Product is nothing: How to see things the way your customers do

People – especially founders – are fond of saying “product is everything”.  Have a great product, and you’ll succeed.  Have a poor product, and you’ll fail.  That’s the general idea.

It’s a nice sentiment, and true enough in a number of ways, but in a bigger way… it’s bullshit.  Not just bullshit, but dangerous bullshit, since it encourages a way of thinking that is in complete opposition to strategy, and the creation of a big charismatic brand.

Product is not everything.  In fact product is nothing.  Product is simply a tool.  A means to an end.  And that end is value – value to the consumer.

This is a very hard message to get across, because it sounds obvious.

Most founders think they understand it, but let me assure you they don’t.  They think their product is their value.  If they make, say, vegan dog food, they think the value they provide to the market is… vegan dog food. If they make shoes for mountain running they think the value they provide to the market is… shoes for mountain running.  But these things are not value offerings; they are instead “tools” which can be used to deliver multiple different value offerings.

Depending on the context, the consumer, the cultural conditions, and all manner of other factors, the value of vegan dog food to the consumer might be:

  • Economy, because it’s made using cheaper ingredients
  • Health for the dog, because the consumer believes vegan = healthier
  • Environmental impact
  • Etc.

Equally the value of the mountain running shoes for the consumer might be:

  • Primal health, “moving as nature intended”
  • Visiting new places that are hard to access
  • Faster times in cross country competitions
  • Etc.

Each of these is a different interpretation that the consumer might have of the same root product; different reasons they might want to buy it.  They also each represent different brand platforms that the business could potentially build itself around.  And therefore they each represent completely different potential businesses, despite starting with the “same” product.

The main job for any founder is to identify the particular value their product offers, and then build their business around that value offering: tailoring everything to match and accentuate it, and adding new products which also deliver it.

This value-centric approach has many different advantages:

  • It frames your product in a way which makes its value clear to your consumers, encouraging them to buy it
  • It builds difference between you and all the other brands with a similar product (but different value offerings)
  • It gives you something interesting and fun to build the brand around
  • It gives you a unique road-map for new products and routes to expansion

By contrast if you don’t define the over-arching value, and stay product focused (as most companies do), you run into a number of issues:

  • Consumers will interpret you however they want, generally meaning that they won’t be sure what to make of you or why they should buy you
  • You’ll have no competitive leverage between yourself and other businesses with similar products
  • Your brand will be vague and generic (as all product-centric brands are)
  • You won’t know what to do next, since your whole business “is” that one product

Ultimately we’ve always got to bear in mind that a business is not “a system designed to deliver a product”; it’s “a system designed to deliver value”.  The product is just a part of that system – a very important and visible part, but just a part nonetheless.

If you are one of those (majority) of founders who still interpret their brand “product-first”, then here’s an exercise you should try.

Step 1 – List all the other things which your consumers might do or buy instead of you, if you were to vanish tomorrow.  Bear in mind this includes direct competitors (other products which are very similar to yours), indirect competitors (other products which come from different categories but which can do a similar job), and non-competitor behaviours (actions or behaviours that don’t involve buying anything at all).

Step 2 – Next to each item on that list, make a note of the tangible features or characteristics your product has which the other option doesn’t.  NB these must be objective facts, not your subjective opinion (e.g. “ours looks better” or stuff like that).  Remember that these can also be things your product lacks in comparison to the other option, as well as things it has.

Step 3 – Finally try to describe the benefit that these various differences might bring to the end consumer, in comparison to the other option.  Bonus points for tying the benefit to a particular context, as you might find the same feature yields different benefits under different contexts.

So for example, the mountain running shoe might have soles made of much tougher rubber than other off-road running shoes.  This is a fact.  This fact then yields the potential benefit of running longer distances along tougher terrain than the alternatives, which means the user can go to more wild or inhospitable places.  This is a value offering.

The purpose of this exercise is not to figure out what your value offering is.  It might do that, but it’s a touch blunt to do so reliably.  No, the real purpose, at least for now, is to show you just how varied your seemingly simple product actually is in terms of what it might mean to consumers.  To show you just how many different brands you could build off the back of it.

To borrow a quote I heard the other day:

“People don’t care what you do, they care you do for them”.

Your product is “what you do”.  It means nothing.  It’s just a thing, which is meaningless in the absence of context, need, audience, and understanding.  Your value is “what you do for them”.  What that thing means when it’s put to use in the right moment, the right place, and by the right person out there in the real world.

That’s what your business actually is.  And it’s the gap between the brands you’ve heard of and talk about, and everyone else.

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