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Describing The Value of Your Product

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I’m advising a startup that’s in a fairly typical “starting” position: they have a team, a good idea of a high level topic (“We’re focusing on financial markets, not on baking bread”), and a series of product features that they know they want to include in the company. They have a timeframe for success, driven by the amount of money they have, their perspective on how fast their competition will work, and, as is usually the case, a bit of arbitrariness. And they have a name.

And now, they need to build a product.

There are lots of different processes for identifying what to build. I’ve outlined one way before. And there are lots of processes in place that describe how to build it. But knowing what to build, and building it, doesn’t get you all of the way to a product or company, because you won’t have answered a critical question:

How does the product or company feel?

That’s a vague and fuzzy question, and so it may not ever get asked, much less answered. Those with an extremely analytical mind rarely consider this type of question, and if they do, they may discount it as being irrelevant. Even if it is considered, it’s hard to know how to answer it, because the concept is subjective and the embodiment of the answer is vague.

A way to arrive at the answer to that question is to ask a different question, one of value. What value will your product or company provide, and to whom?

It’s tempting to answer this question from a standpoint of utility, describing the practical things it helps someone do. For example, you might explain that Google “helps people find information.”  That makes sense, considering their stated mission: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And, examine their value-line (I bet you didn’t even know they had one!): Search, Ads, and Apps. These are statements about getting things done and increasing efficiency. They are clear, and straight-forward, and can easily be tracked and measured. A statement of value can be used as vetting criteria for new features and functions, or even for the organization of the company. When someone has a great idea for a new product, you could ask, “How will this new idea support our value-line of search, ads, and apps? How will it help people find information? How will it help organize the world’s information?” These are all indications of commodity, which – as aspirational goals – are strange;  I would expect a company to aspire to a more differentiated and rich value proposition.

Of course, you can go in the other direction, too. For the last few years, AT&T’s value-line has been “Rethink Possible.” The absurd grammar choices of big companies aside (HP did it with “Let’s Do Amazing”, and Apple obviously enjoyed success with “Think Different”), the statement is thin because it’s overly broad. Taken as a sentence, it implies that “Our products will help you rethink what is possible.” Rethink what’s possible with what, my dishwasher? My relationship? Everything?

(As an aside to the aside, I feel like Let’s Do Amazing is terrible, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Yum! Brand’s “striving each and every day to put a Yum! on our customers’ faces around the world“. Excuse me, Ma’am, but you have some Yum on your face.)

A larger criticism would be the frequency with which AT&T changed their perception of the value they provide. Consider that at least five lines have been used since 2000:

  • Fits you best
  • Raising the bar
  • Your World. Delivered
  • Rethink Possible
  • Rethink Possible: It’s what you do with what we do.

Has the value AT&T provides actually changed that much – five massive changes – in 12 years? The justification for the last change is the most compelling, as it signals an attempt to humanize:

“We did a lot of insight research about how people live with technology,” said Esther Lee, senior vice president for brand marketing, advertising and sponsorship at AT&T in Dallas, which included “ethnographies, shop-alongs and spending time in people’s living rooms.”

When the “Rethink possible” campaign was developed, most consumers “felt overwhelmed with technology,” Ms. Lee said…

Unfortunately, it seems that they fell short of truly empathizing with their customers, as Lee goes on to explain:

“… but only a short time later many have “found ways to integrate it in their lives” — and some even “talk about it with love. The real innovation that’s happening is what people are doing, and how people are dealing, with technology,” she added, and “the unique ways they use it to make their lives better.” [Source]

The five statements AT&T has tried indicate a sense of value that is so broad as to be aimless or meaningless. I think large companies have a hard time describing their value to the world because their literal size has diluted a sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily believe the story of the NASA janitor who claimed he was “putting a man on the moon”, because NASA’s engineering culture was so strong, and the organization was so big, it’s unlikely there was a shared vision of anything.

I don’t like utility-driven value statements, like Google’s, because they seem destined towards commodity. And I don’t like the high-level value statements of AT&T because they are meaningless – they are fluff, noise. Instead, I recommend a more human approach to the question of value, which you can arrive at through a round-about manner. Ask, and answer, these two questions: If your product was a person, what kind of person would it be? What stance does your product take when it is confronted? Your product isn’t a person, but it will be used by one, and so these questions force you to consider the time-based interactions and dialogue that will occur when a real live person engages with your creations. You’ll describe the aspirational attitudes that your work conveys, and because your work is a proxy for yourself, you’ll be describing your aspirational stance, too.

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