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Do Great Consumer Products Market Themselves?

18 Jul

Spotify. Dropbox. Foursquare. Instagram. Facebook. Flipboard. Pinterest. Twitter.

Everyone knows these insanely popular companies even though they’ve invested almost nothing in advertising. In each case, they built a strong brand by building a great product or service and letting their customers spread the word.

With their success, a new generation of entrepreneurs are rethinking their approach to marketing. It’s increasingly common to hear luminaries talk about marketing as a weakness: the notion that only weak products require marketing.

So, is it true? Do great consumer products market themselves?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Marketing isn’t advertising: Too often, I hear smart people talk about marketing as if it is only advertising. Advertising is just one way to build a business. There is so much more to marketing: product management, design of referral programs, visual identity, messaging, competitive analysis, collection of customer feedback and ideas, choosing new markets and segments to target, picking company / product / service names, building awareness through savvy PR and promotion, etc. While companies with great products may not need advertising, marketing often plays an important role in the rapid growth of product awareness and usage.
  • Very few products sell themselves: What almost all of the companies featured at the beginning of this post have in common is that they are free Internet services that appeal to a mass market population. While it takes real work to get people to try a free site, application, or service, the barriers to broad adoption are much lower. Products that almost never sell themselves include things that cost money, enterprise products of all types, and niche products that require more work to find first-time buyers and where it is harder to build the powerful cyclone of hype that benefitted almost all of the companies listed above.
  • Media attention matters: There are many companies that have built great products and still remained obscure. What makes the companies featured here special is that they have benefitted enormously from media attention. They all drove frenzied levels of media hype before they even had revenue. While some of this stems from great products and strong growth, much of it comes from thoughtful media strategy, direct press engagement, and charismatic founders who are trained to tell a powerful story.


So, if you have the right kind of great free product, what can marketing do to drive such insane levels of adoption?

Here are a few general principles for marketing a great consumer product:

  • Make sure the consumer experience is awesome: Create mechanisms to understand the user experience, to get constant feedback, and to solicit ideas so that the product keeps getting better and better.
  • Make sure your message is clear: Make sure that the messages about your company, your product or service, the problems that you solve, and the experience of being a customer are clear, consistent, and compelling. Make sure that everyone in your company can tell the same great story.
  • Keep customers coming back for more: Create the right experience for every customer to drive engagement, up sell to paid versions (if that is your model), and minimize churn and abandonment. Measure all of these things and look at the impact of every change on the metrics that matter.

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The Tough Work of Building an Authentic Brand

20 Jun

Let’s start with the bad news: if you have a crappy product or service, you’ll never be able to build a great brand.

In the modern era of personal recommendation, community, and engagement, the best brands are built from authenticity. They derive from purpose. They build customer passion by delivering on commitments that matter. They are an extension of meaningful customer relationships. They are built on trust and shared values.

Building an authentic brand isn’t easy, but there is a roadmap:

1. Start with purpose: The best brands take shape deep within the organization. Before you can talk about your external brand, you need to articulate your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish as a company? What customer problem are you trying to solve? What are you going to do that really matters? Building consensus around purpose can be an explosive, difficult process. But once you find agreement, your purpose will become your most important organizing principle.

2. Make customer commitments: While your purpose is an internal compass, it drives the promises that you will make to your customers. Whether you have articulated them or not, all of your customer relationships are built on implicit and explicit customer commitments. In the same way that Apple customers expect beautiful functional design and Southwest Airline customers expect cheap and efficient air transportation, your customers will evaluate your brand based on their perception of the commitments that you make. There are no exceptions: strong brands are built on strong, consistent customer commitments. If your purpose is your internal reason for being, your customer commitments should be the foundation of your external identity.

3. Invest first in your customer experience: Here is the thing about purpose and commitment: you can’t fake it. If you are just positioning, your brand will fail. So if you have work to do to deliver on your purpose and customer commitments, do that work before you spend time and money on building your brand. A smart marketer once wrote, “If the brand is a promise you make, then the customer experience is the fulfillment of that promise.”

4. Think of your brand as an extension of the customer relationship: A brand, in its simplest form, is what people collectively say, think, and feel about your company, product, or service. It is the relationship that you form through customer experience but also engagement and conversation and community.

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HBR: Customer Interactions Don’t Build Brand Loyalty

31 May

Harvard Business Review published a fascinating piece on the myths of customer engagement. The report, based on a study of more than 7,000 consumers, focuses on three common mistakes: assuming that consumers want a brand relationship, assuming that interactions build loyalty, and assuming that customer stickiness is correlated with the quantity of marketing interactions.

The consumer-focused analysis included three powerful observations that will be useful to any marketer:

(1) Consumers and marketers think about brand relationships very differently.  According to the report, “only 23% of the consumers in our study said they have a relationship with a brand. In the typical consumer’s view of the world, relationships are reserved for friends, family and colleagues. That’s why, when you ask the 77% of consumers who don’t have relationships with brands to explain why, you get comments like “It’s just a brand, not a member of my family.” (What consumers really want when they interact with brands online is to get discounts).”

(2) Your purpose, and not your frequency of interaction, will determine brand loyalty. The core insight is that brand relationships are built on shared values. “Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64% cited shared values as the primary reason. That’s far and away the largest driver. Meanwhile, only 13% cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship.”

(3) Too many marketers over-market in an attempt to drive engagement. According to the report, “there’s no correlation between interactions with a customer and the likelihood that he or she will be “sticky” (go through with an intended purchase, purchase again, and recommend).” There is, however, a significant risk that over-marketing, especially using email, will result in a negative customer experience.

While these are great rules for consumer marketing, it’s interesting to think about how they might apply to business-to-business relationships. The most important difference is that many B2B relationships (but not all) are built on a personal relationship between a sales person or account manager or support person and the end customer. For these sorts of businesses, the personal relationship is an important part of the brand relationship and the quantity of interactions likely does correlate with customer loyalty. But the other rules likely apply without alteration: purpose and shared-values form the foundation of any brand relationship and all marketers, B2B or B2C, need focus on the quality and not the quantity of interactions if they intend to impact brand loyalty.

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Rebranding “Fracking”

31 May

Fracking, the process of extracting deep-seated natural gas reserves with a high pressure combination of water, chemicals and sand, is highly unpopular. While the process raises legitimate environmental concerns, it’s especially interesting that Fracking is broadly unpopular with people who do not even know what the word means.

It seems that the word “fracking” is so strong in its sounds and connotations that people assume it must be a terrible thing. It’s a great example of the power of words and sounds to deliver meaning and feeling even without their definition being known.

According to Marketplace on NPR, an LSU survey of 731 Louisiana residents tested the impact of the word “fracking” on perceptions of the practice. Researchers specifically used the word “fracking” in half the surveys. For the other half, they described the drilling process as “a way to extract natural gas that involves using a high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals to remove natural gas from rocks deep in the earth’s surface” without using the word “fracking”.

So what happened? According to Marketplace, “When study participants did not hear “fracking” in the question, they were far more likely to feel the process is safe and that the state should encourage drilling.”

So what is the energy industry to do? Given a choice, they would no doubt rebrand the process with a much more friendly and euphemistic name. Maybe “deep energy extraction” or “gentle hydraulic extraction.” Unfortunately for the industry, it’s probably too late to rebrand. Fracking is a quick and easy term that is broadly recognized. Also, it doesn’t hurt media companies that use the term that it grabs attention and seems like a bad thing.

For marketers, it’s another strong lesson that names and words matter. And that even basic sounds can deliver strong connotations and meaning.

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