Seth Godin’s Sunday post discusses (non) branding in an unbranded world, which he illustrates with a vignette from the mattress business. His point is that while many marketers are excited about entering an unbranded marketplace and attempting to create one, usually by outspending the field, they rarely succeed because their product — like the market — is undifferentiated. Customers are smart. They know commodities when they see them. And therefore, you must create a unique product that is remarkable. End of story.
Unless the product itself is constrained by standards that make design uniform. In which case, Seth’s advice needs a little tweaking.
To be clear, I like his post and his subject is a favorite of mine, having spent seven years (that’s forty-nine in dog years) marketing blank video cassettes at Sony some years back. Sexy business, let me tell you. Roughly 85% of consumers watched the program they were taping while it was being taped, and then a total of 5% to 10% of them watched the recording they had made after the fact. This was, to be clear, an absolutely useless business to be in if you’re hoping to better human-kind at the end of the day. But it was a $250 million chunk of Sony’s US empire, and the job was fun, so there you have it.
You can’t radically change a VHS cassette — or gasoline, or ball bearings, or many other commodities — because they fit in something that doesn’t accomodate your neat idea. You can talk all day long about how “good” yours is compared to Brand X, and this is the last refuge of most commodity marketing. Our gasoline is better than theirs. Our VHS tape has “higher retentivity and coercivity” than theirs (and good luck convincing them of that). Etc.
What we did — and what worked for us — was to speak the language of our audience better than the other guys did. When there are eight to 10 acceptable brands, any of which are OK to throw in the shopping cart, make sure your packaging is better than theirs. Say, “6 Hours” and not “T120,” for example. I know, this is obvious. But we were the only ones to do this for years. More importantly, connect with the gestalt of the user experience more closely than they would, making a blank videocassette into part of a larger entertainment lifestyle.
Where they hammered on price and drove the profitability out of the business, we put a free movie ticket inside five-packs: spend $10 on a brick of blank videotape and get a movie ticket worth $10 inside, good anywhere for any movie. We did a whole promotional calendar on overlays like this, each one connecting to the entertainment lifestyle. We locked up more endcaps than the other guys did, commanded a premium price in a commodity market, and ended up with double the market share of the number 2 in the business. And we were profitable.
It’s great to be able to differentiate your product. It’s also great to differentiate your marketing. These aren’t always the same thing. Know your customer, speak their language more fluently than the next guy, hammer away at your competition so they have to chase you.
Don’t just play the game, be the ball.
I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog as I try to tackle my own work issue. I work as an adjunct teaching writing classes [a good job for the “mom phase” I am in, but one with many, many obstacles]. It’s interesting to see how some of these translate, even though writing classes aren’t technically a “commodity.” I do have customers [students], and I want them to use their product/service [new skills]. As to this topic, there is a set of standards writing courses need to follow. One of the differences from tapes and mattresses that doesn’t translate, however, is that many students just don’t want to be in school…even at the college level, where it’s optional. Still thinking on it– definitely a giant that I need to take down, or at least weave my way around!
Shelbey: thanks for your note — I think this the first time we’ve talked, so please feel free to continue commenting as you see fit.
With a clear acknowledgement that I don’t know the bits and pieces of your situation, here’s a thought: your students don’t want to be in school and have little outwardly shown passion for writing. As Joe Pesci would say, they’re “youts” who might trend towards the sullen (from My Cousin Vinny, for those keeping score).
If you choose to know your audience better than the next alternative, how would you apply it here? Have them use their writing skills in an area where they are passionate. Politics? Have them work in teams to draft letters to their Congressional representative on a subject they believe in. Have them submit article queries to online or physical music publications. Ask them to create op ed pieces for publication on environmental blogs. Pick half a dozen subjects of this nature, have them prioritize them, and have them self-organize.
This might not be your answer, but hopefully it applies the idea in your field. One or two more iterations might do the trick. Ask them what subjects make sense. Feel free to use these examples to break the inertia. And don’t forget to push launch their own blogs.
This is gotta be one of the best — and most succinct — explanations of effectively marketing a commodity product in a commodity environment. Good stuff.
Thank you, Roger — this was a very painful but critical lesson early on in my career that I’ve written about in various places over the past year.
Hopefully, when Design Forum publishes a piece I wrote for them a month or so ago, there will be a much larger explanation of how this all came to be.
Bravo, Stephen. I concur with Roger and thank you also for the awesome ideas you shared with Shelbey.
Speak the language of your audience cannot be emphasized enough. I am experiencing that right now as we rewrite most of our materials, web site, etc. It really allows you to get closer and in some instances to ‘humanize’ the product for them. You said, hey, we know we’re one of many, but we really get you. That has its rewards.
Valeria: thank you, as always, for your comment. Here’s the thing (this is probably worth its own post, but here’s a short version):
We all talk about “speaking the language of your customer,” of “listening to your customer,” etc., etc., ad nauseum. Everyone repeats this endlessly in our marketing world (at least in the blogosphere), but very few actually execute this to its fullest.
We can’t say, “we get you,” because this statement doesn’t convey any understanding of you, your needs, your reality. Show me that you get me by speaking in my language — in words, images, and actions. We must go past the trappings and capture what happens after the obvious. As Robert McKee says in his STORY seminar, life on screen is dull — we must go beyond the ordinary and show the “negation of the negation,” what happens after the logical conclusion.
Take the Sony tape case in the post: how do you show that you get the audience? We could have given them a guide on how to best tape movies off their televisions (did that, no impact). We could have given them selected a pre-recorded series of children’s titles because our customers were families with kids (did that, too; no impact). We tested, talked, listened, and launched promotions that connected to our channel’s needs (2 liter bottle of Coke with 4-pack — 60% lift in volume), and them moved on to the needs of our customers (free movie ticket inside — counter-intuitive, isn’t it… blank tape, used at home, and yet we send them to the theater to watch the movie — but entertainment is what they were all about. Our monster users loved movies, not taping.
Understanding the key issue that defines the user and the use of hte product, together, is what’s important. End of sermon.
Not a sermon 😉 That was a coherent and useful piece of unfiltered and genuine writing about marketing. Thank you!
Walk the talk. Yes.
Great Sony case history. Another way to make a commodity product stand out is via a unique media strategy. We scheduled a year-end TV ad blitz for New York Life Insurance between Christmas and New Year’s in 2006 when ad time is very cheap, TV viewing is very high, no other insurance companies were advertising and families are thinking about their financial year ahead. The client’s tracking studies showed an unprecedented jump in ad awareness and response. Differentiation can be achieved in many ways. Thanks for pointing this out.