The power of simple ideas

Walking down the aisle of the Walgreens health and wellness retail store in downtown Chicago I came across an interesting men’s hair colour product — a variant from the brand Just for Men. Touch of Grey said on the pack ‘gets rid of some grey not all for that perfect salt and pepper look’. The product offered not to turn your grey hair into jet black or dark brown, but promised to give you a lot more ‘pepper’ if you were worried about losing that distinguished looking ‘salt and pepper’ look. 

Too late, I said to myself. 

Some 10 years ago as I was rapidly greying and my ‘salt and pepper’ hair was turning ‘salt and salt’, I was on the lookout for exactly such a product. My attempts at using the traditional hair colour, and washing it off quickly, made my hair look worse. So I settled for a more-salt-less-pepper look. And then last week I stumbled across the ‘gentle greying’ brand, rather too late. 

In a seminal article in the HBR that I remember reading many years ago, the authors had argued that the days of product differentiation were almost over. Marketers are selling more and more of me-too products. So the way to go might be dictated by market segmentation. You need to segment the market in new ways and see if you can sell the very same product to a smaller segment by increased focus on a particular set of consumers. 

Are the days of product differentiation truly over? Aren’t there new ways to add bells and whistles, some of them useful, to everyday products?

I remember Prof Ranjay Gulati of Harvard Business School making an interesting observation about product innovation and it goes something like this: “We put a man on the moon before we put wheels on suitcases”. If you search you will find that Neil Armstrong landed the vehicle Eagle on the moon on July 20, 1969. When did suitcase makers figure out the need for suitcases to sport wheels? A New York Times article celebrating 40 years of suitcases with wheels tells us that it was Bernard D Sadow who came up with the addition. He got the idea as he was lugging two heavy suitcases through the airport after a family vacation. He got a patent for it (Rolling Luggage) in 1972. It did not find ready acceptance. An improved version (Rollaboard) was invented by Robert Plath an airline pilot; he added wheels and a handle, so that suitcases could be rolled standing up. The year: 1987. Almost 20 years after man landed on the moon. The brand Travelpro popularised the telescoping handle and today you rarely see a suitcase that does not have wheels or a telescoping handle. 

As I scan through magazines every week I try and look for these small innovations that brands are trying to introduce to build product differentiation. Hanes undergarments recently advertised ‘no side seam’ vests. Really? I was willing to give it a try. Or Samsung that created an ‘AddWash’ feature for washing machines. Nothing but a small door in a front loading machine through which you can add the second pair of socks that got left behind. Neat, I thought. 

The list can go on. 

In the book In Search of the Obvious marketing guru Jack Trout makes a strong point about the need to get out of the “one more” brand/commodity mindset. Instead of focusing on segmentation or customer retention or search engine optimisation or data mining, he suggets marketers should be searching for that simple but obvious differentiating idea. He says marketers are prevented from looking for the differentiating idea by a whole set of usual suspects including ad folks, Wall Street, consumer researchers etc. 

I think he may be overstating the case for dismissing all else at the cost of product differentiation -- the holy grail. There is a need to look at segments and figure out a way of satisfying a given segment better. You don’t need to dispense with consumer research or search engine marketing to focus exclusively on product differentiating ideas. These can co-exist. But there could be a danger in this approach. You may get charmed into doing a nice emotional long format digital film instead of looking for the ‘wheel’ to attach to your brand to make it travel fast and far. 
The author is an independent brand strategist, author and founder,

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel