Two of my favorite books on communication are Luke Sullivan’s “Hey Whipple Squeeze This – A Guide to Creating Great Ads” and Al Ries’s “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” Although I describe them as “communications” books, they’re really advertising books. Or rather, books that study communication through the lens of advertising. I’ll come back to why this is important in just a moment (and yes, I owe you a great piece of advice about product marketing — bear with me just a few more sentences; it’s coming, I promise).

Both books also pre-date the spectacular rise of the internet. Positioning was published in 1981. Hey Whipple‘s first edition is from 1998. And whereas most digital era marketing books get distracted by the latest “shiny object” industry fad, tactic, or technology trend, Positioning and Hey Whipple shine through with clarity on the long-term principles of effective communication:

1. Technology and culture change; people [fundamentally] don’t.

2. When you want to get someone to learn or do something, deliver them an imaginative, original, and immersive story.

3. Keep repeating that story (or message), finding new, interesting ways to keep it relevant.

Without question, all three principles are as true today as they were when Ries was putting pen to manuscript back in the early 80’s. Not only that, but they’re now empirically backed by a law library’s worth of campaign data and psychology research.

Which brings me to product marketing. Thought oven is on, here comes the sizzle**:

The most important piece of product marketing advice I can give you is that you have to care about your customer deeply enough that you understand their needs in their own words. Much like a Casanova on a first date, if your heart isn’t really in it, you won’t devote enough time to truly understand them. And if you don’t have empathy for their needs, you run the risk of getting in the way of what your customer wants, rather than being what they want. In Positioning, Ries takes Edmund Jerome McCarthy’s classic 4P’s of marketing’s responsibilities  – Product, Price, Promotion, and Place (Distribution) – and adds an ‘R’ for research for what I think is this very same reason: it’s always easier to have a conversation when you know the person you’re talking to.

Intercom has a nice visualization for how this works in practice: Product Marketing Messaging The point this illustration elegantly makes is that nobody buys “user response management” software; they buy ways to grow their business and connect more closely with customers, which is why Intercom just raised one of the largest venture rounds of any software company this year. One of the biggest traps I see even highly experienced and accomplished product marketers fall into is describing their product in their terms (i.e., features, attributes), instead of their customer’s terms. In the classic example, they’re off describing the contours of the drill, rather than how easy it is to create perfectly-sized holes so you can hang your TV (or Picasso).

As a marketer or advertiser, your job is to understand the benefit the customer wants (or the end result for what they’re looking to do), then communicate that benefit in a way that is noticeable, clear, and distinct. Which brings me back to advertising. After all, think about it, is there any more effective form of product marketing than truly great advertising? What “product marketing” has delivered more brand and sales growth than Tylenol’s “for the millions who can’t take aspirin” campaign, which dethroned a billion dollar category leader and made Tylenol the world’s #1 painkiller? Tylenol's Product Marketing Positioning vs. Aspirin Campaign

Or Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign, which doubled annual sales between 2006 and 2011 and single-handedly turned the brand into the fastest growing imported beer in the United States?

Across the board, the finest work from agencies like TBWA and Wieden+Kennedy present examples of the most masterful product marketing ever conceived. Study them, pay attention to their humanity, and those learnings will accelerate your career (not the mention the success of your brand) better than any modern marketing framework. Only then should you turn to all the fun operational realities like pricing and packaging, collateral development, sales enablement, and the like.

So what’s the best piece of product marketing advice I can give you? Care about your customer deeply enough that you understand their needs in their own words. And if you need real examples of how to connect that empathy to a campaign or positioning statement, study great advertising. At its best, it expresses care for customer needs even the customer herself often can’t articulate. Or, to paraphrase Scott Donaton, Chief Content Officer at Digitas: don’t let your marketing get in the way of what people want. Be what they want.

Apple Product Marketing Print Ad


*Yes, there’s small irony in presenting these facts without taking my own advice and telling this with much of a story. Time was tight. This also isn’t another hallow “brands need to tell stories” rant. At the end of the day, rich stories stimulate our brains in ways simple language processing doesn’t. When researchers from Emory University read test subjects elaborate metaphors about texture, they observed that their sensory cortex — a part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch — became active. When they told the same subjects simpler descriptions that meant the same thing, no sensory response occurred. Other research suggests there’s substantial overlap in the brain networks we use to understand stories and the networks we use to navigate social interactions with individuals. In other words, a gripping story can cause us to feel the same type of connection to a fictional character we might experience interacting with a real person. Our brains physically can’t always distinguish the two. That said, when it comes to marketing, often it’s better to imply or hint at a story (or mystery) and let the consumer’s imagination finish it, rather than struggling to cram a narrative into a format it isn’t a fit for it to begin with. 

**I fully recognize for most dishes an oven isn’t going to produce much sizzle. “Thought skillet’ just didn’t roll off the tongue with quite the same elegance. 

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