Over the recent years, many seminars, conferences and in-services have been advertised, featuring anything from a twenty-minute speech to a multi-day workshop session in “How to Market” (to the special needs). As an advocate to the “expectation-delivery” concept of marketing/communications, I have always found it difficult to understand how such short-term stimuli from the giver can lead to any sort of meaningfully retained and applicable behavior and knowledge for the receiver. In fact, such an experience could even lead to more damage than dimension for the marketer. Marketing/communications planning, as with any professional skill, requires appropriate levels of study, experiment, experience, and passion to be practiced successfully and sequentially.
With this in mind, therefore, I would like to offer this very simple model for understanding the premise of planning for effective, solid marketing/communications for any sort of product/service industry. This is not meant to be the core formula that can be used to write a formal marketing/communications plan, nor is it a panacea for all the problems that marketing/communications can solve.
It is, more or less, a beginning. A point to start the thought process regarding the ultimate yield of the marketing/communications plan — the successful exchange and agreement of product/service worth between the buyer and the seller. A premise for the actual planning process and procedure that leads to a well-written, well-rationalized, and well-received program.
I call it the three “Knows ” of marketing/communications — Know your donor/advocate/customers, Know your product/services, and Know your competition. With a thorough understanding of these three critical components, the basis of a marketing/communications effort can successfully be forged. Let’s now examine these three “Knows” a bit more closely.
Know Your Donor/Advocate/Customer
Maybe in your industry they’re referred to by different names. But they are still your customers. They look to you to provide products and services with an assurance and an expertise that directly meets a real need. Without a deep and current understanding of the needs, attitudes, and behaviors of your customers, you cannot hope to effectively communicate in a truly competitive and meaningful fashion. Perhaps one of the most important advantages that a product/service provider can have is the acute knowledge of the customer.
The very important landmark book in the field of organizational management and development, “In Search Of Excellence,” proclaims that of all those attributes that are characteristic of the forty-three most well run American companies, “closeness to the customer” is the most important. The customer is the sole reason that a provider remains in business. Without demand and usage of a product or service, there would be little need for availability and probably even less need for expense. If this simple fact is recognized, then the primary concept of knowing everything that the provider can know about the customer becomes more than evident.
Research the attitude and opinion of the customer. Ask questions about their expectations and delivery of your product/service. Ask often, and ask objectively. Don’t become a victim of the “image-perception” syndrome in marketing/communications. This is the unfortunate state of events whereby the marketer decides that it is more accurate to judge what the customer wants from the marketer based on the marketer’s self-assessment. This is “image.” This is what the product/service provider sees when looking in the mirror each morning. It is those attributes of which marketer is most familiar and comfortable. It is the status quo of the provider’s business ego. It is the self-proclaimed competitive advantage that is offered to the customer. It is only one column on a page. It is the pros without the cons.
But the marketer’s “image” may be very much out of alignment with the customer’s impression. This is called “perception.” It is what the customer actually sees, not what the marketer wants the customer to see. It is the reality of competitive advantage, because it is defined by the customer (the most important reason that the marketer is in business in the first place). It is the photograph of the marketer’s appeal, revealing the pros as well as the cons. It demonstrates to the marketer that the customer evaluates all aspects of the product/service in two very distinct columns — what is quality and what is not. Quality is a moniker that should be given to those attributes that are multi-dimensional, consistently positive, and competitively better. It cannot be self-proclaimed. Quality is, and should always be, an objective analysis offered by the customer and never directly by the marketer.
If the marketer can register and accept the “perception” of the customer (the reality of the marketer’s level of acceptance by the customer), then a lot of important things can begin to happen. The marketer can adjust or adapt as best possible to the needs of the customer in order to match the customer’s expectation. Thus, a real “exchange” of value can be achieved between the marketer and the customer. That’s the way to build a long-term franchise relationship.
Know Your Product/Services
Make no mistake about it; even if you develop a great dialogue with your customer, you may not ever develop a true rapport if you do not have a product/service that meets the customer’s real needs. Product is by far the ultimate proof that you are trying to synchronize with the customer’s plan to solve a problem. Good product will make the engine run smoothly. Not-so-good product will stall the operation and possibly cause a need for repair or damage control using someone else’s product.
Product is the sum total of the tangible and intangible elements of what the marketer offers to the customer. Product features and benefits, as well as the marketer’s ability for delivery, service, and guarantee/warranty make up the entire scheme of the product. Usually, the marketing/communications process parcels the entire product package into three distinct segments for consideration. First is the “core” product. This is the physical or functional part of the entire product package; i.e., what will be delivered per the marketer’s current “manufacturing” (people and/or machinery) capabilities. This is what the operations area of the company concerns itself with the most, and rightfully so. This is the essence of what should solve the customer’s problem if used properly.
The second part of the product package is the “offered” product. It consists of the “core” product, but goes on to include the people, distribution system, packaging, pricing, and policy of the marketer. It further dimensionalizes the product offering into the physical as well as the mental attributes for the customer. It should provide for competent sales/service people response, thorough instructions on proper application and use, anticipated results, and user confidence in repeated applications. It conditions the customer to have their expectations met by purchase of a product/service from a credible and responsible marketer. It is what the customer uses to make their actual evaluation of satisfaction, or lack thereof, from using the product.
