Monday, September 21, 2009

Delivering a Remarkable Product

Something happened when Apple first released the iPod, and it had everything to do with the product and everything to do with marketing. Apple released a "remarkable" product. By remarkable, we're talking about the very definition of the word--something people want to talk about.

Very few are the truly remarkable products today, products that create such a passionate following that anyone who owns or uses the product feels compelled to share it with others. The iPod was not without faults and detractors. With its relatively soft screen and temperamental body, the product was not exactly durable and solid. But it delivered an excellent user experience from the moment someone opened the box.

Soon the product was everywhere: the prize of nearly every sweepstakes or giveaway, on television, in the news, and in the ears of hipsters and techie geeks on the college campus. The clean and elegant white body and matching white ear buds were synonymous with modernity itself.

A few years passed, and Apple did it again with products called the iPod Touch and the iPhone. Some people ran out and bought the iPod Touch as soon as it was released, but more waited for the impending launch of the iPhone. I can name the first five people who brought their iPhones to work because they also brought with them a conversation piece, an audience, and a major distraction. They were anxious to share their new "everything gadgets" with everyone around them. Within a few days, the gesture of pinching and spreading thumbs and index fingers was synonymous with viewing images on Apple mobile devices. It was elegant, intuitive, and simple.

Why do I bring up these examples here? I'm not an Apple lover. I have never even owned any of the products I just mentioned. But I do recognize excellent marketing. And excellent marketing always starts with an excellent product. Today, however, an excellent product is not enough. Products that really succeed need to be remarkable.

Think about it this way. Word of mouth advertising with a remarkable product is a multiplier. Your customers do all of the heaving lifting for you and multiply the impact of your marketing dollars.

Another way I like to describe it is that every dollar spent on delivering a good product (R&D, design, packaging, etc.) is a dollar spent on marketing. Surely, developing an excellent product begins and ends with marketing (from research to go-to-market strategies); however, most companies skimp somewhere in the middle, when the product is actually being developed.

But don't people talk about other products? Certainly. But they are either comparing them with superior products or explaining why they regret a purchase decision. For example, "well, my SanDisk player works for me, but it sure isn't an iPod." Or, "I'll never buy a Zune again. My next mp3 player will be an iPod."

Surely, the quickest way to go out of business is to launch a terrible product and then tell everyone about it. You will likely achieve one generation of customers, but you won't get any others. Why? Because by the time you're ready to reach the second generation of customers, they are wise to your business. Consumers are smart. They talk to people. They conduct research before making decisions.

Some will buy on impulse, but they will feel deceived when they run into issues and then read the feedback from other former customers. That can be worse than never having made the sale in the first place.

Sometimes you will hear people talk about getting a product to market that is "good enough." There is another concept in the marketplace that is often misunderstood when people talk about products that are "good enough." These products aren't junk. What is meant by "good enough" is that they have only the functionality that consumers actually want. They are simple and cheap to produce and deliver on their key value proposition extremely well.

Again, the concept of a product that is "good enough" is not that it barely passes some low quality threshold but rather that is has enough functionality to be a hit with consumers, and can compete with and replace other more expensive and sophisticated solutions based on a simple value proposition. The case study of the Flip camera designed by Pure Digital Technologies is a brilliant example.

You can read the article from Wired Magazine by Robert Capps called The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine. Mr. Capps was not the first to recognize this trend or even this market example, but his article is a great read.

The example of the Flip camera is what Clayton Christensen calls a disruptive innovation. Instead of carrying on in an arms race of features and functions (speeds and feeds), Flip came into a mature market and started over with a product that was simple and elegant. In essence, they hit the reset button and in the process captured 17% market share nearly overnight.

The key wasn't just producing a "cheap and simple" product. The secret again was in producing a remarkable product that people wanted to share with others. And it worked.

The next time you are asked or tempted to market a product that doesn't add unique value to the current set of solutions in the market or is clearly inferior to existing options, just ask yourself, "how fast do I want to fail?" You will do a lot of heavy lifting to acquire each new customer, since you will have to reach each one yourself. And at the end of the day, you may just end up right where you started--looking to develop a product people may actually want to buy.

