Lateral Marketing: New Techniques for Finding Breakthrough Ideas

{original squeezed contributor: ilenia}

Key Points

The lateral marketing process:

  1. Select a product, either your own or a competitor.

  2. Select some aspect of the product or the product’s marketing mix .

  3. Create a “lateral disconnect” by changing that aspect in some way: substitution, combination, inversion, elimination, exaggeration or reordering.

  4. Find a way to bridge the disconnect and make it reality.


In this day and age, innovation is critical to success, as new products are launched all the time, with failure ever present as well. Understanding innovation in marketing is crucial.

Traditional marketing

Much marketing thinking focuses on selling products rather than looking at the customer’s needs. Traditional marketing often is very involved with the market as it is today, rather than how it could be. Furthermore, there is often a drive to categorize and segment a market. Segmentation has been one of the strongest strategies in marketing as it is traditionally practiced. If you enter a new category, you attempt to create a product that is distinct from those already there, by carving out a niche. In this way, you own that part of the market, but on the other hand, this process, taken too far, leaves everyone with a very small piece of the overly fragmented market. By viewing the market as something fixed to be divided up is a useful model in some ways, but can at times be limiting in terms of innovation and opening up entirely new markets.

“Modulation” innovations in marketing refer to changing the amount of some characteristic of a product - more or less fat/sugar/salt, for instance. Changing a product’s size is another common way of increasing the sales of a product by allowing people to consume it in amounts closer to the amount they desire in any given moment. Packaging is another important way of creating a distinction - a very similar product might be sold in fancy packaging for more money. Design changes are another way of creating a new niche or sustaining domand, even if the changes are mostly superficial. The development of “complements” to a product may help the sales of a mature product, by pairing it with some other product that increases its appeal. Finally, reducing the effort required to purchase and consume the product may increase the pool of buyers by snagging buyers who were indecisive. None of these innovations creates truly new categories or markets, though, they are all ways of subdividing the existing market.

Lateral marketing

Instead of fighting over an ever decreasing fragment of a market, by transforming a product enough to make it suitable to satisfy new or different needs, it is possible to create a new market. As an example, when cereal bars were launched, they were a novelty, and were created by combining the idea of cereals, a healthy breakfast food, with the chocolate bar, a not so healthy snack to create a new, healthy snack. Examples abound of a product that created a new category, such as walkmans, which made music cassettes portable, or the barbie doll, which was a doll that actually looked like a woman, rather than a baby, as most dolls had been up until that point.

Lateral marketing is a complement to traditional marketing - both are important. Vertical (traditional) marketing is about sequential and logically selecting features to fill a niche, whereas lateral marketing is about analyzing fixed concepts of products and understanding how to alter them so as to create new ideas. Lateral marketing is more of a leap than a step by step process. Vertical marketing is appropriate during the early stages of a product’s life cycle, because there’s lots of room to maneuver, and it’s generally low risk, and low cost. With a mature product, a lateral marketing strategy might be more apt, because it is more likely to open up entirely new possibilities. Vertical marketing is more likely to be the domain of marketing experts, than lateral marketing, which might be undertaken by entrepreneurs, engineers, or other non marketing professionals.

Lateral marketing process

Lateral marketing looks at these questions:

  • Can I satisfy other needs with my product if I change it?
  • Could I reach people who aren’t currently potential customers if I change it?
  • What other products are substitutes for my current product?
  • What substitutes can I generate to attack a given product?

The lateral process focuses an a creative technique that works like this:

  1. Focus on a specific aspect.
  2. Make a “lateral displacement”.
  3. Generate a connection.

By focus, we mean a particular aspect of something. The important point is the lateral displacement, where we turn a concept on its head. For instance a flower. Flowers die. A lateral displacement would be a flower that never dies. Perhaps the idea doesn’t make sense, but the point is to provoke your brain into “thinking different”. The connection is what brings the idea back to reality in some way by crossing the lateral disconnect. For instance, a flower that never dies might be an artificial one, made of plastic.

Innovations are a result of connecting two ideas which, in principle, had no apparent or immediate connection.

In order to apply these lateral techniques to marketing, we need to be able to pick a focus to apply them to, which can be grouped as follows: the market definition level, the product level, and the rest of the marketing mix.

To be really talking about lateral marketing, there must be a gap, a disconnect between the current product, and the concept. Operations that generate a gap:

  • Substitute it. Replace the focus with something else entirely.

  • Invert it - think of the opposite.

  • Combine it.

  • Exaggerate it by either adding a great deal of of it or taking it nearly all away.

  • Eliminate it - what would the product look like without the focus of the disconnect?

  • Reorder it.

Once you have created this displacement, this stimulus, you must then reconnect things to reality, in order to generate a practical innovation. Look at the positive aspects, or novel and interesting approach that the disconnect fosters. Think about how it could be brought to fruition. Consider what settings the displacement would be successful in.

Changing one of a product’s needtarget or occasion is the easiest way to go about lateral marketing. For instance, change the need - retarget the product to satisfy some other need - red bull created the energy drink market by making a drink that was not simply about quenching your thirst. A new target means a new group of consumers for your product. For instance, the cirque du soleil is a circus, but for adults.

At the product level of lateral marketing, it’s important to break the product down into its components, so that it’s possible to examine each for lateral displacement possibilities.

Implementing lateral marketing

Lateral marketing is not “brainstorming” because it provides a framework for first creating a disconnect and then working backwards to make it reality. Don’t throw out bad ideas, hang on to them for the future. You’ll know what you’ve already considered, and who knows, maybe things will change in the future, and one of them could prove useful.


Fernando Trias de Bes’ page: (en espanol)

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