Marketing versus R&D: Spanning the Divide

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry MagazineMDDI Article IndexOriginally Published May 2000PROJECT MANAGEMENTDeveloping a successful device and marketing it at a favorable time requires a team effort.

May 1, 2000

11 Min Read
Marketing versus R&D: Spanning the Divide

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

Originally Published May 2000


Developing a successful device and marketing it at a favorable time requires a team effort.

In a typical company, R&D staffers want their product development efforts to produce successful medical devices. Marketers want their efforts to yield sales of successful devices. Why, then, does it seem that the technologists and marketers have so little in common? The ability to blend innovative technology with what will sell in the marketplace is perhaps the most critical factor in device development efforts. Best-in-class medical device companies capitalize on their ability to respond to market needs by applying technology when the marketplace is ready to adopt the concept. But to arrive at that point, the thorniest issue in many companies is getting the technologists to truly understand the needs of the customers and the marketers to truly understand the potential of a technology.

Marketers roll their eyes in disbelief when the R&D staff says, "This is great technology, the market will love it," or "If I could just explain this technology more, then you'd appreciate it." On the other hand, R&D people don't know how to respond when marketers express a viewpoint such as, "We're trying to uncover a latent need in the marketplace to expand the potential of the product line." Perhaps the only sure thing such an exchange demonstrates is the continued existence of a wall separating their two perspectives. One speaks for the technology, the other speaks for the market—too often, they are speaking different languages. Many companies swear they've torn down the wall. Are they fooling themselves?

Developing a financially successful, innovative medical device and launching it at a favorable time in the business cycle has to be a team effort. Teamwork means that the R&D and marketing staffs have removed the barriers and actively help each other marry technology to marketplace needs. According to Preston Smith, coauthor of Developing Products in Half the Time, "The real opportunities for cycle-time reduction are at the cross-functional interfaces." The "silo management" model of functioning in isolated worlds must evolve into an interactive model.


Cynicism is often an obstacle between R&D staff and marketers. One remedy—a team-building approach—is to "spend some time in each other's shoes"—but unrelated deadlines and limited resources can make this impractical. By trusting an "other" with one's proxy, or as a lobbyist for one's concerns, each party can bring back valuable information for decision making. By allowing that "other" to regularly brief the entire team on technology advances and application innovations— and on marketplace trends and demands— valuable insights get shared.

Because R&D personnel find themselves under tighter development timelines than ever before, contact with the market is critically important. Accurate information, competitive intelligence, and feedback from customers are crucial for making effective and timely device development decisions. Everyone should remember that the commitment to a purchase is often made emotionally, and then justified rationally. This is true even for medical devices, where simple concepts like "new and improved" are part of the reason companies scramble to keep a succession of new products in front of the customer. Technologists have to be in tune with the product's emotional appeal, not just its technology, if the device is going to be a success. The marketing staff can provide input from the marketplace, which helps R&D incorporate the new and improved features that provide a competitive edge.

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Figure 1. Schematic of responsibilities and potential areas of interaction between R&D and marketing personnel involved in a device development project.


It is important for technologists to meet and interact with customers, but R&D staff sent into the field need to be armed with more than just the latest technical information. They must be good at asking questions, at listening to responses, and at reacting to responses. They need to know how to resist the urge to immediately suggest that they can solve a problem. They should also know how to respond when the customer wants to gripe about the current product. The truth is that not every technologist is a good candidate for interviewing customers.

For the R&D staff member who is chosen for field visits, the following items could be helpful in preparing to meet potential clients:

  • Get briefed by a marketer before you start talking. (You don't really know what the market wants until you've listened—as marketers do—to end-users.) Understand the basic truths of the marketplace—which part is legend, and which is fact.

  • Depend on your marketer to fill in any gaps in your familiarity with marketplace factors. (Ask for specific types of information, if that's what concerns you.)

  • Go with the primary intention of listening after asking questions. Don't talk too much.

  • Don't make promises you can't keep. (What happens to your market position—let alone your reputation—if you can't keep the promise?)

  • Remember that customers tend to talk about problems, issues, or features they like in current products. Since you are most likely thinking and talking about future products, you'll have to bridge this conceptual gap.

The biggest impact of customer exposure is when a development team is still trying to map out what the product will look like and what it will do. Later, product testing will be an excellent chance to continue learning, from the users who are doing the testing.


Marketers go about their work in different ways than product developers do. This is particularly true when the product in question is a complex medical device, which can have multiple levels of buyers and users. Out in the field, the marketer-technologist team can share insight as they build a strong relationship with the clinical user and receive thoughtful feedback from this source. One should inquire about the competition: What do they do well? What aspects of a product would the user prefer to be handled differently? Valuable information can be gained from both first-level (medical team) and second-level users (patients). Ultimately, it will be important to establish who makes the buying decision, and to spend time with them.

Adding to the complexity is FDA, which regulates both the product and what the marketing program can say about the product. The product developer and the marketer must cooperate and coordinate their efforts to keep abreast of regulatory issues and approval cycles.


