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Your Product or Service--What Do You MEAN?

Posted by Bill Lee on April 17, 2012 at 02:28 PM

From the April edition of Reference Point.

Gaining customer references and other advocates--and inspiring them to communicate passionately about your firm--are the bedrock for growing a business. Many firms, particularly B2B firms, get hung up on the utility of their products and services; things like business impact and ROI. 

The usefulness of a product or service is important of course, but more important is it's meaning. Its intangible and emotional impacts are far more critical to selling it, marketing it, and in forming a customer community around it. Be aware of--or if need be, figure out--what your product or service means to your customer advocates. Explore this with them in the case studies you do together, their  testimonials and speeches and other communications. That's what will engage the emotions of your audience and, as the saying goes, reason makes people think, but emotion makes people--including the buyers you're trying to influence--act. 

Here's a few things to keep in mind on this.   

1. More companies-including very likely yours-can create meaning around their products or services than think they can. A data storage system, for example, might give its CIO customers a deep sense of security that their data will be there when they need it. Or provide an enjoyable experience when they interface with it. The vendor may have an exceptional, visionary CTO who shares his insights and expertise with the customer community, making them feel secure that they're on the cutting edge of important trends like virtualization. Hitachi Data Systems has created all of these "meanings" in its products and services. 

The best example I've found is from the B2C world. Procter & Gamble has created deep meaning for teen-age girls around - of all things - it's feminine care products. This is one of the last lines of products you'd think you can do that with. But P&G has formed a superbly successful community of teen age girls around these products--called BeingGirl. Their meaning? They symbolize the difficult, exciting, scary transition into woman hood. The BeingGirl community gives them a way to share with other your woman on the challenges they face at this important point in their lives. 

2. You can change the meaning of your product or service. 

Harley Davidson motorcycles mean much more to Harley riders than an alternative form of transportation. In the 60s and 70s, Harleys were associated with gangs and outlaws. Harley worked hard to change not the motorcycles, but their meaning. 

They began getting police departments to use them, placing themselves on the right side of the law. Then they helped its reputable customers--middle aged, prosperous men--to build one of the great customer communities in the world, HOGs (Harley Owners Group) which now numbers in the millions. They take trips together and organize local and national events. What do Harleys mean now? "Family - the brothers (and now sisters) you always wanted!" 

#3. One of the best ways to instill meaning into a product or service is when it enters into a poorly served market. 

That's what Marc Benioff did when he started Salesforce.com -- perhaps the most successful business software company in the last decade. Benioff positioned his products as everything the established products weren't. Frustrated customers for years had to pay huge up front fees, enter into long-term contracts, and found the softward to be complex and difficult to use. And they had to pay more huge fees if they wanted to modify their software.

A SFDC customer could demo the product for free, found it much simpler to use, and could buy it under a simple monthly contract that he could cancel at any time. SFDC's platform came to mean freedom and independence from the onerous products its competitors produced--a tremendous value proposition that these same customers were eager to communicate to new buyers. 

#4 Look for unexpected meaning you may not realize exists--particularly with customers you never expected to get. 

Recently, I was helping a good friend of mine who was going through a painful divorce. She'd moved into her new house and was faced with all the stuff you have to do -- contractors, store her accumulated stuff, organize the house, hang pictures, etc. We went down to a local hardware store to buy tools and supplies that she'd need, and as the shopping basket filled with hammer, wrench, pliers, measuring tape--I finally said, "You need a tool box." 

I don't think she knew what a tool box was, but when I got one and placed all her new stuff neatly into a compact, easy to carry plastic box--she want over the moon. "I LOVE my toolbox," she said. I cracked up. This is a sophisticated, senior executive at a major corporation we're talking about, raving about a tool box! Why? Because of its meaning. She was establishing her independence and self-reliance. When it came to taking care of her new house and turning it into a home, the stuff she'd need would always be right there, neatly stored away in her toolbox--the very symbol of her growing sense of autonomy. What does YOUR product or service MEAN to your customers? What COULD it mean?

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