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Highways for LIFE

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What Does Marketing Have To Do With Highways?

"Innovation isn't what innovators do…it's what customers and clients adopt."

- Michael Schrage, MIT

Our highway system is a national treasure. Not only is it the backbone of our economy, handling 70%1 of the total value of all shipped goods, the freedom of movement it provides is a mark of our open society. And it's a critical element in national security: After 9/11, it was the highway system that the Nation relied upon to move about, and during the 2004 hurricane season, it provided evacuation routes for tens of thousands of Gulf State residents.

But this treasure is no longer pristine, and it's no longer operating at the level it once did. Highways are built to last 20 to 25 years; bridges about twice that. Much of this valuable infrastructure, begun in the middle of the last century, is crumbling. A headline in the May 9, 2007 issue of The Wall Street Journal summed it up: "U.S. Infrastructure Found to Be in Disrepair." And, even where the structural integrity has remained, the system's designs may not be up to current safety standards.

How do you bring a vast highway system up to modern standards? , It is estimated that, using current practices and technologies, federal, state and local expenditures would have to increase by more than $11 billion annually from now to 2020 just to maintain the highways and bridges at current levels. The transportation agencies of this country are now attempting to do just that, but the techniques being used often cause as many problems as they alleviate. For example, widening a highway to meet the demands of congestion often means making congestion worse through the very process of construction. And both construction workers and motorists are subjected to increased safety hazards in work zones.

Yet, there now exist dozens of innovations and technologies which, if implemented, would result in noticeably faster construction, and higher levels of safety. And, by using them, we would end up with longer life-cycles for highways, often at lower cost than traditional methods. Unfortunately, the process of getting those new approaches moved from state-of the-art to state-of-the-practice is painfully slow.

It was with that in mind that Congress authorized a pilot program called Highways for LIFE. The "LIFE" in the name is an acronym designed to call to mind the benefits of those new approaches: Long-lasting, Innovative, Fast construction, Efficient, and Safe. Highways for LIFE is focused on getting everyone in the highway community to be open to applying innovative technologies much quicker. The program uses a variety of means to make that happen, including funding for projects which include innovative approaches, training programs for highway professionals, and publicity aimed at raising awareness among both the highway community and the driving public.

One tool that has proven helpful is an effort focused on how to deploy specific innovations faster. For this effort, three innovations with national significance were selected as pilots and designated "vanguard technologies" because of the innovative groundbreaking approach they were to take. For each of the technologies, a dedicated deployment team was established, using individuals from throughout the Federal Highway Administration as partners. The teams' first task was to develop a marketing plan, complete with their first year's strategies and budget. The approach to developing a marketing plan came from that effort.

What Does Marketing Really Mean?

Most people think that marketing is only about the advertising and/or personal selling of goods and services. Advertising and personal selling, however, are just two of many activities that fall under marketing.

The new definition of marketing, as released by the American Marketing Association, is: "Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders." In general, marketing is identifying the particular wants and needs of a target audience, and then going about satisfying their needs. More simply: marketing is finding a need and filling it. This involves identifying and doing market research on your target audience(s), analyzing their needs, and then determining strategies and allocating resources to mesh your innovation with solving their problem.

In many organizations, it's easy for marketing to be seen as a service function. Nonmarketers sometimes think, "We'll do the work; you make it pretty." But marketing is much more than creating a brochure. In reality, marketing focuses on discovering what's important to the customer and then positioning products or services, based on those distinct needs.

That's the major difference between the concepts of "selling" and "marketing." Take a look at the following chart, and put it in the perspective of, say, an automobile company. Having a "selling" focus, as opposed to a "marketing" focus would reveal the following attributes:

Selling Marketing
Focuses on the needs of the sellerFocuses on the needs of the buyer
Preoccupation with the seller’s need to convert products into cash; push for higher sales Preoccupation with the idea of satisfying the needs of the buyer via product creation, delivery, and consumption
Production says, “We’ll make it, you sell it.”Marketing says, “They want it, we’ll make it.“
Seller takes his cues from himself or the competitionMarketer takes his cues from the buyer (market)
Passive involvement with the environmentActive involvement with the environment
Concerned with the presentConcerned with the future

In the case of marketing an innovation or technology, activities such as market research and one-on-one relationship building are critical.

Why is it so important to spend so much time focusing on the customer? "Well," one might say, "It's just the right thing to do." But if that were the key reason, we wouldn't see Fortune 500 companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on marketing. Someone might say, "We're part of the government. It's our job in this democratic society to provide the people with what they want." That may be true as well, but it doesn't explain why all those organizations in the private sector are doing it also. Actually, the reason for so much market research focused on the customer is simply this: It's the only way you can truly determine that you're providing a service or product that fills a need.

True, such activity can be a lot of work. But when running a marathon, a runner plans and prepares for it rather than just showing up and darting out of the starting gate. In fact, weeks or months of preparation are involved, with emphasis on things as diverse as diet, clothing and mental attitude. Think of your plan as a road map for bringing your innovation into common practice.

The Key to an Effective Plan

Keys to Success: Define your target audiences tightly, craft a clear value proposition and identify the right marketing delivery channels. You want your target audience to move from awareness, to interest, desire, and then action—with the ultimate goal of implementation of the innovation, then championing it within their segment of the community.

The key to developing an effective marketing plan is to center it on one premise: How your technology or innovation will benefit your target audiences--from their perspective. The plan will then naturally focus on strategies that not only increase awareness, but also most importantly encourage and persuade your audiences to embrace your innovation. Naturally, you must have a good understanding of the innovation. More important, however, is that you have an understanding of the target audience. To be successful you have to identify who they are and understand what they require and how the solution is going to fit into their environment. It's not enough to have a great idea; the key is focusing on how that idea (or technology) diffuses throughout the transportation community or at least your targeted segment. Ideally, what are the benefits of your innovation to your customer? Your marketing plan will chart the course.

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Scott Wolf
Center for Accelerating Innovation

This page last modified on 04/04/11

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration