It's All About the Product, Isn't It?

So much of business is built around things. A company banks its future on a hot new product. Product management is the hub of manufacturing, distribution, and retail. Large companies drive out small companies with the promise of saving money. Advertising links happiness to cars, houses, and things to fill up our houses and empty our wallets.
Early in my career as a marketing consultant, one of the first things I used to do was look at the product line, immediately followed by a look at the cash-flow and debt load of the company. In other words, conventional business practice had taught me that marketing was all about what you wanted to sell and how much money you had to sell it. Then I would do consumer research to justify my ideas about repackaging, branding, and advertising the product.
The problem with this way of doing business was that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. A hit or miss approach can be good if you have a lot turns at bat. But in the bottom of the ninth, striking out often equals losing.
Another problem with focusing on products, is that some genius is always building a better mouse trap. We see it played out over and over again. An entrepreneur invents some nifty widget, packages it, and throws it out on the marketplace only to get stepped over by a newer, better widget. Product-centric companies spend all their time playing leap frog – fun, but tiring.
The business world is rife with books that advise following this exact model. Search for books on using the keyword “innovate.” At the time I wrote this I found over 12,000 listings. That’s a whole lot of leap frog instruction.
In his best-selling book Purple Cow, Seth Godin cheerleads innovation, encouraging companies to spend more on finding the next big idea. Sounds simple. However, more circumspect research by Booz Allen Hamilton revealed a different story about innovation as a recipe for success.
"There is no easy way to achieve sustained innovation success-you can't spend your way to prosperity," said Booz Allen Vice President Barry Jaruzelski. "Successful innovation demands careful coordination and orchestration both internally and externally."
Don’t get me wrong. Product innovation is important, and some of the books are absolutely brilliant. Innovation is one of the hallmarks of American business success. It is also very much like a lightening strike. The problem arises, as many of these authors point out, when you try to force lightening to strike in the same place twice. Building the biggest lighting rod is expensive, and even then, odds are that the lightening will still strike somewhere else. I strongly advocate building lightening rods – keep investing in innovation as part of doing business. Innovation and product management only become a problem – a destabilizing factor – when they are the central focus of a business.
When all eyes are on the product, businesses miss what matters most. Of course, you know what that is.


Say What You Mean
At the heart of good copy is clarity - saying what you mean. The anonymous mass copywriters never rise above the mean because they only parrot what they think others want to hear or they try to be clever until all meaning is lost.
Years ago, in college, I remember these long-winded dissertations by students trying to sound like Milton. In peer revues, I was occasionally criticized for choosing simple words over scholarly sounding French and Latin derivatives. The truth was, I didn't really enjoy reading Milton (too much work) and wanted to sound more like Mark Twain or Louis L'Amour. Milton may have sold more books, but Louis L'Amour sold more in his own lifetime when he could still enjoy the royalties.
Ad copy is no different. If you gob it full of meaningless crap, people walk away with meaningless crap. Here's five simple ways to start getting at the heart of what needs to be said:

  1. Tell the Truth – The truth is the shortest way to a working campaign that stands the test of time.
  2. Use Simpler Words – Know the entry-level reader in your audience and stay there. Showing off your vast vocabulary doesn't sell anything.
  3. Use Narrative – Most of us spend time telling stories to our friends and family. We tell a sequence of events we witnessed on the way home from work, "This little sports car was trying to ditch around traffic on the right when this big old pickup loaded with hay crunched him. Hope he had insurance." Of course, like anything else, you've got to get to the point. My teenage daughter burns up most of her talk time with "She was all like, then he was all like," etc. When did the word said drop out of vogue? Narratives are the way you sound natural, use them.
  4. Focus on What Matters - I've written a lot of packaging copy for the housewares industry and had to constantly fight executives preoccupation with watts. Most women (target market) didn't have the slightest idea about watts. They just knew that this blender sounded just like that blender so the one with the most watts and buttons for the money usually won. The way I mixed it up ;) was to push one main idea they cared about. How did I find out? I asked them. The product managers were too busy coming up with cool synonyms for mix to ask people if they even wanted to blend, liquefy, and whip. Focus on what matters most; your reader will.
  5. Get passionate - learn about your subject by talking to the inventors, advocates, and service providers. If possible, become a user of the product so you can extol its virtues first hand. Passion doesn't run to thesaurus to find fancy (a.k.a. fake) words to describe something. Passion lays out the wonders of interacting with the product, service or company. Ask someone to talk about their kids (small or adult kids, not teenagers) and you'll hear passion. Talk about the subject as if it were your child (again, not a teenage child).

You may have just read this and said, "Yeah, but I have to write an annual report. It needs to be loaded with important sounding words so investors will know how smart and busy we are." First, stop yeah butting me. The principles are the same for the annual report. I had a client that was writing novels for business proposals and not getting any clients. We cut the fat clarified the important points, and started selling deals. We cut more than three quarters of the crap and added in a few things customers actually cared about. The proposals we built were easier and faster to write and customers actually read them. And at the end of the day, that's what counts.