In my consulting and speaking work with technology companies, I am frequently asked a question – how should you position a mass market software product that has thousands of features for a specific customer segment? Consider products like Microsoft Office, Intuit’s Quicken or Adobe Photoshop. These are gargantuan products that have evolved over decades and are marketed to a very broad set of customers. These products have features galore and offer something for everybody. Positioning these mass market products seems to fly in the face of a basic tenet in product positioning – that you must define the target audience precisely and as narrowly as possible, so that the benefits you offer are relevant to the audience.
In thinking about this problem, I found a useful analogy – think of these “do-all” products like a Swiss Army knife. The classic Swiss Army knife is famous for being a “multi-tool” – it consists of a number of tools stowed inside the handle of the knife. The number of tools can be dizzyingly large – one giant Swiss Army knife has 85 tools, costs $999 and holds the Guinness Book World Record for the largest number of tools in a single instrument.
Regardless of how many tools a multi-function knife has, customers will only use one at a time. And most customers will use only a few of the tools. So, while the knife may have lots of tools, there are only a few that are relevant to a specific customer, depending on the situation they are using the knife for. So what they will end up doing is to stow away the tools they are not using, and only expose the relevant tool, one at a time. The rest of the tools are there, just hidden away.
And so it is with a complex technology product like Microsoft Office. It is like a giant Swiss army Knife in terms of the number of features and functions it performs. But a specific customer segment will end up using a very small subset of these features. For instance, I am an academic and I also do a lot of public speaking. I use Microsoft Word to write academic articles and therefore I really like the bibliography and cross-referencing features in Word. And I use PowerPoint quite intensively to make presentations. Within PowerPoint, I use SmartArt quite frequently as it allows me to communicate visual concepts elegantly. And I like the new “broadcast” feature in PowerPoint, which allows me to set up a quick-and-dirty remote presentation easily. If I was a salesperson or a lawyer or a high school student or a bond trader, I might use Office very differently. To continue the analogy, all customers use the same Swiss Army knife, but they expose a different set of tools.
So that’s how you should market these products – by highlighting the relevant functionality for each customer segment, while keeping the other stuff “stowed away” because it is not relevant to that customer segment. The same product can therefore be positioned differently for different customer segments, by “dialing up” and “dialing down” the features and benefits that matter most to them. And when you launch a new version of your product, you may “dial up” only what’s new, while not talking about the thousands of features that already exist. For instance, when Intuit launched the 2009 version of its Quicken product, it highlighted the new capabilities for keeping track of your budget and for stretching your household dollars further, keeping in view the economic recession and the fact that many households were seeing a decline in their incomes and net worth.
But too often, I see technology companies sell the “whole knife”, as it were. The pitch – “look how many tools we have in our Giant Swiss Army knife”. The fact is that this pitch will fall flat for most customers, because you are marketing “just in case” features instead of “just in time” features. As a result, your positioning becomes fuzzy and sounds like motherhood and apple pie.
So take a long hard look at your Swiss Army Knife, and stow away the tools that don’t matter when you are marketing your product. Of course, there are two other options. If you are Apple, you separate the tools (the apps) from the knife, and market the fact that people can pick their own tools to attach to the knife. And if you are a niche player like Amazon.om with its Kindle, you can argue that a dedicated knife or screwdriver will be more efficient and effective than a bulky Swiss Army Knife!
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I’m traveling to India on business. I am staying at a hotel and I need to call my driver when I’m ready to leave. How do I let him know I’m ready to go? I don’t want to call his mobile phone as I would have to pay $3/minute for roaming charges to my U.S. carrier. He can’t call me because he doesn’t want to make an international call. So he tells me – “Sir, just give me a missed call when you are ready”. So when I’m ready to leave, I call his mobile and hang up. Presto, the car is there when I reach the lobby! No money spent. No words exchanged. But the message goes through and the job gets done.
The “Missed Call” – Yet another uniquely Indian innovation in communication!
Here are some other scenarios for communicating with “Missed Calls”. My friend’s mom lives in a high-rise apartment building in Mumbai. She has a DVD rental guy drop off DVDs for new movies every couple of days to her apartment (this itself is another Indian innovation – “Video on Demand”, Indian style!). She needs to inform the building security to let the guy in. A few minutes before the DVD rental guy reaches the apartment building, he gives her a Missed Call. She in turn gives the DVD rental guy a Missed Call to let him know she is at home and is interested in new DVDs. She then calls the building security guard and lets him know that the DVD rental guy is coming in a few minutes. He is let into the building and she gets her movies. Nobody calls anybody, but a lot is said and done!
My wife’s cousin lives in India, and she prefers that we call her from Chicago as it is more affordable for us to call her than for her to call us. So she calls us and hangs up. We see her number on our Caller ID, and we call her back by responding to the Missed Call. The same idea works if you are traveling internationally, and incoming calls are free for you but outgoing calls are very expensive. Just place a Missed Call and have the other party call you back.
So there you have it. For us in the United States, missed calls are missed communication. But in India, a Missed Call is a powerful and elegant form of communication! So, call me but don’t talk to me. I’m waiting for your Missed Call!
I am so fortunate that I have found my passion professionally. Rather, it is my passion that found me as I muddled along in life like driftwood, swept by the current of social pressures and norms. I became an engineer and then went to business school because that’s what everyone did. Then I did my Ph.D. because that’s the only way you could come to the U.S. from India. I stumbled into teaching and into marketing. Luckily, I was stumbling in the right direction. Now I really enjoy what I do – examine the intersection of technology, marketing and innovation. And sit at the intersection of research, teaching and consulting. Every time I’m in a classroom or speaking before and audience, its a huge high. I feel I’m getting paid to enjoy myself. That’s my groove, and it will last me for a while more until I figure out what’s next for me. Maybe in 3 years when I turn 50? I will see.
I talk to lots of students and ex-students as well as friends who ask me for advice on what do do with their careers and their lives. In some cases, I see them struggle to define their groove. If you don’t know your groove, you can meander along in life without much purpose or much passion. And you are always left with a gnawing feeling that there must be more, that something is missing. I know. I’ve been there earlier in my life. It is frustrating to just do a job, and to just go to work for a paycheck.
So how do you find your groove? Do you have the luxury to experiment? Introspection helps. But so does being open to opportunities. And finally, recognizing when your passion calls, and following your passion. I hope more of us find our groove.