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Beyond Functionality: Communicating What Your Product Does and More!
by Lynn Altman

The other day I was at the dentist's office and I saw that they had Lysol disinfecting kitchen wipes on the counter among the cotton balls, sanitized tongue depressors, and other accoutrements of the dental profession. I started thinking about how they had adopted a typical household product and converted it for commercial use. So many clients tell me how literal their consumers are, and yet here were these wipes specifically named for kitchen use - far outside a household kitchen. What were these kitchen wipes doing in a dentist's office? Didn't they have dentist wipes?

And then I thought about a prototype I had worked on that could have made for the perfect dentist wipes. It was a household cleaner formulated with a unique ingredient that killed germs for twenty-four hours. This new product was envisioned to compete with the Lysols, Cloroxes, and Formula 409s of the world.

Sounds like a great idea until you realize that there are critical questions here. If this cleaner kills germs for twenty-four hours, how long do the others work? Further, how do you prove it? Unlike some branding challenges that try to create an illusion that their product or service is somehow different, this challenge involved a true product innovation.

Now, it doesn't take a marketing genius to understand that if your product or service has any major point of functional difference, it may be the key to your positioning or branding message. Let's say we invented the wheel. Better yet, let's imagine our new product predecessors trying to market their new product.

(The scene: cave-dwelling marketers huddled around a conference table made from a boulder. One dweller is holding a round object in hand)

Cave dweller #1: We've got this great prototype with round edges that can help us move ourselves and other objects more effectively and efficiently than ever before.

Cave dweller #2: Well, we should definitely make sure that people know about this new innovation in moving and transport. Let's call it: the Wheel.

Cave dweller #1: I'm not so sure if the name "Wheel" really says enough about what it can do for consumers. The name should communicate what the product does. I think we should call it the "Motion Mover."

Cave dweller #3: (grunts) I don't know guys. That all seems so… functional. Where's the pizzaz? Where's the magic? Maybe it's not for moving at all, but something else. I think we need to reinvent this thing from the start.

Cave dweller #2 begins to bang his head against the round object in frustration. Cave dwellers #1& #3 exit left.

Of course this is a silly way of making a not-so-silly point, but there are few points that are worth making about this little mis en scene: if you have invented the wheel, sliced bread, or a cure for cancer, you won't need to worry about creating a compelling positioning message. Your product is a breakthrough and your audience will inherently understand its value without playing the positioning game. In most other cases, Cave dwellers #1 and #3 might be on to something by looking beyond the innovation and focusing on how to best communicate it to a particular audience - whether it's being more clear about the benefit, or finding alternate uses for the same innovation.

In the past 10 years, I've seen a noticeable shift away from functional brands and branding. As consumers get smarter and shelves get more crowded, marketers have tried to create a more emotion-based connection with their consumers. Not to say I blame them - connecting with your audience on a deep level is powerful stuff, and no matter how great a certain functional claim may be, there is always the fear that some competitor will outdo you at your own game. But function is still a major element in brand messaging. In many cases, the function is the anchor of the brand and you build emotion around it. Even the highly emotional iPod made sure that its 10,000-song capacity was clearly communicated to its audience, as they also did with their iPod Shuffle. (Ironically, they had preempted the "shuffle" feature as revolutionary and good, even though you couldn't see what was playing and most ordinary CD players have had this function for a very long time.)

But back to our cleanser: there is nothing glamorous, sexy, or exciting about twenty-four hour long germ kill. The client made very clear that I should focus a lot of my branding efforts on how best to communicate this unique feature. But how many ways were there?

Maybe it's because I'm the daughter of an engineer, or maybe it's because I actually liked my algebra teacher back in high school, but there's something about using numbers as a source for brands and names that I've always found particularly fascinating.

In branding and new product creation, the ability to own a particular number is invaluable. Think about the difference between a "blended vegetable drink" and "V8." From the name, you know that there are eight vegetables, or servings of vegetables, in every bottle. Heinz 57 brags on its website that in 1896 Henry Heinz turned "more than 60 products into '57 Varieties.' The magic number becomes world-renowned and now is virtually synonymous with the H.J. Heinz Company." The number has well outlasted the name, with many of the 57 varieties, such as mincemeat and pickled cauliflower, thankfully gone from the shelves.

Numbers can be based on any number of things, from ingredients, such as Five Alive juice drinks; time it takes to use, such as the Aussi 5-Minute Miracle or One-a-Day vitamins; and numbers can also be totally made up. The Oil of Olay brand created their "7 Signs of Aging" only to have their lotions contain the ingredients that treat them all. Car companies do it all the time with their 3000, 6000, and 9000 model cars. What do they signify? Absolutely nothing. Software developers use numbers to show newer versions and editions. Razor brands use the number of blades they have to suggest efficacy, which is why we have the Mach3 from Gillette only to be outdone by the Quattro from Schick and then the five-bladed fusion from Gillette. Who will be the first to offer the ten-blader?