The companies that win never ask, "Who (or how many) can we get to buy our product?" That question is asked by someone with a product that is looking for a market.

Successful companies know better than to launch a product they only hope will succeed. Those that win ask, "How will our product be talked about by our core customers?" Subtle difference? I don't think so.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Brandishing Credentials and Unique Competency

Degrees, certifications, licenses, and credentials are required for several professions because they demonstrate a certain level of knowledge, competency, or experience. Sometimes a credential is required to protect potential customers from incompetence and fraud. Sometimes a credential simply establishes a threshold of expected performance.

When it comes to business, organizations and individuals earn credentials over time, but most of these credentials are never framed and hung on a wall. And what's more, the company or individual with this credential isn't really in control of which credential they earn. Sometimes a company will seek and attain a certain strategic advantage or unique competency because of brilliant strategy and careful planning; however, a more likely scenario is that a unique competency will emerge over time that qualifies the company to provide a service or product that other organizations aren't capable of providing. When that happens you have achieved a market credential. Congratulations!

Brand Credentials Are Granted Not Earned

That works for companies, but what about brands? What credentials does a brand have? The answer isn't typically found in what a company or brand line pursues but rather in what consumers accept and embrace coming from the brand. In the case of a brand, a credential is both a unique qualification and also a limitation. Earning a credential as a great athletic shoe brand, for example, may not qualify you to start manufacturing footballs under that brand.

An example would be consumers embracing Nike as an athletic clothing brand (beyond shoes) but rejecting Converse or another shoe brand in its efforts to expand its brand beyond footwear. Surely both companies can create good product designs and engage labor to manufacture inexpensive products. But that is where the parallel ends. The real question isn't so much what the company can produce but what customers expect them to produce and whether those customers will allow a brand to succeed with any given product or service.

Great Products and Services Establish Credentials

Again, the brand credential isn't so much a competency a company can earn but more a unique mind space that is granted to the brand by the market. Historically it has been the job of marketing and advertising to convince the consumers and clients that a brand had "street cred," but recently that job has shifted increasingly to product managers and designers. With the proliferation of information and increased accessibility to that information, products themselves carry more of the marketing responsibility than ever before.

This is the ultimate example of "actions speak louder than words." You can say all you want about a service or product, but gone are the days where clever marketing can overcome the weaknesses a poor product or user experience.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself when bringing a new product or service to market is: "Do we have the credentials to bring this thing to market?"

Thinking about it just for a moment provides a simple explanation for some of the biggest product failures in history: Levi's moving into men's suits, Polaroid expanding into digital photography, Pond's toothpaste, Frito-Lay Lemonade, among others.

The Dangers of Playing the Field

Many companies--especially those that are young, hungry, and entrepreneurial--try to be amenable and amoeba-like, changing shape (or stripes) with each new opportunity they encounter. While keeping options open can be a laudable objective, it is a hurdle when it comes to establish brand credentials.

Finding Your Brand Credentials

Here are a few questions to ask when trying to uncover your unique brand competencies or credentials:
  • Who are your current customers or clients? (size, industry, geography, etc.)
  • What do your customers hire you to do?
  • What substitute products did your customers consider? (Learning about your cusotmers' consideration set is one of the best ways to discover your brand credentials.)
  • Why have you lost sales to your competition?
  • Do any of your current activities worry your existing clients or customers?
Answering these questions will help you start understanding your current brand credentials and also the areas where you can expand your "street cred" to other areas.

Blue Ocean Strategy

The concept of "blue ocean strategy" or moving to the open sea that is unbloodied from intense competition is one of the most misunderstood concepts I have been confronted with in the last few years. The concept isn't to disavow your current customers and find a new Shangri-La where the waters are peaceful. The concept is to build off of your strength and find adjacent or analogous markets where your product may be preferred in the consideration set. This requires your credentials with one market to extend to to an adjoining market (not too big of a stretch for most brands).

The biggest risk in pursuing any branding or marketing strategy is offending current customers. They think they know you. They also think you are providing products or services for them. Stray too far and they may feel betrayed or at least concerned that your efforts aren't going to provide them with any additional benefit.

