Category Archives: Positioning

The Power of Differentiation

Have you ever walked by a hot dog vendor on the street and wondered how they compete with other similar vendors?

If you haven’t, that’s understandable. If you have, you’re likely an overworked Product Manager.

Do they try to differentiate on price, location, variety of condiments, selection of drinks, cleanliness? Do you think they even think about differentiation?

They probably don’t think about it much unless a competitor co-locates very close to them.

Regardless, have you ever seen a hot dog vendor with line ups an hour long? Do you think major international media outlets would take turns interviewing one particular vendor in a major city?

Well, this is exactly what happened to one specific street vendor during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The vendor is known as Japadog, and serves a unique variation on the frankfurter. Japadog can most simply be described as a Japanese take on hot dogs.

Most of the meat in the buns is either beef sausage or bratwurst, although they do offer fish sausage and promise a Kobe beef sausage  in the future.

Toppings include items such as seaweed, bonito flakes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayo. Here’s the menu from one of their cart locations.

(click image to enlarge)

While this may sound strange to hot dog traditionalists, it’s incredibly popular with Vancouverites and visitors to the city.

The media attention received by Japadog, particularly during the recent Olympics, made it so popular that expansion plans to other cities are in the works.

The lesson here is simply a reminder of something we all know, but often forget. Differentiation is your friend. Find a unique way to position and offer your product to the market, particularly when the market is commoditized (as is the case with many hot dog vendors), and you create the opportunity to rise above those competitors and attract both market share and recognition.

Look at virtually any market leading product and you can usually clearly identify how it’s makers created compelling differentiation  from it’s competitors.

And for those of you who want to learn more about Japadog, here’s a short video.

Saeed

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

The Origins of Product Management (part 1)

One of the common problems when discussing the subject of technology Product Management is that there is no common definition of Product Management that all people agree on.

To better understand what Product Management is, it’s important to understand where it came from.

The origins of Product Management go back to the 1930s at Procter and Gamble. Back then, a manager at P&G named Neil McElroy wrote what is now referred to as the “McElroy Memo”.  P&G was famous for their culture of writing memos on important topics.

McElroy was the manager responsible for Camay soap — a lesser brand to the company’s leading Ivory soap brand. Camay was not selling well and he decided that a dedicated “brand man” (and supporting team) was needed to ensure that sales of the brand were being maximized.  Here’s an excerpt from that memo describing some of the issues that the “brand man” would need to address.

  1. Study carefully shipments of his brands by units.
  2. Where brand development is heavy and where it is progressive, examine carefully the combination of effort that seems to be clicking and try to apply this same treatment to other territories that are comparable.
  3. Where brand development is light:
    1. Keep whatever records are necessary, and make whatever field studies are necessary to determine whether the plan has produced the expected results.
    2. Study past advertising and promotional history of the brand: study the territory personality at first hand–both dealers and consumers–in order to find out the trouble.
    3. After uncovering our weakness, develop a plan that can be applied to this local sore spot. It is necessary, of course not simply to work out the plan but also to be sure that the amount of money proposed can be expected to produce results at a reasonable cost per case.
    4. Outline this plan in detail to the Division Manager under whose jurisdiction the weak territory is, Obtain his authority and support for the corrective action.
    5. Prepare sales help and all other necessary material for carrying out the plan. Pass it on to the districts. Work with salesmen while they are getting started. Follow through to the very finish to be sure that there is no letdown in sales operation of the plan.
  4. Take full responsibility, not simply for criticizing individual pieces of printed word copy, but also for the general printed word plans for his brands.
  5. Take full responsibility for all other advertising expenditures on his brands (author’s note – in-store displays and promotions).
  6. Experiment with and recommend wrapper (author’s note – packaging) revisions.
  7. See each District Manager a number of times a year to discuss with him any possible faults in our promotion plans for that territory.”

Putting aside the lack of gender neutral language (i.e. Study carefully shipments of his brands by units), here’s a summary of the 7 points:

  1. Understand the regions and volumes of product being shipped.
  2. For regions where sales are good or growing, understand why and try to apply those principles to other similar regions
  3. Where sales are light, investigate the situation to understand the problems. Devise a plan to address the problems and work with internal parties to ensure the plan is successful.
  4. Take charge for all messaging and advertising copy for the brands
  5. Oversee advertising and marketing expenditures for the brands
  6. Try new things, particularly with packaging of the brands
  7. Work with local sales managers to understand their perspective on what is and isn’t working in their region

It’s an interesting list. In essence, the “brand man” is responsible for the business success of the brand (product or product family).

The role of “brand man” or “brand team” was very successful at P&G and was emulated throughout the consumer packaged good industry.  And, after almost 80 years, Brand Management is well defined and is a pure marketing and business function within Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies.

The story doesn’t end here, but it’s clear that the principles of brand management had a significant role to play in the formation of technology product management.

Saeed

Related articles:

Brand extension gone too far?

Brand extension occurs when a company intentionally takes a well known brand and applies it to another product category. Companies extend their brands quite regularly.The objective is to take advantage of the awareness of the brand, reach new audiences, and ultimately make more money.

