And now for my next act . . . in just nine words, I will transform a sack of brown beans into an aspiration.
Go me! Try that with artificial intelligence! Over centuries of trade, we marketers have not only mastered principles of supply and demand, but how to craft a killer product pitch. “This obsidian buffalo hide scraper is unlike any hide scraper you’ve ever used!” No doubt a speil familiar to our ancient ancestors.
Our cleverness aims at avoiding a persistent fate that has existed since the dawn of commerce: getting dragged into the Abyss of Sameness. An omnipresent danger, even today. My perfunctory online research provides a glimpse into our fear: Products are becoming commodities receives 2,320 search results. Twenty percent more than I forgot my wife’s birthday, which gets 1,830. Business executives stress over commoditization, and its undesirable accompaniments: low margins, knock-offs, customer churn – and, if you’re a vendor, the dread of hearing, “yeah, everybody sells pretty much the same thing . . .” Please, no!
What’s in the Can? In 1980, I began a job managing IT for Graphic Fine Color (GFC), a printing ink manufacturer. If you’re not bowled over with intrigue, you’re not alone. But you also have insight about GFC’s marketing problem: ink is pretty blah. What could be more banal than a gloppy liquid that few people see before printing presses spread it onto business forms, brochures, product labels? I’ve tried explaining the product to friends. I’ve broached the subject with strangers. Same result: nobody notices ink, or cares much about it. But, if you’re willing to endure my passionate soliloquy on the topic, you will know by the end there’s nothing ordinary about this ubiquitous substance, or its manufacture.
GFC had a wonderfully interesting story to tell its customers. So in 1982, it created a low-budget marketing piece that I keep on my desk. An 8-page booklet titled, What’s in the Can? End-to-end, the booklet contains about 100 words and about 50 black-and-white photos, and takes less time to read than Goodnight Moon. But given its brevity, What’s in the Can? releases a flood of pent-up value.
Each picture shows employees performing different jobs. Weighing, mixing, milling, labeling, shipping, quality assurance, product development, accounting, and on-site customer support. Even sales! What’s in the Can? doesn’t include chemical formulas. You won’t find any explanatory captions, hype, self-assigned praise or customer testimonials. None are needed. Pride oozes from every photo. Since I left GFC, I have never looked at a five-pound can of Pantone 188 red the same way.
Problem solved. What’s in the Can? made invisible value visible – a plucky achievement for a small, hole-in-the-wall industrial manufacturer back in the marketing stone ages – the time before social media and big data made CMO’s into IT demigods. Fast forward 30 years to 2012, and we hear Facebook’s VP of Engineering, Jay Parikh, opine a similar challenge about value. In a few months, he said, “no one will care that you have 100 petabytes of data in your warehouse.” I know that feel, bro. But don’t worry. If you can make invisible value visible for printing ink, you can do it for anything.
Here are four valuable things that could be concealed inside your product, along with ways some companies have made them visible to customers:
Data and Information: “CIOs, CFOs and, increasingly, CMOs know data has value. The key is figuring out how much value,” wrote Nicole Laskowski in an article, Infonomics Treats Data as a Business Asset. “More than 80% of business executives surveyed by Gartner believe data is on the balance sheet, tucked under other intangible assets.” In fact, this is not true, according to Gartner Analyst Doug Laney. Even companies like Facebook, Google, and Nielsen do not monetize their data anywhere on their financial statements. This is odd, considering that it meets the accounting definition of an asset: a) it can be exchanged for cash, b) it can be owned by an entity, c) it generates probable future benefits (Gartner).
Companies are finding ways to release the value of data through providing it to customers. General Electric offers customers insight about probable failures through embedded sensors in equipment, and advanced analytics. “Even a seemingly low-tech company like John West, a U.K. canned-seafood manufacturer, is figuring out how to use data to enhance the customer experience. To provide visibility into its sustainability practices, the company tags the fish it catches, gathers data on where its fish are caught and then makes that data available to consumers. The consumer may not be purchasing company data outright, but the data is helping sell the product,” according to TechTarget.
On the other hand, the aftermath of the Apple-FBI case has created new caution for application developers, who are “racing to employ a variety of tools that would place customer information beyond the reach of a government-ordered search,” according to a May 25, 2016 Washington Post article, A Shift Away from Big Data. “The trend is a striking reversal of a long-standing article of faith in the data-hungry tech industry, where companies including Google and the latest start-ups have predicated success on the ability to hoover up as much information as possible about consumers . . . The sea change is also becoming evident among early-stage companies that see holding so much data as more of a liability than an asset, given the risk that cybercriminals or government investigators might come knocking.”
