Genius Marketers … from the great Steve Jobs, to the crazy Phillipe Starck, and the passionate Phil Knight

January 15, 2007

Marketing Genius explores the attributes of genius, and how the intelligence of Einstein, the creativity of Picasso and success of Buffett can be applied to the marketing challenges of today.

The intelligence of a marketing genius

Albert Einstein was a genius, redefining the laws of physics not through his rigorous mathematical derivations, which only resulted in many pages of complex algebra, but through hypothesis and creativity that imagined “what if” and then used his numeric skills to prove that E=mc2.

Genius Profile : Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs has redefined the marketing of technology, from the early days of Apple’s Macintosh to Pixar blockbusters like Toy Story, and back to defining our iLife at Apple. He is a market revolutionary, intelligently making sense of markets, and applying technologies to customer needs.

He grew up in the apricot orchards that later became known as Silicon Valley, at a time when technological innovation and psychedelic music were competing local influences. He studied physics and literature but dropped to found Apple Computer with his friend Steve Wozniak in 1976, based in his parent’s garage and financed by the sale of his VW campervan. By the age of 23 he was worth over $1m, over £10m by 24, $100m by 25, and now a fully-fledged billionaire.

He grew the business by focusing on niche markets, charging a premium for for his novel products. However 1985 saw him lose out in a power struggle with John Sculley as Apple began to struggle with the might of Microsoft. This led him to Pixar animation studios, which has since created five of the most successful and loved animated films since the early days of Walt Disney. From Monsters Inc. to Finding Nemo they have earned more than $2 billion at the box offices.

Back at Apple Computer, with Steve Jobs reinstalled as leader, Apple recognised that the computing world had changed. In the same way that Pixar had transformed movies, the likes of Dell had disrupted the computing world. But Jobs saw the future differently. He re-engaged his passion for well designed computers, this time with open systems, funky coloured iMacs. More significantly, he recognised that the music industry was in desparate need of innovation. The iPod was born to a new generation of devices, and iTunes closely followed.

Jobs is currently on a high – sales of the iPod reached 10 million just before Christmas, profits at Apple have increased five-fold, and at Pixar, The Incredibles were packing out cinemas around the world. His annual performance at MacWorld a few weeks ago was watched by millions, this time hearing about plans for the new low-priced iPod Shuffle, designed to consolidate his market leadership.

Jobs takes a deeply personal approach to business – a visionary and strategist, and a hands-on approach to the detail of customer needs and product design. He is a marketer and leader who inspires superlatives. His staff describe him as a “reality distortion field”.

The creativity of a marketing genius

Pablo Picasso was a genius, challenging the impressionist conventions of his time. Having patiently absorbed the work of Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, he combined his Spanish passion and visual talents to define the new art form of Cubism, and become a rare legend in his own lifetime.

Genius Profile : Philippe Starck

Philippe Stark is the grand fromage of design. From architecture to furniture, utensils to fashion, Starck is currently putting his mark on around 100 products every year. His early work was more akin to fashion and novelty, whilst the turn of the century marked a move to design which has its core in honesty and integrity – from throw-away artefacts to pieces of timeless value.

“Everyone should be pondering, asking themselves questions about life, money, desire, war, themselves” he believes.

His early days were spent underneath his father’s drawing boards, playing with paper and glue, taking anything to pieces and rebuilding it, usually in a different way. Remaking the world around him. Clocks, vases, door handles, toothbrushes, watches, food, cutlery lamps, lemon squeezers, desks, motorcycles, taps, baths, toilets. You can wake upto to his alarm clock, where his space-age boots, carry his Samsonite luggage, use his discount-price Target accessories, dine at Asia de Cuba restaurant, and sleep in his new classic hotel, The Paramount.

Starck champions creativity with purpose, art that is practical, insight that is innovative. His collaborations turn average products into practical and essential objects of desire, and .can easily triple the profit margins of the brands he works with.

At his drawing board he works with purpose and passion. He touches us through his striking work, and because he thinks without boundary, rejecting the conventions and challenges of our tolerance, creating objects that are good and beautiful. Later this year he launches the Starck Mouse with Microsoft – with fur and tail, it looks like it will squeek rather than click.

The success of a marketing genius

Warren Buffett is a genius, the offbeat investor who lives in the same £31,000 house he bought in his twenties. Yet his $36 billion personal fortune, including a third share in Coca Cola, has been achieved by looking for undervalued companies with unfulfilled potential in growth markets.

Genius Profile : Phil Knight

Phil Knight markets with a passion. He turned his own athletic frustrations to business, and with an accounting degree he created Nike as a company passionate about sports and profits. For over 30 years he has pushed the boundaries in sporting performance and business results. At the end of 2004 he hung up his CEO shoes, although he remains chairman, handing over a $12 billion company he built by hand.

Knight’s first love was athletics. Whilst studying business administration at the University of Oregon, he trained hard under the guidance of coach Bill Bowerman. However his success was never great, recording a personal best for the mile of 4 minutes 10 seconds.

Frustrated by his lack of sporting success, he sought anything to make a difference, not least his shoes. He scoured the world, and on a trip to Kobe in Japan he discovered Tiger shoes, the forerunner of Asics. He started importing them, selling them at track meets from the back of his van, having now graduated, and started training as an accountant. In 1972 he decided to go a step further. He paid a friend $35 to design a swoosh logo, stuck it on his first shoe, “The Cortez”, and Nike was born.

By 1979 he had gained 50% of the US running shoe market, at a time when the jogging boom was taking off. He and Bowerman constantly innovated with waffle soles and air cushioning. Through the next two decades, largely through highly creative marketing – the advertising, the endorsements, the “just do it” cult – he turned Nike into the global brand leader, in every sport, in every land. Nike’s portfolio now extends to Converse sneakers, Hurley surfwear, and Cole Haan formalwear.

Phil Knight is an intuitive marketer, but also a disciplined accountant. He has been portrayed as mysterious, inscrutable, eccentric, unpredictable, enigmatic, idiosyncratic, shy, aloof, reclusive, competitive and a genius. He shuns publicity although is never far from his desk – or the gym – at Nike Campus. However his passion continues in his products and his people, as well as making Nike one of the most profitable and respected companies in the world.

“Genius” is the one attribute on the list that Knight himself questions. “Other than that, I’m all of those things, at least some of the time”. However surely a genius is far too intelligent to call himself such a thing.

© Peter Fisk 2007

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