The changing relationship between technologists and marketers can be a source of friction and development delays. When the marketers bring to R&D a change in direction for the product, they're delivering a message from a marketplace in which change is the norm. It is more productive for technologists to respond seriously to these marketplace changes than it is for them to complain about the message or blame the messenger. Nevertheless, they should evaluate the proposed change, not implement it blindly.

Whenever a project team considers adopting a change, all parties should make sure they're accounting for the full cost of the change and its real benefit. The marketer may be in a better position to both generalize current market needs and predict new needs in the future, but cannot evaluate the impact of changes on the development schedule or budget without a discussion with the technical members of the team. All team members have something to contribute in deciding how to respond to a market shift.

In start-ups built around an innovative new product, it's easier—and a lot more fun—for the technologist to focus on the technology and ignore the market. Thus, the technologist can miss the influence of the market in the very setting in which such awareness is most needed. The act of bringing customer input into the development team environment not only fosters collaboration between supplier and consumer, but also enhances the internal relationships between technologists and marketers. Anything that keeps a wall from forming has a positive potential for building a stronger medical device company.

Inside the company, certain steps can be taken to build good relationships among project team members. Those directing the project should:

  • Establish a pattern of communication, with meetings at least every month to compare notes. (More-frequent meetings may be appropriate, depending on the stage of the development process.)

  • Make assignments designating who will speak for which issues. In general, the marketer speaks for the marketplace and the technologist for the technology; however, each is responsible for listening to the other, and for making sure the other understands.

  • Recognize that compromises are necessary to move forward.

  • Recognize that the voice of the marketplace typically carries disproportionate weight in the discussion.

  • Be aware that customers will often ask for things that the laws of physics—and economics—won't support.

Successful medical device development companies have a way of turning barriers inside out and benefiting from a natural level of tension. They accept that some conflict is going to exist among the R&D, marketing, manufacturing, and finance departments, and they recognize that conflict resolution begins with maintaining good communication across the organization.

Good communication means frequent communication, and at many levels. Conflict is seen as an opportunity to expand viewpoints, create breakthroughs, and capitalize on synergy. When conflict arises, effective organizations move swiftly to arrive at a consensus limiting the conflict and setting the standard for more-rapid resolution of future issues.


The best team is obviously going to be one in which technologists and marketers are comfortable working together. Regardless of the size of the organization, there can be a very complex interplay of working and personal relationships among developers and marketers. Even when R&D and marketing are in close physical contact—perhaps with workspaces visible to each other—they may be emotionally distant. After-hours camaraderie can enhance trust, but they also need to appreciate the part each must play in their professional relationship and recognize that interpersonal and role issues will appear.

Developing a successful product depends on an effective working relationship between the technologists and the marketers, which in turn depends on a pattern of collaboration and communication (see Figure 1). In a supportive collaboration, the partners know their own weaknesses, and each can rely on the other to bring strengths that balance out those weaknesses. Management support can pave the way to building a team that is comfortable with intense collaboration.

It is also critical to get technical team support for expected product changes by having the R&D group be deeply involved with the marketers from the very beginning of a project. Management should achieve "buy-in" from all team members regarding the project objectives, making sure everyone appreciates that successful products depend as much on the needs of the marketplace as on technological capabilities. It is important that the technologists on the team understand the emotional message of the customers they're working for, and that the marketers on the team comprehend the rational message indicating where there's room for design flexibility and where there isn't.


Marketing and R&D can benefit from establishing a pattern of communication that compensates for some of the natural differences between the technology viewpoint and the market-driven viewpoint. All parties to a project should work to tear down old barriers and suppress traditional brush-offs. Marketing representatives should be totally accessible to R&D, and vice versa. Management should find opportunities to involve technologists in marketing activities, and marketers in R&D activities. There needs to be a strong advocate for the marketplace in every day's decisions within the development environment.

Management can institute concrete policies such as the following to enable the market's message to reach the R&D members of the project team:

  • Budget and schedule resources to support the opportunity for product developers to personally make contact with customers at strategic points in the development effort, especially early in the project.

  • Provide the developers with regular updates from a marketer during those times in which only the marketer is making direct contact with the customer.

  • Include market needs in all developmnent decisions.

  • Tie product development targets to market-driven activities, like shows and conferences.

  • Keep the economics of the buying decision as a top concern in development decisions.

  • Keep technologists aware of market trends.


In many ways, the suggestions presented in this article are obvious. As with many common-sense issues, however, the real challenge is to act upon them. Although it is natural for people to focus on their own interests, technologists must overcome this tendency and take an active interest in their markets if they are to improve their products. If synergy can replace territorialism, the enhanced relationship between technologists and marketers can make a company's products more successful by better responding to the needs of its customers.

Keith Schleiffer, PhD, is a project manager in Battelle's (Columbus, OH) product development group, with expertise in diagnostics, home medical equipment, and drug delivery applications.

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