- government, big business, small business. Bellcore, once the crown jewel of American research, is on the selling block, and that's only one example. The days of government-subsidized research and development appear to be numbered, at least as far as largess from the Commerce Department is concerned.

John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox and director of the famed Xerox PARC, noted in a recent interview in the Association for Computing Machinery's Interactions magazine: "If, in fact, the large corporation is fundamentally dinosauric, then the seeds of real innovation are in serious jeopardy because the funding for those seeds does not come from the small companies. In fact, almost no start-up that I know of does any serious amount of invention. They take ideas from elsewhere and do brilliant engineering and marketing jobs." From a global perspective, America has regressed from the leader in invention, innovation and progress to the leader in marketing.

It has done so at the same time corporations have evolved to groupthinking fixated on quarterly earnings and the bottom line, in which an atmosphere of spending money on research - large percentages of which will never yield a tangible result - has become unthinkable. The exception, of course, is biotechnology, which is focused on research above all else -- but the rush to produce results for shareholders has led to fervent marketing hype even there - and that's bad for business and bad for the public, which is clamoring for some real results from the years of AIDS vaccine research, for instance.

It's not a giant step to predict the evolution of companies that simply market their ability to market. What is Microsoft but a massive marketer of marketing? Has anyone actually tried Windows 95 or the Microsoft Network yet? But the company would not be a success if there were not the public appetite and admiration for their corporate strategy.

If Brown is right -- and cutbacks in basic research everywhere indicate he is -- then the United States is basically living off research spending done five, 10, even 15 years ago. At some point, there will be few true innovations left to harvest. With the present rage to axe anything that cannot immediately aid the bottom line or help reduce the deficit, no one is planting new seeds. The Swiftian resolution is that soon we will be selling the desire for new innovations. They will come packaged in a blaze of color-coordinated fixtures, give the purchaser a good feeling, and proceed to function at a level of harmonious mediocrity when the power is turned on, having never been designed to live up to their promise.

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