We were recently challenged by a client to re-position a mature product, a table-stakes part of a suite of B2B services. The company’s sales and marketing teams believed the product was falling (or had fallen) behind the competition. Great development plans were in the works, but with delays and shifts, it didn’t appear there’d be much new to talk about in the coming six to nine months. That got our team to talking. What’s the best way to market a technology when you know you’re the underdog in the marketplace? We shortlisted five of our favorite ideas, all of which we’ve tested with success in the course of our marketing careers.
1. Confirm, don’t assume. If you suspect you’re behind, confirm it with customers and prospects before you believe it as truth. Avoid the inferiority complex trap that can be very common, especially among weary and overwhelmed sales forces. Even when your product is terrific, sometimes all it takes is one competitor trumpeting boldly about their newest bell or whistle—however strategically unimportant it may be—to put your marketing and sales teams on the defensive. A non-confrontational way to learn what your customers and prospects truly think is to ask them these four simple questions when you talk to them next:
- What are the features/functionalities of your current solution that you couldn’t live without?
- What is your favorite feature/functionality of your current solution?
- If you could change one thing about your current solution, what would it be?
- Knowing what you know about our solution, would you recommend it today to a colleague?
These questions will give you insight into not just how you’re perceived, but also why people might think you’re behind, and what they most value in a solution. If you find you are in fact competitive, a dose of sales training about your product’s strengths and differentiators could go a long way.
2. Change the product, or change the target market. It’s a beautiful thing about human beings: We don’t all want or need the same things. What is “must-have” to one customer may be overkill to another. If you’ve confirmed your product has fallen behind in the eyes of your target market, then it’s time to change the product – or change the target. First, identify your product’s strengths. Perhaps it’s the price leader. Perhaps its differentiated by strong personal service and relationships. Perhaps its more customizable. Then look at a gap analysis of what you’d have to build to re-emerge as a fierce competitor, and where.
- Can you build a strong business case to invest in changing the product to close the gap and compete for your existing target market?
- Is it more effective to shift target markets? Consider if there is a different market segment that might rank your product highest based on your particiular strengths, at the product and company level.
3. Forecast your strategy to customers—boldly, rationally and transparently. Develop a crisp point of view about what must be true about solutions in the future to meet your target market’s needs. Then find ways to elevate the conversation to that strategic point of view, and to your intention to make all those things true. Also, show them, don’t just tell them, what the future state might look like. If you have a concept in development that’s a year or less out, consider investing at least a small amount in conceptual user experience mockups or other visualizations. (Frankly, these could double as an aligning force for your development and product teams.) If something is more than a year out, conceptual artwork and thought leadership pieces, such as white papers, might do the trick. WARNING: Don’t be irrationally exuberant! If you promise something at a specific time, and you don’t deliver, you’ll do more to harm your credibility than any marketing may be able to repair.
4. Focus on your strengths. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that your company is not all things to all people, and that your product cannot immediately be made to do all things. Own up to your shortcomings when challenged by a customer. Then emphasize what does differentiate you—either with the product or with the way you deliver it: your people, your service, your processes, your accuracy, your consistency, your price, your geographic scope, whatever it may be. Talk about your priorities, and discuss how they serve your customer’s needs best.
5. Play the Co-Opetition game. Ready to get really strategic and brainy about this? Check out the classic ideas behind Co-Opetition, the game theory approach that Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff (of Harvard and Yale respectively) brought to the market in the mid 1990s. You can shape the game, not just play the game, by using what they call the PARTS framework, which is explained pretty succinctly here. This one takes some study and discipline, but it’s a great holistic exercise that could help align your executive team on the strategic priorities in front of you.