Remembering Your "Love Group" -- A Bird in the Hand

Here are a couple of worn out idioms that are marketing truisms. The first is a temptation to be fought, and the second is a saying to be embraced:

"The grass is always greener on the other side."
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Another way of saying this is to never turn your back on those who love you. You have a group of people who love you. They like the benefits you provide and are willing ot put up with your quirks and shortcomings to receive those benefits. One of the biggest temptations marketers (typically driven by CEOs or CFOs looking at the numbers) will have is to enter a more lucrative market.

Just by the sound of it, it makes sense. Why settle for peanuts when you could own the plantation? But guess what? Nine times out of ten moving into a new market is a risky gamble that doesn't pay off. Why? Because someone else is already servicing those customers or clients and you don't have the credentials to compete. If you did, those potential customers would have already come knocking on your door.

Typically your best course of action is to get closer to your existing customers and then find more people just like them.

Your Personal Brand

I'll expand on this concept in the future, but you should also consider your personal brand. What do YOU have the credentials to do and provide to an organization, client, or partner? How are you going to compete?

In reality, there aren't too many options. You have to work on your credentials every day. Here are the three unique ways I have found to compete in my personal career:
  • Knowledge (demonstrating decision making and strategic skills and benefiting from the asymmetric nature of information)
  • Talent (delivering higher quality, craftsmanship, or competency)
  • Speed (executing faster)
Beyond these, I can't think of too many actual advantages from a value perspective. Talent would include most "soft skills" or "people skills." If you find yourself mediocre in all three areas, you had better make the effort of earning some credentials.

Brandishing your personal credentials or those of your brand at every opportunity is the best way to let others know who you are and the benefits you deliver.

What works for a company or brand will also work for you as an individual.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hello World

I'm not a developer, but I understand that for many the first program they ever wrote was a program to get the words "hello world" to display on a monitor screen. In my mind I see these words in the upper-left corner of the screen in monochromatic green on black telling the developer they have succeeded in creating something.

We all have a need to create--to synthesize the world around us and come up with something new. Whether it is a jarring new explosion in creativity or the results of more subtle exercises, such as "piggybacking" or "piling on" or "standing on the shoulders of others," we all have a desire to make our own mark on the world.

Although I've been marketing online for more than 13 years now, this is my first attempt to create what I have previously believed to be somewhat narcissistic or self-aggrandizing: a personal reflection on what I have learned during my online marketing career. Instead of increasing my personal profile I have spent all of my time dedicated to building the profiles of some pretty innovative brands, including, Move Networks, and

Paul B. Allen, a co-founder of and the founder and CEO of once shared the concept with me of "value creators" vs. "value managers." My role has always been that of building value for companies that are nascent in creating their brand identities. I've learned that the best seemingly organic paths for value creation tend to be well-planned and executed and that most examples of serendipity or "dumb luck" actually obey the principles of common sense. Like my seventh grade physics teacher, Mr. Browning taught me, "you can't cheat work." There are very few shortcuts to good marketing and long-term success, but some have managed to discover the principles that lead to success unintentionally or even by mistake.

If you want to learn from my past experiences and current challenges, I invite you to follow along. If you want to participate in a dialog of ideas, I encourage you to extend yourself. If you desire to gain an understanding of the principles and concepts that make marketing work (especially online marketing), I encourage you to weigh my contributions carefully. You might decide I have something worth reading.

The following are a few of the concepts I will be exploring and expounding upon here in my little corner of the Internet:
  • Marketing strategies that are really strategic
  • Interactive marketing that actually creates interactions
  • Using common sense to understand likely customer scenarios and responses
  • Projection, patterning, and invitation as methods to reach customers on a psychological level
  • The balance of art and science that is marketing
  • Creating layered campaigns that amplify across customer segments and channels
  • Managing marketing initiatives, such as PPC, SEO, affiliate programs, partner programs, and email
  • Designing effective ads for different online channels
  • How to get a blank check for your marketing budget
  • Playing the averages to achieve both low cost and high volume
  • Focusing on creating a remarkable product to stretch your marketing dollar
  • And much, much more . . .

That's probably enough for a first blog post. I'll be adding a lot more this week, including some tutorial content on PPC and Affiliate Marketing. You can also look forward to some lists of best common sense marketing practices and the biggest mistakes you will want to avoid.

Hello World