I’m a person who likes to keep things in perspective. In the world of marketing, where everything has to be unique and improved and transformative and on-of-a-kind, I like to ask, “What are we really selling?” This tends to bring things down to earth pretty quickly. It also helps clarify the real value of that thing – what need does it fill? How do people think about it?

When I was marketing financial services, I would often think about this question. We were selling credit cards, loans, checking accounts, investments, and online banking. To elevate those products, we would put a branded wrapper on them and talk about their special features. But still, what were we selling? 

I finally decided that at their core, financial services are the tools that make personal economies run. It’s not the checking account or credit card people care about. It’s the ability to buy stuff that’s important. And if you want bigger stuff, you find out that a loan might come in handy. So essentially I was marketing the stuff that helps people get the stuff they really want.

Making the lights come on

Financial services fit into a category of necessities that people don’t pay much mind to until they cease to work. My Dad the nuclear engineer used to talk about electricity this way. He said that for the most part people don’t care where their electricity comes from – as long as it works. They’re satisfied if they can flip a switch and the lights come on. Financial services are perhaps one step above a pure utility in that customers may actually care about a particular feature of their credit card – like points or cash back – but it’s still pretty basic.

Products and services occupy different planes when it comes to how much a customer cares about them. And sometimes it’s not the product at all, but the brand, that makes the difference. It can be instructive to do this exercise yourself. Try asking, what are we really selling?

It may be different than what you think

Service companies will often come to believe that the service itself is the thing. That makes sense because of how immersed they are in fine-tuning every detail. But the customer may not think of it the same way. It’s important to look at what the customer gets out of it.

A home remodel company, for example, may rightly be focused on their process from bid to build to cleanup. But for the customer, that’s just a means to an end. The customer is thinking about their new environment – for them, it’s about the reinvention or renewal that comes with having an updated home. Understanding and tapping into these core benefits is the result of asking that question: What are you really selling?

The essence of a product 

This can be applied to physical products as well. The people who build the product can often become too close to the technology, always adding new bells and whistles. Recently, I learned about a vacuum cleaner with a speaker and smart phone attachment that would allow the user to listen to music while cleaning up. It reminded me of when Kirin Beer introduced a plastic mini-keg that included a built-in lazy susan. It also featured a dragon on top that would whistle when you pour. 

Now, I’m a fan of whimsey and invention, but I’m not sure if these bells and whistles really answer the question of what customers are looking for when they buy vacuums and beer. A good vacuum represents pride in cleanliness and shows that the user cares about their home. Beer is, well, beer. Perhaps the more you drink the more entertaining the lazy susan becomes, but then the opposite might also be true. 

When you understand the true essence of your product or service – what your customer is really buying – then you can focus your messaging, service, and product enhancements to make sure customers are getting more of what they’re looking for.

Copyright Liz Behlke 2021