For example, Arm and Hammer moved from Baking Soda into Dental Hygiene products.  They utilized their association with cleanliness and fighting germs and odor and found a space in a new market (though their competitors are aggressively fighting back).

And the Virgin brand has been successfully extended from records to airlines to mobile phones and even to space travel (Virgin Galactic).

Of course, brand extension doesn’t always work. McDonald’s had a significant failure with their McPizza offering. And does anyone remember LifeSavers soda? Coors Spring Water? Or Colgate Kitchen Entrees? (I kid you not!)

Another form of Brand Extension is when two well known brands, are brought together. One very successful example of this is the Lego Star Wars toys and games.

I believe the reason for this success is that there is overlap in the market segments of people who like Lego and those who like Star Wars.  i.e. mostly male, but with an age range skewed much higher than the typical target audience for Lego.

Those of us who grew up playing with Lego and saw the original Star Wars movies in the theaters can now spend some more money on the combination of those two passions, or introduce our children to them.

But this kind of combination doesn’t always work. Lego recently announced a new game for the Wii, entitled Lego Rock Band.

There is whole family of Rock Band games including:

  • Rock Band (2007)
  • Rock Band 2 (2008)
  • Rock Band Unplugged (2009)
  • The Beatles: Rock Band (2009)
  • Lego Rock Band (2009)

Who is the target audience for Lego Rock Band? And will this game appeal to them?

The songs provided with the game are a curious mix of hits from various decades, with music from:

  • Jimi Hendrix, The Jackson 5
  • The Police, David Bowie
  • Carl Douglas (gotta love “Kung Fu Fighting”)
  • Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi
  • Spinal Tap (set the volume to 11)
  • Queen, Pink
  • Iggy Pop (yeah, this guy ===>)
  • Elton John, Korn
  • Counting Crows
  • and KT Tunstall (Who???)

to name just a few.

Forget about the video game for a second. Who would be the target for  that group of musicians????

Now combine the Rock Band portion, and maybe you’ll get some eclectic rocker/video game enthusiasts.

Now combine in the Lego theme, and who’s left? Young videogame playing, Lego fanboys who like 1970s punk rock?

Perhaps I’m not the target audience for this? I do own a Wii, and I actually do like some of the musicians listed above, and I did like Lego as a kid. But combining them all into a Rock Band game? I don’t think so.

Am I wrong here? Let me know.

Saeed

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Surprise us: Seeking examples of SURPRISING positioning statements

We write a lot here, and we hope that it helps you. Now I’m looking for your input. Can you help? If you do, I will feature you on our blog. But I need the responses within 1 day!

The request

I am looking for examples of positioning that takes the buyer by surprise. The classic example of this is AVIS, as told and retold by Ries and Trout in their classic books on marketing and positioning. Avis: We are only #2AVIS was not the leader in its category, so it claimed a different position: “We are only #2, but we try harder.” Very few companies would be willing to admit that they have a #2 position, but AVIS did, and it was a successful move.

Why? Because Hertz – then the market leader – could not dispute the claim. “At Avis, the lines are shorter!” How could Hertz argue with that? Hertz is/was the leader, so they must have longer lines! (This was before the no-checking Gold service.)

I believe that positioning statements need to be surprising. Too many positioning statements are ineffective because they are boring, and frankly, not believable.

Some examples of useless, un-believable positioning:

  • your companies claim to be a leading vendor when you are really a trailing vendor in your space
  • you are not leading in the main space, so you say you are the leader in a space that no one cares about

Boring. Ineffective.

Can you help? Find examples of surprising positioning statements!

I would like your input here. Please comment below, or email me, with examples of positioning statements that are surprising, unique, and disarming.

Fame will be yours

I need your responses within 1 day. I will write an article discussing the responses. All the super-compelling examples will be highlighted on our blog, with a shout out to your LinkedIN profile, a picture of you if you like, or a link to a page or article about you.

– Alan

Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 4)

This is part 4 of the series. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In this part, I’ll take a look at whether the industry can get out of the mess it’s in.

Looking back

Before looking forward, let’s take a look back at some ads from a couple of decades ago.

Click each image to enlarge.

Notice something about these ads? They all look rather similar. Pictures of (similar looking) computers and lots of text! Check out those headlines. “A new way of personal-professional computation”???? What’s that all about? Is it a personal computer or a professional compute? Well it’s both (and neither)! Ouch.

And that’s one fine looking set of muttonchops on Issac Asimov in the Radio Shack ad!

Even Apple was not immune to kind of advertising.  Here’s the original Macintosh print ad. A double-page spread! Click images to enlarge.

Cool. Did you catch the specs on the Mac? 64K ROM, 128K RAM, 32bit MC68000 processor, and even a clock/calendar chip!

Comparing these ads to advertising today, it’s  clear that things have changed for the better in 25 years. Apple certainly leads most other technology companies in their sophistication, but then, they’ve been at it much longer than most other technology companies!

As every industry matures, so does the audience for it’s products. Forty or fifty years ago, a lot of advertising for cars talked about engine horsepower, size (in cubic inches), acceleration, top speed etc. The only metrics that are frequently mentioned today are mileage or fuel consumption (and sometimes number of cup holders!). But that’s because those are important to us.