And finally, there is a part of the product package known as the “extended” product. This is often forgotten as an important part of the whole, but it may be one of the most vital links to future purchases/repurchases by the customer. It is the representation of the product during or after use that allows a customer to gain satisfaction with the continued performance and confidence of the product or the marketer to meet the customer’s ongoing needs. It is why toll-free service phone numbers (“hotlines”), service centers, service representatives, repair technicians, extended warranties, and return policies were invented. “Extended” product is all of the efforts made by the marketer to keep the customer as a very important part of the commitment of the marketer to keep his/her word on the product’s value. It shows the customer that there is more to the “offered” product purchase than just the initial sale.
It shows that the marketer is thinking beyond the original transaction to a level of true customer satisfaction. It is what brand loyalty is all about.
The combination of these three segments of the product is what the customer equates to success or failures among all the competitors who are offering the same basic category of goods and services. It is not good enough any longer to have a merely great technology, or a good delivery, or an easily accessible service component. All three must be in place to be truly competitive. And the evaluation of this combination is what the customer uses to create the “model” product in the marketplace. That “model” is what the customer uses to substantiate acceptance and satisfaction in product purchase.
It is the smart and successful marketer that can understand the concept of the three segments of a product package, and the “model” product in the customer’s mind. That marketer can take control of his/her marketing/communications destiny by recognizing the attributes of the “model” in the marketplace, and then aspiring to duplicate those attributes (if not the “model”) to remain a consistent and an aggressive competitor.
Using research from primary and secondary sources is an excellent way to learn about the “model” in the marketplace in order to do whatever has to be done about it. But the key point here is that the marketer has to be open to the findings of research that may not be favorable to his/her preconceived notions. The ability to recognize shortcomings in the product package, and the willingness to adjust/adapt to change is essential to the success of the marketing/communications (and the business) effort.
Know Your Competitors
One of the best sources of research knowledge, purely and simply, is the direct observation of competitors’ activities! It is absolutely amazing how much can be gleaned from seeing a competitor’s product in action. Some call it reconnaissance; some know it as intelligence. But whatever you wish to call it, it adds the aspect of insight to your own instinct and intuition about your strengths and weaknesses versus those of your competitors.
Observation can take the form of everything from competitive literature review to advertising analysis to actual product comparison testing. And another way to determine what a competitor’s product can do in comparison to your product is to ask the customers of that competitive product. It is fairly easy to recruit the customers of other products to talk with you about how their needs are being met by another product. It’s a qualitative research method in marketing/ communications known as Focus Groups. These are moderator-driven discussions held in a conference setting that allow for the exploration of issues, attitudes, behaviors, levels of satisfaction, and unfulfilled needs of the respondents who are now using a competitor’s products. Focus Groups give the marketer a two-hour or so dose of insight that helps balance the instinct and intuition regarding a competitor’s product delivery. The point here is that just instinct and intuition will not be enough. Insight will become the reality confirmation of what the marketer assumed was right or wrong with the competitor’s product. You’ll find that recruiting respondents for Focus Groups and probing them for competitive data is not hard to do.
First, most customers are the most fickle organisms on the face of the earth for marketing/communications researchers. Their loyalty to a specific product is about as shallow as the next offer they are given to try another product, particularly if an incentive (i.e., price-off, value-added premium) is offered as well. Providing competitor’s customer with an incentive — a cash fee for participating in a Focus Group — will fill the room with subjects (any profession, any age group, any socio-economical status) ready to tell all about their experiences with a given product.
Another important approach to consider when getting to know your competitor is to conduct a “S.W.O.T. Analysis” among your own people. This stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats and is a mandatory part of classic Strategic Planning. It allows you and your associates to articulate how the product you represent measures up to the competitive products, including the “model” product in the marketplace, as discussed previously. By developing a matrix from this analysis, you can determine the position you have in the marketplace with regard to key competitors, and then you can conceive of corrective, defensive, offensive or reactive actions that may be appropriate for you to take. Here is where the assistance of a trained and experienced marketing/communicator is vital. Such a person or a group will be able to develop the proper marketing/communications strategies and tactics required to accommodate the competitive situation.
The S.W.O.T. Analysis should be done among those people in your organization that are the most concerned with solving the problems in marketing/communications, and that are the most involved with the solutions. This would include, but not be exclusive to, management people, development/research people, sales/marketing people, and operations people. A good mix of participants cannot only enliven the S.W.O.T. session, but also yield more ingenious potential solutions. Such a session, therefore, will provide the marketer with a significant database of material from which decisions can be made from agreement and cooperation among all parts of the organization. And that’s important when it comes to defining the marketer’s competitive position with the customer.
Perhaps the best way to understand the value of knowing your competitor as a vital instrument in marketing/communications planning is to remember the words of Vito Corleone in the “Godfather “. When referring to the competition, in his line of business, he offered these words of wisdom, “Keep your friends close to you. But keep your enemies even closer.”
Actually, there is much wisdom in this comment, because the marketer must work as hard as possible to Know the Competitor as well as the marketer Knows the Product/Service. With such knowledge, marketing/communication success can be at hand for all of the reasons discussed in this writing so far.
In summary, the issues of the three Knows of marketing/communications have been presented and discussed. It is not good enough to just Know your Customer, or your Product/Service, or your Competitor. All three must be thoroughly evaluated and compared to allow the marketer to have the best advantages in marketing/communications planning and development. The use of Image/Perception assessment, Core/Offered/Extended product representation, primary and secondary research (especially the Focus Group), and the S.W.O.T. Analysis will provide the marketer with the vital instruments needed to define and develop a marketing/communications plan and program that will have an invasive effect on the customer, and have the staying power of a serious competitor for the customer’s future needs.