The Marketing Trouble With Engineering Companies
It's hard to think of a single instance in which the best product in any given IT category wound up being a market leader in that space. Just like in baseball, where good pitching almost always beats good hitting, it turns out in IT that vendors that spend a greater percentage of their budget on marketing pitches almost always beat what euphemistically have become known as engineering companies.
Take, for example, Fortinet, a provider of firewalls that are sold 100 percent through the channel. Widely respected for its engineering, after more than a decade of effort Fortinet trails Cisco and Check Point Technologies in the firewall category. At a recent partner conference, Fortinet celebrated the fact that it just passed Juniper Networks, another company known more for its engineering than marketing skills, for third-place in a category where both companies have percentages of the market that are still measured in the teens.
In contrast, new players such as Palo Alto Networks have been growing rapidly in the firewall space. While still trailing in market share, Palo Alto Networks has ridden the emergence of so-called next-generation firewalls (NGF) to fifth place in the market. Firewalls from Fortinet clearly have most of the same functionality as an NGF. But Palo Alto Networks has aggressively spent marketing dollars promoting the merits of a so-called new NGF market category.
Fortinet, by contrast, is growing at a slower pace. But it's not even clear if that growth is coming because of the company's efforts or simply the missteps of Juniper, Check Point and Cisco. By its own admission, marketing is the smallest part of Fortinet's budget.
The good news from a Fortinet partner perspective is that Fortinet plans to increase the size of its marketing budget by 50 percent in 2014. Fortinet CEO Ken Kie said that investment is critical to hitting a growth rate of hopefully 20 percent for each of the next two years if Fortinet wants to become a $1 billion company by 2015.
What's unclear is how effective that investment will be. Kie said that money will be invested primarily in lead generation. But John Maddison, vice president of marketing for Fortinet, freely admits that Fortinet doesn't have a lot of visibility into where the company's existing marketing investments are generating results. While Fortinet partners surely will welcome any marketing help they can get, given the challenges associated with taking on both well-entrenched rivals and aggressive upstarts in a well-established market, history has shown time and again that throwing marketing dollars at the wall doesn't make much of an impact when competition in a particular space is fierce.
That doesn't mean that Fortinet shouldn't invest more money in marketing. But it does mean that, like a lot of engineering companies in the channel, it needs to first examine whether it has the right DNA to properly apply marketing investments in a way that truly benefits channel partners that still have to spend way too much time explaining both who companies such as Fortinet are and what they do.
Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWEEK, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.