Dear CMO:
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.