Saturday, July 21, 2007

Learn to see what's not there for marketing success

I mentioned that I've been doing a bit of research and writing on the topic of differentiation. I also referenced advice from the book Zag that suggests looking for the "white spaces" or underserved/ignored markets. Now I want to share with you an outstanding article I read that identifies 6 ways in which marketers can find those "white spaces" by looking at familiar information in a new light. In doing so, organizations can find competitive advantages and new opportunities to apply their services.

The article is called "Creating New Market Space" by Kim and Mauborgne. The authors examined the marketing strategies of successful firms like Home Depot and Cisco Systems and found 6 common innovative tactics for finding what's not there. I highly recommend grabbing a copy of the article, but here is a brief outline of the main findings:

1. Look across substitute industries - Customers make trade-offs when selecting products and services. By looking across substitute industries and why customers choose option A over option B in certain circumstances, they can find new market space. The authors point to the example set by Home Depot, the company that noticed customers had 2 options for home improvement. They could either hire a contractor or buy the tools to do the job themselves. Home Depot blended these options by giving customers the knowledge, training, and sales expertise to improve their skills. As the authors put it,

"By delivering the decisive advantages of both substitute industries - and eliminating or reducing everything else - Home Depot has transformed enormous latent demand for home improvement into real demand."
2. Look across strategic groups within industries - Strategic groups in an industry as defined in the piece are groups of companies that act on a similar strategy. The authors state that these groups are usually based on price and performance. The idea here is to figure out why customers trade up or down across these groups and, like in the previous tactic, offer a unique mix of their advantages.

3. Look across the chain of buyers - This strategy involves challenging the notion of who the target customer is. To do so, it's important to know who actually uses the service versus who purchases it, and who influences these decisions. The authors state,
"By questioning conventional definitions of who can and should be the target customer, companies can often see fundamentally new ways to create value."
This point reminds me of a recent brainstorming session I led for a regional meeting of my local chapter of ACRL. One savvy participant came up with the idea of reaching out to university staff as an overlooked patron base. I admit I usually forget about this important audience, but it could be a new niche just waiting to be carved out.

4. Look across complementary product and service offerings - This is one area where I think librarians could find a lot of missed opportunities! With this strategy, marketers identify the total solution customers seek by consuming a service. The authors point to a couple of illustrative examples. For instance, they state that finding a babysitter is a hindrance to attending movies in a theater, and so theaters should concern themselves with addressing this need as it affects demand for their service. Similarly, they point to Borders and Barnes & Noble - companies that realized customers want more than just to purchase books. They want a complete book-buying experience.

5. Look across functional or emotional appeal to buyers - In this approach, marketers attempt to turn functional products into emotional ones and vice versa. The authors point to Starbucks as an example of a company that turned a functional product, coffee, into an emotional experience, which in turn stimulated much more demand. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Body Shop stripped away the emotional aspects of its cosmetics such as packaging and advertising, leaving only its functional, all-natural products behind.

6. Looking across time - Fortunately, this tactic doesn't require a crystal ball or any special foresight. It only requires the ability to hone in on significant, clear (observable) trends that are irreversible. Moreover, marketers must be able to envision how the trend in question will change how they will deliver value to their customers tomorrow.

Seeing what's invisible and how you might fill in those gaps is a talent librarians can benefit from as they define and differentiate themselves from the many alternatives patrons have at their disposal. While challenging, this is not an impossible task. As this article demonstrated, there are concrete strategies for finding your unique niche in the marketplace, which will sustain libraries and create real value for patrons as no one else can.

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