There are clearly many factors that play into this discussion and I am not going to try to cover all of them in this short blog post. However, recent discussions with my colleagues have made me want to share a few thoughts on the topic.
Product/Market Alignment – Many readers are too young to remember the “Pet Rock”. However, in the mid-70s a brilliant marketer decided to launch a quirky item in time for the Christmas holiday called the “Pet Rock”. It was simply a rock with an owner’s manual. The booklet was the hook because it was well written showing examples of how to care for and play with your pet rock. As an example, your “pet” rock could be an attack rock – with a graphic showing an arm throwing the rock. The booklet, while very well written and fairly entertaining, was simple and short. So, why did a rock and a small booklet sell millions of units? I would argue because of product/market alignment. This was a time when the nation was facing a poor economy, gas rationing, a president on the brink of impeachment, and many other significant issues. As Christmas approached, the notion of such a simple, inexpensive, and quirky gift appealed to the masses. The product aligned nicely with the needs of the market. Yes, there was unique marketing and several items that triggered a “tipping point” that all contributed to this national phenomenon. However, timing played a key role.
Great Marketing – The best products don’t always win. In fact, I would argue that the best products rarely win. Why? It is because often the best products are driven by engineering companies, where marketing is an after-thought. I have always believed that companies have three pillars of influence – Engineering, Sales and Marketing. If a company is too engineering oriented, they build a great widget, but no one really wants it because marketing didn’t do the up-front research, nor did they promote it properly. If a company is too sales-oriented, they are focusing on short-term sales targets at the expense of long-term strategies and investments in building the right product. If a company is too marketing-oriented, they have great long-term strategies, but often run out of money because they lose sales focus. There needs to be a healthy balance in any given company between these three areas of influence.
However, great marketing can offset marginal engineering and sales efforts. Take a look at the late Billy Mays. Does anyone believe that his products were revolutionary? No, however he was a master pitchman. Does anyone believe that the home shopping network has the highest quality or latest technologies or fashion? No, however their approach to marketing created an entirely new channel of distribution. Some years ago, baking soda sales were slipping and the marketing teams launched a campaign explaining that people should put baking soda in their trash cans to keep them from smelling. In other words, “buy our product and throw it away”. Sales jumped due to this innovative marketing campaign.
Most experts believe that the Mac OS is superior to the Windows OS. However, Microsoft has out-marketed Apple for years gaining market share and creating barriers that kept Apple in a distant second place. However, the past 5-10 years have turned the tables. Apple has introduced new products (e.g., iPod, iTunes, Apple TV), entered new markets (e.g., music, video), created new channels of distribution (e.g., Apple Stores), and launched creative new marketing programs (e.g., I am a Mac/I am a PC) that have, by most accounts, left Microsoft on the defensive. Time will tell who wins, but if history were an indicator, I would bet on the company with the strongest marketing efforts.
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