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Do Product Specifications Have a Place in Your Marketing Equation?

“We’re selling the hole, not the drill.”

That’s paraphrasing a famous quote from legendary Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt. It’s a simple yet extremely accurate way to capture what all companies are ultimately trying to do with their products and services: solve a problem for a customer. It is a safe assumption that no one really wants a quarter-inch drill bit; they want a quarter-inch hole. But when it comes to marketing in manufacturing, it is easy to get sidetracked by technical specifications and features rather than benefits and solutions.

It’s not hard to understand why this happens. A great idea for a product is born, but then it has to be designed, engineered and built. Your organization spends a significant amount of time, money, resources and intellectual capital formulating the specifications and features that will deliver the desired result. Things like speed, torque, strength, etc., become key components of functionality that receive a great deal of focus. The team members—engineers, scientists and other highly trained technical professionals—have worked hard to find the right design, parts and materials to bring an idea to life. That is no easy task. They are proud of their work, as they should be. The challenge for marketers is translating those specifications and features into benefits that deliver a specific value to the customer.

The Right Message for the Right Audience at the Right Time

While specifications don’t make the ideal foundation for a marketing message, if you can connect the dots and build a bridge that explains how your product improves a user’s experience by saving money, increasing efficiency, reducing downtime, improving their product or whatever it may be, then you’ve got something. But sometimes it can be difficult to convince your organization to skew the marketing message towards what the customer benefit is, or the problem that is solved, versus how you made it and how it works. To be clear, it does not mean that specifications are not important. In fact, they have a role to play in the customer’s journey or the buyer’s decision-making process. You just have to determine at what stage of the process to surface those points and with which audience to use them. Specifications may have relevance as supporting proof points for certain members of the team evaluating a purchase, but not for every member and not as the leading components of a value proposition.

This messaging challenge is not just limited to technical specifications— it is also related to messaging that on the surface looks and sounds like a benefit. Things like versatility, ease of use and improved accuracy. As marketers, the question we must constantly ask is, “So what?” What quantifiable benefit does versatility deliver? Why is it relevant to your customer? Too many times, we stop one step short of communicating the ultimate value that a benefit delivers.

If you agree with the universal steps identified in the purchasing and decision-making process, the first one being problem recognition, then hopefully, you can buy into the idea that specifications are not part of, or the answer to, problem recognition. Problem recognition precedes the full-on search for a solution, and solutions are not specifications.

Relationships Versus Transactions

So, what is the challenge in leading with specifications? In some cases, it may be difficult to explain the technical differences. A non-technical audience may be the final decision-makers. What if your products are remarkably similar to your competitors in terms of specifications or how they perform? When that happens, how do you differentiate yourself? How do you convince potential customers they should work with you rather than your competitor if all the messaging and marketing is built around specifications?

Another problem with hanging your hat, or your slide ruler, on specifications and features is that if your competitors are doing the same thing, then it makes the sales environment more of a commodity discussion, which can quickly lead to a transaction-driven pricing discussion, which no company wants. Your company is more than just another product on the market. Your differentiator lies in your brand and in your ability to communicate how you will solve a problem, not product details. The most advantageous position to be in with a customer is one based on a relationship that leads to loyalty, long-term opportunities and more value-based pricing versus intermittent, one-off transactions.

Your Secret Weapon Is Your Brand

The solution your product delivers goes beyond specifications, as does your customer relationship. Most decision-making is based on both emotion and logic. To borrow a page from the world of consumer marketing, “Save Money, Live Better,” customers want to feel good about the product they are buying and its ability to solve their problem. They also want to feel good about the company they are buying the product from. That’s where your brand comes into play. Your odds of being in the consideration set, making a sale and then building a long-term relationship are much improved when you have a trusted, respected, differentiated brand that paves the way for marketing-differentiated products, services and solutions. In addition to helping your company stand out for good reasons, at its core, branding is about helping remove doubt from the minds of your customers and minimizing any feeling of risk. Branding gives them the confidence they are making the best and safest choice.

Find Your “Why” and You Can Find Your Way

Brands aren’t built on specifications either. Brands are like personalities, and as a company, you have to invest in building and defining your brand and communicating it to your target audiences in a number of different ways. But first, you must understand what makes your brand. What are your core values? What is your brand character? How do you want to be perceived? What makes you different? What is your brand promise? Why should you be trusted? What kind of experience does a customer have when working with you? As a company, what is your “why?” The components of your brand continue to work hard after the sale to support relationship building and open doors to additional opportunities.

Specifications have a place in manufacturing, but in manufacturing marketing, they are supporting players, not the stars of the show. That honor goes to the hole, not the drill.

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