Almost 10 years ago, Simon Hayward, Gartner Fellow, declared:
“Most products are now good enough to serve the majority of users most of the time.”
So, what does that mean for your products today? Bad news: they just aren’t as exciting for your customers as you think they are — not even close. In business-to-business, the days of selling and marketing features and benefits are long gone. For the dog and pony sales engineer, this was a heck of a jolt. For marketing teams pushing ads and developing sales materials to out-feature the competition, it changed their worlds. Commoditization has set in for some time, even in some of the most sophisticated considered purchase environments.
Don’t believe me? Spend some time with your sales force. Even 25 years ago, when I was selling high-value chemical equipment in the Midwest, I could feel the pressure. When I was selling and marketing niche, feature-rich, e-commerce software in the early 2000s, meaningful differentiation in the eyes of buyers was terribly hard to achieve.
Product Parity Is Reality
Even so, I still see B2B marketing teams in companies of all sizes clinging to the last bastions of traditional product marketing, pursuing miniscule points of product differentiation to stand out in a very crowded space. According to Hayward, access to technology has made it such that manufacturers and even software providers aren’t able to create substantive, long-term differentiation at the product feature level in most cases. So, why do we keep trying to market this way? If you don’t believe this type of marketing is still happening, consider how the following three sectors are marketed:
- The electric motor — the most commonly manufactured product in the world. Visit two or three major motor manufacturer websites and check out their energy-efficiency messaging. Do you see anything that catches your eye? Probably not.
- Managed services in IT — Most companies in this space focus their efforts on compiling an extensive list of offerings — without much differences among them — and value propositions that read almost identically. Finding a company that looks significantly different from the others can be difficult.
- Software — Even in the somewhat new CRM/marketing automation market, identifying a leading feature set that truly jumps out is not easy.
Feature for feature, benefit for benefit, everyone has a pretty good story. In this day and age, most products can get the job done. Yet, many companies and professional marketers continue to fight it out over which of their “commodities” are better, despite a fairly clear understanding that this approach just doesn’t work anymore.
Forget Products; Sell Prowess
If you’re a professional marketer, you’re no doubt familiar with the “four Ps” of marketing: Product, Place, Price and Promotion. As noted, in B2B, we spend a lot of our Promotion efforts emphasizing the fine points of our Product to little avail. If that’s where your marketing is stuck, I propose a simple change to elevate your efforts.
Focus on the fifth “P”: Prowess.
Why? Because joining and even leading a discussion that tackles your industry’s biggest pain points is a lot more compelling to your target audience. SiriusDecisions made it clear in a study from a few years ago that business buyers’ most valued supplier characteristic is industry expertise — significantly more than product knowledge (Salesforce).
provided further insight in one of their studies where they showed that 74 percent of decision makers buy from the company that creates a buying vision — those who make compelling connections between pressing, longer-term business issues and the offerings they deliver.
Buyers want a company with industry knowledge, know-how, commitment and vision, i.e., companies that demonstrate Prowess. The functional value of one of the other “P’s”, Product, is table stakes. Your company wouldn’t be viable if the product didn’t fulfill its intended role. So, stop harping on why it’s so great. Of course, it is!
Change Your Story and Lead the Dialog
Sixty percent of the decision-making process is completed before a buyer reaches out to a seller (source: CEB). As buyers conduct their own research, their decision to short-list you as an option won’t hinge on a percentage-point difference in operating efficiency or a software feature that saves their operation a few minutes a day. Your first impression during these early phases of the buying process needs to align with what they’re really looking for: vision; intellect; leadership; industry stewardship; empathy for the big issues their company is facing. Those are commanding first impressions.
Consider two powerful examples from industrial business-to-business:
- A compressor manufacturer transforms its marketing efforts to assume a leadership stance on the industry’s transition to low-GWP Doing so allows OEMs and end users alike to envision how they can meet internal sustainability goals while also complying with emerging regulations.
- A process equipment manufacturer focuses major portions of its marketing budget to help address the issue of global access to potable water, creating industry-wide awareness of the role every member of their industry value chain can play in serving a greater good in Third World countries.
Buyers are drawn to bigger stories that create vision — industry knowledge and expertise that solves bigger issues they’re dealing with. If your company has the intellectual capital to change the discussion and the impression of your business, use it to your advantage. It’s not easy and takes time, but with leadership commitment and redirection of some internal resources, you can redefine your message and make potential customers pay close attention to your fifth P: your industry Prowess.
With the number of products you’re competing with on a daily basis, do you really have another option?
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