Our Future in a Toothbrush: Making Meaning in IoT

At the beginning of a quarter in Brian Marr’s digital marketing class, Comm Lead students realize three things: Harvard business case analyses are no joke, Marr’s voice is incredibly smooth, and that their perceptions about the world are about to drastically change. Because if you live in a country with a free market economy, you can’t learn basic environmental assessment and positioning skills in marketing without seeing their application everywhere – the tiny strategic strings pulling every advertisement, every flyer, every product.

When Marr began teaching at Comm Lead in 2010, the iPhone was three years old and the program focused on traditional digital media, transmitted through screens to market. Since then, the communicative world has transformed to contain multitudes of smart, connected devices that transmit data about how its users behave – and, in the best cases, devices that use that data to help users out.

With experience in core marketing principles and training in behavioral psychology, Marr has the foundation to tease out a marketable sense of meaning from this world of connected devices – which people are now calling the Internet of Things (IoT). This is exactly what he’s doing at Smashing Ideas, where he works with a team to develop value propositions for IoT products in human behavior and healthcare applications.


Brian Marr having fun with his team. Photo credit: Smashing Ideas.

Just recently, Marr’s team brought a smart toothbrush to market. The toothbrush, by Sonicare, provides data about how you brush your teeth: the number of minutes you brushed, how much pressure you used, which teeth were brushed. But the most important thing, according to Marr, is turning this data into something that engages and motivates.

Putting a sensor in a toothbrush that can show you which teeth you brushed is sort of meaningless, according to Marr, because you get the same information by looking in a mirror and smiling and watching yourself brush your teeth. But, he says, “If I can take that information, and show you that you didn’t do a great job of brushing your back molars and you miss them pretty often, suddenly you’ve now been able to do a clean sweep on all your teeth and it becomes a really powerful thing.”

The strategy here is really focused on finding a human truth for that information, Marr explains. It’s understanding pain points but then also understanding – how do you use that sensor and the data that it provides to do something really meaningful for a person? “Using that information to drive change, or empower them to do something, or give them the opportunity to do that thing – that’s when it becomes really valuable.”

It was this priority on strategy that led Marr to teach in the program. Developing and marketing IoT devices is cutting edge, to be sure, but the core methodologies Marr uses are timeless. And, while digital advances like IoT, augmented reality, and virtual reality are flashy and futuristic, it’s smart for digital media professionals to be strong in the basics.

“No one wants to talk about razor blades,” Marr says, in reference to the Gillette business case analysis he assigns in his class. But it’s clear, he believes, that these strategic skills are paramount. Being able to do an environmental assessment, doing segmentation research, making a positioning map, defining your targeting, and crafting messaging and digital strategies for a company – all these skills make up a core strategic set essential to creating something of value that people will exchange money for, no matter how digital it is.


Photo credit: Smashing Ideas

“I’ve talked to students that have ended up in marketing roles, and they’ll come back to me and ask, ‘Hey, what should I do about this particular situation at work?’ and we’ll go back to something that they worked on. And they’ll realize that they actually have the tools to do it, and it was more just a reminder of, ‘Oh I could do a SWOT* analysis here and show the positioning thing that this is the right direction’ and those are the rewarding moments for me.”

Marr’s advice? “You can always have your eye on the future, but real strength comes in looking at what’s happening today and figure out how to bridge yourself to that future when it becomes a reality.” For both students and alumni, the future is happening to us very quickly. But everything we need to make the most of it is already here.

*SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A SWOT analysis is a framework for analyzing an entity’s strengths and weaknesses alongside the opportunities and threats that the entity faces. It can be carried out for a company, product, place, industry, or person.

dsc_0640-1Brian works at the digital agency Smashing Ideas as the company’s strategic lead: he’s all about determining business strategies and strategic positioning to help the agency thrive. He also works with clients to help develop value propositions for their digital product ideas, and leads user research to guide product development. His third role involves an internal gem called Labs, which is a team responsible for generating intellectual property for Smashing Ideas.

A true innovator, Brian brings to Comm Lead a strategic marketing class that pairs students with real-world clients to develop a marketing plan. For over six years he’s been teaching students the core foundation of environmental assessments, SWOT analyses, targeting and positioning, and is passionate about giving students a foundational set of methodologies, processes and tools they can use to communicate their own strategy ideas.

Follow Brian at @bmarr on Twitter or email him at

View other articles from the Comm Lead Alumni Newsletter, Fall 2016:
Vital Signs
Of Course!
The Download
Storytelling from Safeco Tower
Pushing Boundaries: Burgers, Tweets, and Babies

Jeana RidleyOur Future in a Toothbrush: Making Meaning in IoT
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