awareness and preference

If marketing’s selfless role is as customer advocate, it’s fiscal role is in building consumer preference for the company’s product over the competition’s.

Before a consumer can prefer a product he must be aware of it. Advertising primarily exists to build awareness. This can be done with TV commercials, print ads in magazines or the yellow pages, flyer canvassing, radio, internet web sites and ads, or simply having a good physical location and signage. Appropriate and effective advertising depends greatly on the type of business, and how customers purchase the product in question. Suffice it say, advertising in some manner is a fundamental requirement.

Apart from simply informing the masses your company exists, it has to convince the prospective buyer that your product is better than the next guy’s product. How is that done? To come to a specific conclusion, it depends largely on what the buyer’s motivations are. Your company must come to an understanding of its buying audience and what it is they want, what they need, what is most important to them, and why they are buying.

There are trends that are true of generations and eras, and your company should be reading sources that are identifying today’s shifting macro trends. There are also trends within industries, and again your company should be reading whatever sources may be available to identify those. If possible, your company should be conducting its own conversations with customers to understand what they want first hand. Sometimes customers can’t express what they want because they have no experience or expectations of what is possible. Who would have ever said they wanted a hoola-hoop before it existed? So, while surveys aren't the end-all answer to determining customer desires, they shouldn't be ignored as a tool either.

Additionally, there are phases that markets go through. New markets are often defined by a new technology. In that market, the technology itself is enough to establish an identity. However, technology capabilities will escalate competitively until they are equal (real or perceived), or until they extend beyond what the average user will make use of. At such a point, the product has become a commodity regardless of how complex it is. To the end user, if competitive products are equal, they are commodities. At this point, the focus changes from technological features to “software features” like price, reliability, durability, or support. As I discussed earlier, these elements are just as much a part of the product as its materials. After some time, this new competitive territory is also equalized. The products are again perceived to be the same, and new competitive attributes must be battled for.

Today’s global economy has changed the shape of marketing and competition from only a few years ago. In virtually every product category whether it is consumer or business-to-business, where there used to be a handful of regional or national competitors, there are now dozens of worldwide competitors providing equal access to features and capabilities in their products. Where marketing success was once largely dominated by an advantage in product, price, or distribution; today, in many product categories, these elements are equalized, and a new differentiation is required.

As markets move from regional to global levels, new competitive lines are drawn. Companies accustomed to dominating a regional market, may find themselves at a disadvantage in the global arena. We’ve all seen the impact that global competition has had on the automobile industry. The US manufacturers, used to dominating in their home turf, had to rethink their products and their relationship with customers. I have worked in a business-to-business market which over the past decade has become globalized. American companies used to competing with each other have had to rapidly adapt to foreign competition in the US, and have had to bolster their presence and competitiveness abroad as their customers seek multi-national solutions. In such a market environment, product features quickly became secondary issues to customer’s larger business management concerns.

The winners in today’s competitive and global business arena are increasingly being defined by their “software.” In this sense, software is a generic term for the element of the product that is not physically tangible. Products that are being perceived as equal are being chosen by consumers based on the experience they have in, or as a result of, acquiring a product rather than the physical goods themselves.

Luxury goods have always been sold primarily based on their emotional appeal rather than their physical features. Does a designer watch keep time better? Does a luxury car get you work sooner? Does an expensive fur keep you warmer than a good sweater and jacket? No, but these functions aren’t the primary reason they were selected. Today, automobile manufacturers are having to compete with the identity their vehicles create for their buyer rather than with the features of the auto itself. Retailers have to compete with the services they offer rather than their product lines. Malls and gambling casinos have to compete with architecture and environment rather than their stores and games. The traditional competitive attributes are shifting. Your company may need to look at its products and determine whether the traditional competitive issues are changing.

One more thing I'll note--people buy products for one of two reasons: to increase pleasure, or to decrease pain. We buy things like cars and furniture to increase our pleasure. We buy things like car alarms and homeowner’s insurance to reduce pain. We don’t buy refrigerators because we get pleasure from having or using them, but they certainly reduce the amount of hassle involved with storing food, and certain features decrease that hassle by varying levels. If you realize whether your product increases pleasure, or reduces pain, then you can emphasize how it does that better than the competitor’s product.