Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2004

The Symptoms of Product Strategy Problems

Unfortunately, the symptoms of a flawed product strategy show up all over the company, and groups as diverse as sales and customer support end up battling a problem whose genesis was in marketing and engineering.  At bottom, a flawed product strategy means that the Product does not match up with the Promise (aka value proposition), is not correctly Priced, and doesn't have a coherent Prospect (aka customer).  This is a variation of the venerable "Four P's of Marketing," but it causes the most obvious problems in sales.  The red flags of a problematic product:

  • Poor press and analyst reviews.  The press will rarely identify product strategy is the problem, but they'll sometimes put you in the wrong product category and will usually say you have a crummy product.  Good analysts will pinpoint product strategy as the issue, bad ones will simply ignore you.

  • Difficulty getting leads and low sales volume.  Attendance for your marketing events is low, and prospects lose interest early in the sales cycle.

  • There isn't a coherent way to talk about our value proposition.  Every prospect seems to be buying something different.

  • Sales cycles are erratic, take too long, and do not seem to be reproducible.  Your best reps can sell around this, but it still takes too long.  The average rep flounders.

  • Customers almost always buy your product in conjunction with somebody else's.  You are selling a fragment of the real product.

  • Customers are always demanding (different) customizations and extensive services.  Your product is either too small (not enough features to support the needed value) or too shallow (trying to cover too many bases). 

  • High degree of shelfware.  Your rep made the sale, but the customer cannot use what you sold them.

The most severe product strategy problems are Corporate Strategy Problems -- fallacies about your business and the market you can serve.  

The antidote for marketing fallacies:  focus on the customer - not yourself.   Describe the characteristics of customers and situations where you add unique value, where there is literally no substitute.  Understand who the customer is and why they are willing to pay.  Understand the limits of the customer segment -- the grouping of customers with like minds.  Your segment could be a micro-vertical (call center operations for the travel industry), a business process (reverse logistics and product recalls), a job title (CFOs and their immediate staff), or a platform (developers using BEA and UML) 

Remember that the market positions you, you don't position yourself.

IT Marketing Fallacies -- Here are my nominees for The All-Time Greatest Hits 
(with some telling questions to detect them)

Chinese marketing:  There are a billion people in China, and if we could get just 1% of them....
- Do you have a product the Chinese really want and can use? 
- Can they afford your product?
- Do you have the connections in China to begin distribution?

Clueless Customers marketing:  Nobody seems to know they need our product yet
- Have you fallen victim to The Innovator's Dilemma?
     Do enough people really have the problem?
- Can you afford to educate the market that isn't even aware of its pain yet?

"No there there" marketing:  There really isn't a market here
- Are there really buyers and sellers with consistent preferences and buying patterns?
- Or are there really only sporadic flashes of need and one-off demand?
- Can you afford to wait for a market to form?

The Customer is Me marketing:  I can see a need for this, so there have to be customers
- You've noticed this problem that nobody is solving...
- Does anybody else identify this as a problem?
- Have you talked with prospects about how they solve the problem today?

Size Doesn't Matter marketing:   Microsoft can do it, so can we
- Will customers find you credible, and what will force them to follow you?
- Do you have the technological fire power?
- Do you have the overall resources, and the will to bet everything?

Next Generation marketing:  For people who've gone beyond the market leader, we're the next step
- Is the market leader really asleep at the wheel?
- How long would it take for them to extend their product?
- How many people are really frustrated with the current generation product?

Broken Watch marketing:  Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.  
Nothing is as pitiful a market whose time has passed.
- Was your market doing great, and then went flat-line?
Why must the market demand come back?
- How many of the incumbents will survive?   Is there really room for one more?

Hail Mary  marketing: I only have 90 days of cash, so let's really turn on the gas!
- Is your sales cycle that fast?  Would a full pipe on day 80 make a difference?
- Wouldn't it be better to make special limited-time offers to the prospects and 
customers who already know you?

Avis marketing:  We're going to clone the success of Cisco/Veritas/Oracle...
- Does your market leader really have a clone?   Does your market want one? (Hint:  no)
- Can you duplicate their total solution?   Their perceived value?
- Can you duplicate their people, technology, timing, and luck?

Vegetarian Soccer-Playing Lesbian marketing:  We're going very narrow and deep
Why have you overconstrained your customer definition?
- Are there product limitations that severely narrow its application?
- Are there going to be enough customers for your use-case?

Boutique Commodity marketing:  "We specialize in all cars, foreign and domestic"
- Are you really specialized or are you good enough at a lot of things?
- What do customers believe you are good at?
- What kind of customer would you say "no" to?

We'll Make Money from Standards marketing: We can do what Iona and Tivoli did in '92
- OSF technologies were the exception to this rule:  will the market pay extra for standards?
- Is there a big gap between the demand and supply for standard technology?
- Will this opportunity last for more than a few months?

We'll Make Money Competing with Standards / Open Source / Gorilla Platforms marketing
        - Is your product 200% better or more powerful than the commodity?
Why will people use your product?
- What political / cultural obstacles would your product face?

Incomplete Marketing:  A feature equals a product equals a value proposition
- Is your product really a product, or a feature of something more useful?
- Is your product really an accessory to other products?
- Is the rest of your company (business model, sales, support) up to snuff?

Boutique Infrastructure marketing:  division by zero error
- Will the big companies that need your infrastructure be willing to buy from you?
- Are there any small companies (who would buy from you) that need your infrastructure?
Why would Gartner or Meta Group recommend your product?

Somebody's Got to Need What I Make marketing
- What problem does What-You-Make solve?
- Who has this problem, really?
- Why would they pay you to solve it?

Instant Repositioning marketing:  We need to reposition without changing our product
- On what basis should the market believe something new about you?
- Why have customers stopped buying?
- How will you erase your current position from the market?

Field of Dreams marketing: If we build it, they will come
- If you build it, will they care?
- Exactly who is the customer?
- If they come, is it a profitable business?

First Mover Advantage marketing:  Can you say "bubble"?
- Is the advantage being there first, or being big first?
- How long can you stay that far ahead?
- Do mainstream buyers buy the first-to-market?

20% Better marketing:   My mouse trap will be 20% better than Victor's
- Along which performance / value angles do customers really care whether it's better?
- Is 20% enough, or is 200% better all that will make a difference?
- How long would it take the incumbent to get 20% better?

Shoot the Moon marketing: I only want to talk to the CIO / CEO
- Does the CxO actually know anything about your product category?
- Does the CxO make any of the decisions about your product type?
- Do you know who in the organization really does use your kind of product?

New Category marketing:: We've defined some obscure area where we are the leader
- Has nobody but your CEO has ever heard of this area or the terminology you use??
- Do any analysts or press think of this as a valid market space?
- Even if it's true, does it sound fake?   Does any customer care about your differentiation point?
- Can you afford the costs and delay of creating a new market category?

At the end of the day, the customer doesn't really want to learn about you - they just want to know if you can solve their particular problem.  If you truly understand who your prospect is, and put yourself in the customer's shoes, you'll be along way down the path of avoiding marketing and product strategy problems.

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