In personal technology, few consumers, truly care about the processor in their device. Quick, what kind of of CPU does you iPod have? What about a Blackberry? What about an iPhone? The Palm Pre? The Motorola Razr? The MacBook Air?

If you know any or (even worse) all of the CPUs in those device, you’re a serious geek. 🙂

But for the vast, vast majority of people, it doesn’t really matter one bit. Those days are behind us. We have matured and so has the industry. Of course, there are still many companies that talk in “speeds and feeds” or mumbo-jumbo, but in a maturing industry, they pay a price. The segment of the market that listens to the “tech-speak” is shrinking steadily.

Looking forward

If we try and look 25 years into the future, how will things have changed? Technology will have become much more embedded and ubiquitous in our environment.

The days of the big desktop computer will be gone. We will carry, wear and perhaps even embed devices within our bodies.

A second full generation of people will have reached adulthood living in an Web-enabled world. The word “offline” will be an anachronism. Augmented reality will be our reality.

In a world like that, how will people relate to technology? How will companies need to communicate with the market about their products?

The current “craze” known as social-media will be old news, and will just be part of the communication process vendors have with their customers. Consumers, particularly younger ones, will likely give up a lot of what is now considered “personal” information to companies, in exchange for individualized products and services.

In the context of the digital world, “Give me what I want, when I want and how I want” will simply be a common state of affairs.

Remember the phrase “personal computer”? That of course was shortened to PC, which is still used today, but few people think about the “personal” part explicitly anymore. Messaging and advertising will become “personal” in the future as well.

And of course there will be those that do it well, and those that do not.

So getting back to the original question – Can we get out of this mess? – the answer is yes, but it will take time. But for those of us who are at the forefront of this change, let’s see if we can’t make that change happen just a little bit faster and easier and ensure we don’t get emails that promise to help do things like  “Design a Monetization Strategy to Enhance Strategic Goals while Protecting Core Assets” any more.

Saeed

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Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 3)

Continuing this series (click the links for part 1 and part 2), let’s look at the following question:

  • How can we get out of this mess?

Given the problems cited in part 2 – laziness, review committees, truthiness – it’s not easy. There are many other reasons of course, and the combination of them makes it difficult to change the behaviour of an entire industry.

Differentiate yourself

It takes effort, skill and planning to create great messaging. Like many other things, it’s difficult to describe what makes great messaging, but you know it when you see it (or read it, or hear it)!

Messaging should be a weapon of differentiation for companies. Tied very closely to positioning, messaging can impact audiences in ways that no technical achievement can. The now famous 1000 songs in your pocket message for the original iPod was simply brilliant.

Why? It was completely focused on the value to the customer. It spoke directly to them, was conscise, appealing and spoke about the iPod in a way completely different from any of it’s competitors.

Watch the video, and observe the story it tells.

The “dude” is sitting behind his Macintosh, listening to his music and clearly enjoying it. He then transfers it to his iPod, puts on the earphones, selects a song on the iPod with the thumbwheel, and within seconds is enjoying the song again. He then tucks the iPod in his pocket and dances out the door. The voiceover comes on and in only 6 brief words, speaks volumes to the audience:

iPod. 1000 songs in your pocket.

In 1 minute, Apple demonstrated how easy it was to enjoy music on their portable player, and focused the audience on the 1 thing they wanted the audience to remember. It worked amazingly.

Now, someone else — not as savvy as Apple and their advertising agency — would probably have promoted the iPod as follows:

  • Comes in 2 models with 5 GB and 10 GB hard drives
  • Capable of holding 1000 or 2000 songs respectively (in 160Kbps MP3 format)
  • Patented thumbwheel interface
  • 2-in backlit LCD display
  • 60-mW high output amplifier
  • Battery life of 10 hours (your mileage may vary)
  • Firewire port with 400 Mbs transfer speed
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack

In fact, if you looked at how other competing music players were advertised, they actually were marketing technical specs. Instead of benefits, they actually spoke about things like the amount of RAM they provided or the audio formats they supported.

It amazes me that in the 25 years (yes it’s been about that long) since the original commercial that introduced the Macintosh to the world, very few technology companies have been able to match the simplicity, clarity and effectiveness of Apple’s messaging.

And the obvious question is, yet again, why?

Rules for getting it right

It takes culture, commitment and command in the craft of communication for a company to create consistently compelling commuiques like those of Apple.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we can try something a little more mundane to mend our messages. 🙂

For whatever reason, people seem to think that in business writing, all the rules they learned in school are no longer needed. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Follow these rules (created by none other than George Orwell himself) and see what a difference they make:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

If you want more detail on any of these, check out this article.

And here’s the original essay where he first wrote these rules (way back in 1946).

For business writing, one other rule is needed.

Apply the “So what?” test to everything you write. If what you’ve written doesn’t provide a good answer the question “So what?”, rewrite it, and ask the question again.

I’ll stop there. 🙂

In the next part, I’ll discuss whether the industry can ever fix the messaging problem for good.

Saeed

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