The product is king!

How to spot a company that isn’t customer centric?

Product centric companies have a tendency to believe that they are equally customer centric.  The story in the heads of top management goes along the lines of: “Product is King and Customer is Queen.”  They might even say it the other way around.  It’s not that both are necessarily mutually exclusive; but, there’s what you say and what you do.  Ways to decode a product-centric philosophy include observing how much innovation is important to the company (e.g. a central focus of the annual report), how much weight is given to R&D and how often the product is the hero in advertising.  Of course, being product-centric and being highly innovative can be a winning strategy.  For most companies, being innovative is equated to having a great product, which is measurable, rational and, frankly, sine qua non.

The pitfalls of product centricity

In my opinion, when it comes to being obsessed with the quality of the product, there are two real issues about which to be wary:

  • The Brand.  Being product-centric and aspirational in ways that touch the employee and customer in a meaningful, deep and enduring manner are oftentimes difficult to reconcile.  A brand that resonates and creates employee engagement via the emotional outlets is more likely to be able to gain a deeper loyalty with its customer base.  A full brand experience means necessarily going beyond the product and advertising campaigns, such that the brand is being conveyed at all the touchpoints, including through the employees and at the POS.
  •  Too Offensive/Too Defensive.  In my experience, being product centric tends to lead inherently to a lack of listening skills.  On the one hand, it is my observation that product centric brands tend to be more about customer acquisition than retention.  Their offensive marketing is more about trumpeting their own merits than earning respect. And, on the other hand, the ability to accept criticism is reduced due to the heavy investment (in time, money, intelligence) in product development.

Great product, shame about the brand

Just by viewing ads, it seems so easy to detect companies and brands that are too heavily product oriented as they tend to emphasize the importance of their performance and packaging.  If the product is the face of the company, the brains and heart are the brand.  Typically, one might then say “Great Product, Shame about the Brand.”  They will talk up the features, they will invest in making the product look beautiful.  On the other side, today, it is also true that there are a number of brands whose storyline in the marketing materials looks increasingly seductive, ably advised by their agencies, but whose internal organization and culture is not accurately reflected in that narrative.  When I see the rather charming recent ads of companies such as Crown Paint (“It’s not paint, it’s personal”) or John Lewis (storytelling, below), I am quickly seduced and just as easily questioning how this resonates with the internal workforce?

It is by no means an easy task to know where to put the emphasis and there is no single solution because the product, the employee and the customer — not to forget the shareholder and other stakeholders — all play their role.  That said, if having a good product is the sine qua non, the ones that will, in my opinion, win out over time are those whose fabric is more oriented toward (a) building an engaged workforce — and therefore bulk up their human resources efforts; and (b) is obsessed with making the customer experience throughout the consumer journey above expectations.  This is tantamount to being de facto customer centric.  And this is what has made Amazon so successful in a marketplace environment.  The product is clearly not the differentiating aspect for companies like Amazon or eBay.  And if you are in a service business, this holds true in spades.

What are your thoughts?

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