Why not position on the customers’ most important product value?
Q: We are sales engineers assigned to key institutional accounts. We supply and sell in bulk our company’s beverages, juices and coffee. We’ve been sales engineers in this company for more than 20 years. In our sales training of junior or new sales engineers, we’ve stayed with the tried and proven USP (unique selling proposition): “Find out what’s the account customer’s most important product value and if your product has that value, then position in it and you’ll make the sale.”
When this did not work, we tell our trainees that most likely they got the most important product attribute wrong. We say: “Either your probe question to the customer was wrong or else that customer just didn’t want to let you know his true most important product value.” So find out in some other way.
We’d like to ask you why we shouldn’t position on our customer’s most important product value. We’ve asked our marketing people, but they tell us that positioning is not our job but theirs. According to them, “Positioning is strategic, which is what marketing is. Sales is tactical, while positioning is not. So leave positioning to us in marketing.” But when we’re face-to-face with a customer, we have to say something about positioning. And that’s according to what we know will motivate that customer’s purchase order. We hope you can give us a better answer to our question.
A: The truth is that the real pioneer of the positioning concept was Sales and Sales Trainers. That quotation about the USP was a sales invention. At one time, finding out the customer’s most important product need worked wonders as the positioning recipe.
And here’s another marketing reality. It was also sales that crafted one of the most successful positioning strategies of all time. That was the sales team of Honda Motorcycles in Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles in 1963 – during the time when Honda first entered the US motorcycle market. Their storefront said: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” This storefront advertisement attracted so many visitors and buyers inside the shop that when the Tokyo Headquarter office learned about it, they elevated the “tactical” campaign into a “strategic” ad positioning blitz.
So, do not feel that “tactical” sales is inferior to “strategic” marketing. Here’s one area where the difference between what’s strategic and what’s tactical is arbitrary and non-existent. In a sales-driven organization, sales stands above marketing ,which really functions in the service of sales.
However, as market and consumers changed priorities and preferences, and as competition became more intense and fierce, positioning according to the customer’s most important product need or value frequently scores less and less wins. Let’s diagnose why.
Satisfied needs eventually won’t satisfy
What is the positioning model on which this old and original practice rested? That was the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” theory fully developed in Maslow’s 1954 book, Motivation and Personality.
According to this model, human motivation moves along a hierarchy of human needs arranged from the most basic like the “physiological” need for food and water to the most evolved like the “self-actualization” need for morality and creativity. Marketers find Maslow’s model most useful when it said: “A satisfied need, no matter how important, will not satisfy.”
So a most important product need or value can stop motivating customers. When will that happen? Maslow says when it’s already satisfied. Consider the case of toothpaste.
Many years ago, dental science discovered that fluoride prevents tooth cavity and decay. Then, Colgate found that consumers’ most important product value in toothpaste was “cavity prevention.” Learning from dental science that fluoride prevents cavities, Colgate claimed and positioned its toothpaste brand on this consumer priority benefit and supporting product feature. Since no one else was positioning in this priority consumer value, Colgate had the toothpaste-using market all to itself.
Colgate’s success invited imitators. Because the barrier to imitation was practically zero, soon all the other toothpaste brands were claiming cavity prevention as well, with fluoride as their evidence for delivering the benefit. While cavity prevention remained as the consumers’ most important toothpaste value, it was already being satisfied by all. So it became a consumer value that, according to Maslow, could no longer motivate. It turned into a “minimum requirement value.”
Know your product’s minimum requirements
What does a brand do about a minimum requirement value? As the name suggests, a minimum requirement must be satisfied first before or at the same time as filling a new differentiator. But, a product’s new differentiator when eventually imitated will become another minimum requirement. So minimum requirement values accumulate over time.
Now you understand why positioning is getting harder. It’s also a never ending task. And the challenge for you is to learn those accumulating minimum requirements so that you avoid positioning or to continue positioning in any of them. If you do not know them, you are at risk in losing market share because of a non-motivating positioning.
As you can see from the foregoing, the answer to your question is this: if your brand’s most important consumer value has already been satisfied by all or by many other brands, then that consumer value has become a minimum requirement. To your customers, it’s now a non-motivator. Therefore, it’s time to look for a new brand differentiator to which to switch your positioning.
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