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February 17, 2009. A New Immutable Law of Marketing -- The Law of Usefulness

By: Dr. Augustine Fou
Back to Marketing Science Consulting Group - Digital Strategy Consulting

With a nod to Ries and Trout's classic The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, we propose a new immutable law -- the Law of Usefulness. This law states that marketing must be useful to the customer -- in other words, even the marketing must be useful, not just the product or service itself. In the past, as long as the product or service itself was useful that was sufficient; and the marketing of said product could simply conform to the 22 Immutable Laws and be sufficient in moving the customer from awareness, through consideration, to the purchase.

However, the marketing landscape is dramatically different now than at the time of Ries and Trout's original writing. In the new landscape, modern consumers have constant access to information, the abundance of which practically drown-out the carefully crafted brand messages pushed out from advertisers. And consumers are super-savvy users of this information to their advantage throughout the "purchase funnel" process. Therefore, in this age of too much information and competitive, undifferentiated products, the usefulness of the marketing itself becomes critical.

By way of example, for 2 different home theater systems with essentially the same features at essentially the same price, what will make a customer choose to buy one system over the other? We argue, useful marketing. This also means that we must break out of what we traditionally think of as "marketing" -- some kind of marketer's message pushed outward at target customers. In the above example, we posit that the marketer that provides not only detailed product information that is easily findable, but also tons of customer reviews of their products (both good, bad, and neutral), and also a how-to video for installing the home theatre system will win the "tie-break" against their similarly featured and similarly priced competitor that simply tells target customers how great their brand is or pushes out a brand message or tagline. Modern users simply need and want more information than that. And even if the first advertiser didn't change any of their marketing tactics, the fact that they provide a how-to-video for installing the system may still win them the purchase. So is the how-to-video marketing? Certainly not in the traditional sense. But it certainly did achieve the goal of driving the sale.

Then, if we ask the question "are ads useful?" We may answer "probably not" in most cases like TV, print, radio ads, and even online display ads (banner ads). They may be informational and they may achieve awareness where there was none before. But by virtue of the limitations of the media (30 seconds for TV ads, a glance of an eye for print ads, the lucky coincidence that someone hears a radio spot and happens to be paying attention, or a willing glance of an eye at banner ads, respectively -- not to mention anything about recalling the ads or their messages in any of these cases) the amount of information conveyed is simply not enough to "move the needle" for modern users. Even the well-known Maytag repairman TV ads, which have for years successfully conveyed a key product attribute -- infrequent need for repairs -- no longer seem to be useful enough. In other words, beyond "low maintenance" which is "cost of entry" in the minds of most consumers, the people considering the purchase may also want to know other things like energy efficiency, water usage, load capacity, how long it takes for a load to complete, is it noisy, etc. Put another way, if potential customers can't find the information they need, they won't buy -- and these days they need and want a lot more information than they used to.

Being useful is not new.

The Apple iPod was not the most technologically advanced MP3 player, nor was it even the first. But its unique combination of beautifully designed hardware and easy-to-use software (iTunes and the library of music for sale) and the auto-synchronization feature made it more useful to mass consumers who were not tech-savvy enough to figure out how to find and download music and then transfer it from the computer to the device.

In the web 2.0 world, an app which plays sample music clips back-to-back continuously is more useful than users having to click to play each 30 second music sample one-by-one on Amazon Music. is more useful than Quicken because the community of users help each other with financial tips and best practices. is more useful than Zagats because there are far more reviewers and the reviews are more real-time. is more useful than because the community of users vet the validity of the coupon codes listed. Each of the former examples are more useful than the latter. Modern users live in this web 2.0 world and in most cases, the zero-cost-of switching means they will use the next, more useful product or service as soon as it comes along. This also conditions and raises their expectations for everything else around them, including the marketing messages that advertisers put out all around them.

Marketing being useful IS new.

The product or service being useful and valuable is the "cost of entry." Useful marketing becomes a point of differentiation among feature-identical or generic products. For modern marketing we can, in fact, ask questions similar to those regarding the usefulness of the product itself. Does it solve a pain point? What pain point does it solve? Many of the pain points for modern users revolve around information -- the speed and ease with which the information is found and also the trustworthiness and quality of the information. Marketing messages are typically not enough information, nor is it information trusted by potential customers. Useful marketing now becomes part of the value of the product or service in a way similar to good customer service being an integral part of the value proposition of JetBlue -- e.g. real-time, publicly visible customer service through Twitter.

The key question is whether and how advertisers can make their marketing more useful? According to the Law of Usefulness, they have to. "Violate them at your own risk," say Ries and Trout.

The large quantity of customer reviews on Amazon, even for the most esoteric items, is an integral part of the value of and arguably an unassailable competitive advantage and barrier to entry to upstart competitors. But is good customer service marketing? Is a large body of customer reviews marketing? We argue yes. And so are recommendations and referrals by lots of satisfied customers -- word of mouth marketing. And public bookmarking and sharing on social networks -- social marketing, etc.

Some examples of useful marketing include Intel making their engineers accessible to IT professionals for in-depth technical dialogs. Is that marketing? Yes. Is that marketing that is useful? Yes. It is no longer about Intel pushing a brand or marketing message out to target customers -- the IT professionals. Rather, it is giving them access to exactly the information they need -- they ask the questions; the engineer who made the chip gives them the answer in-person, in real-time. For low consideration, low-cost, and relatively undifferentiated products like CPG products, marketing as a differentiator is even more important. In the past it might have been sufficient to just tell customers your product is more "premium" than another. But today, they simply won't believe you. They will research it further or ask their friends. What is useful, for example, is Kraft providing simple-to-make dinner ideas that use one or more of their products -- quick and simple salad with their dressing, mac and cheese casserole by adding chicken with Velveeta, and simple ice cream sundae with crushed Oreo's. Are these recipes marketing? Yes.

Tips for making marketing useful.

1. start with making a useful product or service; continue to make it more useful by listening to customers constantly and incorporating their ideas, suggestions, tweaks, and fixes.

2. if you've done #1 completely and still find your product undifferentiated from competitors, focus on the process that customers go through to purchase your product -- what information do they need, who do they ask, what questions do they ask? If your product satisfies all of their questions and suggestions, then find ways to make their purchase process easier. For example, if you're selling pasta sauce, but customers are typing in "red sauce" in their searches (instead of "pasta sauce") edit your website content and search-engine-optimize around the words they type in -- "red sauce" -- so they can find you more easily.

3. focus on customer usage scenarios. For example, many people need restaurant reviews at the very last minute, on impulse, while they are standing on the street. If your restaurant reviews and website are only accessible through a computer with broadband, it is not that useful to them at that moment. By making the site mobile-compliant, or at least accessible through a mobile device, it is more useful to them when they need it, standing on the street.

Augustine Fou is Digital Strategist, Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc.

2008, Dr. Augustine Fou

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