Product durability and quality. How many prospective customers think about – let alone know about – components that churn deep within a product? Mostly, buyers just want their purchase to work right out of the box, and they pay fleeting attention to a product’s innards.
Manufacturers have responded through improved engineering quality and materials. Those not only benefit consumer experiences, they save manufacturers significant expense for warranty service and product returns. Some products have become so dependable that consumers are no longer delighted. That creates a sales issue: how to get customers excited when a product simply turns on, runs, moves, behaves, or performs exactly as expected.
Auto makers, for example, have practically eliminated body rust and transmission breakdowns. But today’s buyers aren’t wowed. They’ve moved on, craving amenities like spacious cup holders plentifully scattered throughout the vehicle, Bluetooth connectivity, and nifty interior lighting. By 2025, consumers will even yawn at gas mileage ratings. “Who cares? Every car gets over 54.5.”
Car companies solved this selling issue by repackaging the value of product durability into something that consumers can appreciate without having to pop the hood or crawl underneath a car: plump warranty extensions. Subaru now gives warranties of 5 years or 60,000 miles covering “the engine block and all internal parts, cylinder heads and valve trains, oil pump, oil pan, timing belts or gears and cover, water pump, flywheel, intake and exhaust manifolds, oil seals and gaskets.” The average buyer won’t invest time learning what a flywheel does, where it is, what it looks like, or what it’s made of. They won’t memorize a list of components they won’t likely ever see. But they will latch onto “5 years, 60,000 miles. No extra charge!”
Employee loyalty and rapport with customers. These valuable characteristics are not always immediately visible to prospects. But a software company I worked for leveraged this strength through a seemingly-generous contract term: in the first 12 months of implementation, customers could receive a full refund for the software – which could cost up to $500,000 – if they were dissatisfied for any reason. In fact, company’s risks were ridiculously low. The trick – if you want to call it that – was that in over 10 years, no customer had ever requested a refund.
Large software implementations can be infamous for glitches, gotcha’s hiccups, fits, starts, and bugs. A dollar for every time a newly-installed customer began a conversation with, “But I thought . . .” would buy my family a nice dinner out and theatre tickets. The software company’s ability to bring qualified staff to customer projects – and to retain that staff over full implementations – enabled rapport and trust that customers were loath to break. Prospects loved the satisfaction-or-your-money-back assurance before accepting the uncertainties of a massive project implementation, and it was easy to provide.
Corporate Social Responsibility, honesty, and ethical sourcing. Head to the website of Oboz – short for Outside Bozeman (Montana) – and you will read: “When you buy a pair of Oboz [footwear], we plant one more tree.”
Visit Organic Valley’s website, and you’ll see a lovely photo of wind turbines, adjacent the message: “As farmers, we work closely with the Earth and Mother Nature—and we need to take care of the soil that feeds us. It’s our mission to reach a fully sustainable operation, from our farms to our offices, and through every step of our supply chain.”
Apparel maker Patagonia touts its products as Fair Trade Certified, and shares its commitment to paying its employees a living wage.
Until recently, few cared whether purchases had direct connections to environmental sustainability, employee well-being, or labor practices in a faraway continent. But today, those things matter. In many instances, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become so intertwined with products, the two can’t be teased apart.
Awareness of CSR skyrocketed in 2013, following two horrific events. First, in April, a factory in Bangladesh suffered a building collapse that killed over 1,100 workers. Americans learned that Walmart had been a major customer for the factory’s output, even though Walmart stated that it was “unaware that their apparel was being made in such factories,” according to an article in The New York Times . Then, Apple faced allegations of child labor, forced overtime, and illegal 66-hour working weeks at factories that were producing its beloved iPhones.
Overnight, knowledge about human suffering made it less fun to diddle on iPhones, or to crow about bargains on kids clothes. People faced a new conundrum, happily absent when supply chains were more opaque: if we choose to be ignorant of the misery others incur to make the things we might want to buy, what does that say about our humanity?
So, it’s not surprising that for some companies, ethical conscientiousness has emerged from its hiding place in the executive suite, and moved into the forefront of sales and marketing. This is a positive development, as it has led executives to voice unequivocal stands on important social issues that matter to employees, customers, and communities.
What’s unclear is how a company’s well-intentioned ethics sway customer buying decisions. For example, a 2012 survey by Perception Research Services International reported that while 76% of consumers indicated that they would be more likely to buy a product bearing a Made in USA label, but “just 21% said they would definitely pay slightly higher prices to buy American-made products.”
The Abyss of Sameness. Commoditization. The perception that products lack differentiation. These conditions represent failure to find and expose hidden value. If executives want to avoid these circumstances, and create value for customers, they will find opportunity by examining “what’s in the can,” and innovating ways to release it.