Holes or Drills: Are you Marketing a Product or the Solution to a Problem?

Things were a lot easier 3,000 years ago when Sumerian craftsmen started signing the bricks they made, thereby creating the world's first branded products. For one thing, the world of marketing was a lot less crowded and noisy back then.

Today things are a little more complex. Companies spend billions of dollars and the energies of some of the world's most creative minds on marketing, advertising and producing all kinds of content in order to educate, influence and, ultimately, sell, sell, sell.

But are these talents being misspent? Notwithstanding the billions marketers spend on brand advertising every year, and the millions they spend on creating new content of every format and type, many marketing executives have found themselves in a place where these assets are underutilized, or where they are unable to connect the dots between the stuff they’re producing and its contribution to revenue. Might there be a connection between this and the fact that, of the thousands of new products created every year, about 95% of them fail? 

What’s wrong with this picture?
So where’s the disconnect and why does it seem like so many companies are missing key consumer insights? Is it just that consumers have become too complicated to understand? I don’t think so. People still need to build things and to do that, they still need bricks. It’s more plausible that the fundamental paradigms of marketing – the methods that most of us use to understand consumers, segment markets and build brands – are simply broken.

It’s time to get real
Marketers tend to focus on products and features – in fact, they’ve developed sophisticated target market segmentation to define which products are developed and which features are incorporated into those products to drive them to market – but this is not what the real world looks like for customers. 

Things just tend to ‘happen’ to customers: Jobs arise in their lives that they need to get done, and what they do is ‘hire’ products, services or people to do the job. This means that the job, not the product or even the customer, should be the primary pillar of segmentation. Yes, there may be a correlation between a customer’s possession of certain characteristics and the probability of buying a certain product at a certain point (the buyer’s journey in B2B speak). But what causes the customers to pull the trigger on a purchase is that they have a job to do. So shouldn’t the content we produce be geared towards identifying the jobs that our clients are attempting to do as opposed to the products we are trying to sell them?

Are you focusing on the hole or the drill? 
The great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt was well-known for teaching his students, “People don’t want to buy a drill and a quarter-inch bit. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Most marketers I speak with tend to agree. But has it changed the way marketers produce content and what they’re putting out? Not really. We continue to market the type of drill and the price point; we measure the market share of drills not holes, and we use benchmarks based on features and functions against rival makers of similar products.  

If we hope to improve the way we market and sell to our increasingly sophisticated, digitally-empowered, information overloaded and busy B2B buyers, we need to focus on the job they need to get done. How? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • In the B2B world, the job your customers need to get done might be to increase revenue, streamline processes, improve productivity – you name it. Chances are it’s a pretty big job with high stakes, and the people selected to choose the solution to get the job done may have never done it before, or only once or twice in their entire careers. They’ll be looking to you to de-mystify the process and trusting you to guide them well as a subject matter expert. What they won’t want is for you to throw a bunch of product-focused content at them that talks over their heads and makes them drown in details.
  •  Providing your customers with products to get this job done requires a very deep understanding of the intricacies of each individual customer’s business: the market they play in, how they compete and how they make money. When we talk about personalization in marketing, it’s less about using someone’s first name in an email and more about doing our homework and listening to understand the buyer’s needs and pains – the job at hand. The responsibility for understanding the customer is shared by both marketing and sales: It’s a continuous feedback loop that feeds content creation and the messages and stories marketing tells. Know your customer, and you’ll know what content to create.

  • Once the customers’ job is understood, only then do you want to focus on what the product is, how to promote it, how much it should cost based on the job it does and the problem it solves, and who you should market it to. We’ve all seen ads for products that solve a problem that no one ever really had; it seems to happen more often than not! Start with the customer’s job, and it’ll be a lot less likely to happen to you. If you put yourself in the customer’s shoes, it becomes easy to focus on what kind of content to produce.

Summing Up
The relative infrequency of considered B2B purchases, not to mention their scale and impact on the organization, means that buyers need all the help they can get. Product feature lists, spec sheets and 30-page technical white papers may have their place, but only after you help your buyer understand how your product makes the hole they need to make.

When developing content, start with the job the buyer needs to do and let that guide the type of materials you create and the kind of conversations you have with your clients. Do this and, chances are, a lot less of your material will end up unread in your prospect’s trash bin, and the money you spend year in and year out on channels and content will have a much stronger ROI. 


Rami El Sebae is Senior Account Executive at LookBookHQ. He has over 10 years of sales experience helping clients find the right solutions to do the job, first at IBM, then at Oracle and now at LookBookHQ. His philosophy of sales management involves listening, connecting people and networking – all with a focus on integrity, passion and results. If you’d like to chat with him about how you can increase engagement with your content, don’t hesitate to reach out: rami@lookbookhq.com