There's a risk here: when the number means something specific, such as a sale number, an interest rate, or something that can be easily one-upped by a competitor, it's better to look elsewhere. Also, when thinking about numbers be wary of using numbers like "2000" (especially in our post-millennium world.) Even automakers have changed their names to things like the "A6" or the "S Series." Dilbert, the comic strip based that constantly satirized a company's marketing department, featured a product called the "Gruntmaster 6000." If you come up with an idea that sounds like a Dilbert idea, you may want to start over.

In most cases, however, numbers can help dimensionalize your product's promise and turn what could be a parity product into something that has a clear point-of-difference. But often, numbers alone don't get you far enough (imagine two competing twenty-four hour germ kill products side by side) and the messaging requires something more. Consider this: in late 2004, Coke and Pepsi introduced their own versions of what each company thought to be a breakthrough product: a full-flavor cola that had fifty percent less sugar, and therefore fifty percent fewer carbohydrates and calories. It's a classically bad, research-driven idea, but that's not the point here. The lesson is in how each company took this same horrible new concept and found two different ways to talk about it.

Coke called their version "C2." Their promise led with message of what was missing from the product, by announcing "1/2 the Carbs, 1/2 the Cals, All the Great Taste." Conversely, there was Pepsi "Edge," that started with the full flavor portion and then went to less sugar, their message being that with the full flavor, you could treat your self anytime. According to their website, "Edge Moments" included "self-cleaning the oven," "matching your socks," and even "finding the remote." Small nuances in the message led Coke and Pepsi to create very different brand positions for the exact same product claim: one focused on life without sacrifices, the other focused on being able to treat yourself more.

What's the lesson here? A change in your approach - even slightly - can make a big difference. And the best brands come out of finding just the right nuance that consumers will respond to. The methodology necessary to do this is simple: start many ideas and wait a day or so to filter them down to the good ones. You never know where a great idea is going to come from and its good to get as many half-ideas on the table as you can. Using the cleaner as an example, my list of ideas included simple words and questions, such as "forever clean" or "once-a-day", which were different ways to describe the long-lasting germ kill. I also wrote down "kids/toys/germs" as a specific torture test of efficacy and safety. Some hypotheses are just questions, such as "all over or room specific?" The key to successful hypothesizing is to stay within the tight restraints of your promise or idea. If your focus is a cleanser, don't wander off into sponges. Don't think any further than just getting some initial ideas out on the proverbial table. This discipline pays off. You will not be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and you'll have a much better chance at arriving at a clear brand message.

You may be thinking at this point: well, why didn't the cleaner simply say they killed germs longer than other cleaners?

In a campaign speech early in his career, Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further [sic]." FDR raises an interesting issue when you examine this quote in marketing terms. Are competitive claims useful only up to a certain point? Marketers are no strangers to the competitive claim: they are a clear and logical way to demonstrate to consumers why and how you are different from those in your competitive set. In the case of this household cleaner, there was no avoiding a competitive claim, the product practically begged for it; it literally killed bacteria three times longer than any other product on the market - and consumers had no clue.

Here's the problem with competitive claims (or a lot of functional claims) on their own: you leave yourself vulnerable for someone to come and beat you at your own claim. If you can kill germs longer than the other cleaners, you don't need a Magic 8 Ball to tell you that each of the major and well-known household cleaning brands will come out with their own versions of cleaners that work as long - if not longer - than yours.

The leader in any category will never make a competitive claim, because it doesn't have to. Once you set your sights on another product, you instantly admit that they are the ones to beat. And what happens once you outdo them? Then what is your brand about? This is the "certain point and no further" that FDR may have been making had he been talking about marketing and not the New Deal.

Lastly, it's always good to remember that there's a huge difference between what your product does, and what it means to your consumer. This is perhaps one of the most common mental glue traps that clients step in when undertaking brand-building efforts. They have so fallen in love with a function or a feature and believe that this core concept will be enough to win the minds, hearts, and pocketbooks of their customer. Too often clients focus on what their products do and neglect to translate the function into the benefit, which can be just as powerful a branding message as a set of numbers or a preemptive claim. If your product works faster, you must also answer the consumer's question of "Why should I care?" Can I get done with my work earlier? Can I have more time to relax? What is the payoff from fast?

Once a brand can be based on the why and not the how, you have opened your mind to a new world of possibilities. As Jack Trout explains in The New Positioning: "Positioning is a game that people play in a me-too marketplace." When it comes to functional products, lots of clients feel that they must be "true to innovation." Well, think about how much in this world is really "new." But creating the story, the emotion, and the unique promise behind a product is the difference between having and idea and successfully selling a product - which is what the game is all about.


The Author

In her new book, Brand It Yourself: The Fast, Focused Way to Marketplace Magic, Lynn Altman outlines the Brandmaker Express process ­ a proven method for developing strategic, innovative ideas for new products, services, brands, and ad campaigns. Altman and her team complete each project within ten days, and while other may need longer, speed is essential to the program. Altman illustrates the importance of developing a simple and concise branding message, offering specific case studies from her work with companies such as Dairy Queen, BriteSmile, Time, Inc., and more.

Many more articles in Branding in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2006 by Lynn Altman. All rights reserved.

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