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How to Get Your Message Heard in a Crowded Market

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One of my favorite marketing articles is "Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure," written by innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen, Intuit cofounder Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall of the Advertising Research Foundation.

Published in the December 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review, the article teaches important lessons about developing and differentiating products in today's crowded markets, including crafting the most effective messages.

Wrong From the Start

Christensen and his coauthors point out that product developers and marketers often set themselves up for failure right from the start by defining target segments in terms of customer types (contractors, homeowners, small businesses, large corporations) instead of customer needs. To develop and promote products that make headway in crowded markets—or even expand markets—companies should focus on the "job" that customers want accomplished.

Their article expands on the legendary observation made by Harvard Business School marketing professor Ted Levitt: People don't want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.


Almost every marketer has heard this maxim, but many fail to act on it.

The Right Approach

Look at the "job" performed by McDonald's shakes, the authors write. Observing and interviewing shake buyers and sales patterns, researchers found that a surprising number of shake sales were made during breakfast hours. Researchers discovered that many people who bought these morning shakes had long, boring commutes and needed something that would last most of their commute so they wouldn't be hungry again at 10 a.m.

In other words, these customers bought the shakes to perform a specific job: to satisfy their hunger and allay their boredom while being quick and convenient to purchase and easy to consume behind the wheel.

Christensen and his coauthors give examples of what McDonald's might do to improve its shakes' performance of this "job" and hence increase morning shake sales: Include fruit to make people feel more positive about the shakes' nutritional value. Sell prepaid cards to speed checkout, and include a card dispenser next to the register. No doubt you can come up with a few ideas yourself.

"Wait just a minute," you're thinking, "Didn't they end up with a new customer segment—long-distance morning commuters?" Absolutely. Their point is that the conventional way of slicing and dicing customers into segments overlooks opportunities. By homing in on a cluster of customers united by the "job" they use your product for, you have a better chance of finding an untapped segment.

What's more, the "jobs" approach advocated by Christensen, Cook, and Hall not only helps in designing better products but also lends crucial insight into the best way to promote products.

Building Brand Equity

In the authors' words: "Most of today's great brands...started out as just this kind of purpose brand. The product did the job, and customers talked about it. This is how brand equity is built."

Conversely, they argue, when a brand doesn't "signal to customers when they should and should not buy the product, marketers run the risk that people might hire their product to do a job it was not designed to do."

Here are some examples of companies that have taken a "jobs" approach to product marketing:

The content management system (CMS) market is a crowded one, yet recently I heard Ektron recommended as the best CMS for companies needing to translate Web pages and other content into multiple languages for foreign markets. Ektron seized on an unmet need that is independent of company size or customer type (B2B vs. B2C).

Another company, SpaceClaim, has introduced a 3D modeling product into another very crowded space, product design tools for engineers. The company recognized that different users of 3D modeling products needed different jobs done, and moved in to exploit that difference to its advantage.

Both SpaceClaim and computer-aided design (CAD) solutions can build 3D models. But the very features that make CAD so powerful also make it relatively slow at making revisions. Thus it's best suited for users who want to create close-to-final designs.

SpaceClaim, by contrast, allows for fast revisions and hence is better suited for use by upstream engineers and designers who need to quickly model ideas and change them many times before the final design is committed to CAD.

SpaceClaim accordingly needs to concentrate its messaging on "rapidly create and revise 3D models."

What It Means for You

Many companies in crowded markets continue to go head to head against vendors with similar (or better) products. It's scary to narrow your focus to a smaller set of prospects, but if you address their needs—the "jobs" they want done—before your competitors do, you can boost wins, revenues, and morale.

Re-examine how you talk about your product on your website and in your marketing materials. Are you emphasizing a product category ("The Leading Direct Modeler") or segment by vertical focus or size of customer ("Talent Management for Small Businesses")? Or are you emphasizing the job your product does uniquely ("Rapidly Create and Revise 3D Models")? If those shopping for solutions to their problems don't know the buzzword for your category, will they miss you because your materials assume everyone does?

In sum, in crowded markets look for a niche defined by unmet or poorly met needs (not necessarily correlated to size or vertical). Prioritize product enhancements to capture that "job-defined" segment.

And if your product already addresses those needs better than the competition, reorient your messaging to speak to that that "job-defined" segment.

Kathryn Roy is managing partner of Precision Thinking (precisionthinking.com), a consulting firm helping B2B technology companies boost the effectiveness of their marketing and sales organizations. Reach her via Kathryn@precisionthinking.com or follow her on Twitter @kroy1


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Kathryn Roy is managing partner of Precision Thinking (www.precisionthinking.com), a consulting firm helping B2B technology companies boost the effectiveness of their marketing and sales organizations. Reach her via Kathryn@precisionthinking.com or Twitter (@karoy1).

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  • by Erik Charles - CNY MMA Mon Jul 12, 2010 via web

    Right on. I own multiple Martial Arts schools and this is exactly what I tell my staff. Find out why they want to do Martial Arts and then show them a program that can help them accomplish that goal. Thanks for sharing!

  • by Barbara Bix Tue Aug 3, 2010 via web

    Kathryn,

    Thanks for another great article! Companies are so much more noticeable when they don't blend into the crowd.

    When I present our interview results to clients looking to understand their unique value, many are often surprised to learn what their customers really valued most about their offer.

    Like MacDonald's where entertainment was as or more important than hunger, the unique value is a) not always obvious and b) elevates their messages above the competition. Instead, the "obvious" is just the price of market entry. It's the unique twist that elevates the company above the crowd in the eyes--not in everyone's eyes--but in the eyes of its most promising prospects!

    With limited resources, companies can't afford not to narrow their focus to the special requirements of those who most value what they have to offer.

    This maxim is even more true for B2B companies with long expensive sales cycles than it is to consumers. Sharp value props that resonate with prospects can knock months off the sales cycle--often a better outcome than getting the price premium that great positioning also commands.

  • by SEAN CLARK Thu Aug 5, 2010 via web

    Excellent post and a nice reminder for most.. The HBR piece is still one on my top 10 list..
    Unfortunately though, too many marketing pro's insist on ignoring the obvious, choosing instead to pound with the same dull hammer.

    I fondly refer to this still rather large group as the smokers. They still don't get it. And for those that do, they'd rather not..


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