The appeal of some products is obvious. It’s not hard to understand the attraction of an appetizing cheeseburger, a new action movie, or a revolutionary smartphone. Other products, however, have to work harder to explain the problem that they’re solving.
Moreover, some industries serve fundamental needs in society—but don’t receive the kind of attention heaped on upstarts like Snapchat: Think Oracle, the second-highest earning software developer in the world; its name would likely draw a blank stare from the man in the street.
There is hope, though. Here are 11 powerful steps for marketing products that, on the face of it, might seem totally unsexy.
1. Define the problem that you’re solving
Instead of telling people about the reasons that they should like your product, identify what your customers are looking for and frame your pitch around that.
When describing your product, don’t lead with specs and features; instead, talk about the problem that you’re solving for your customers. Think about the “Will It Blend?” YouTube series. Rather than talking about the power of the blender motor, the video demonstrates that this blender will blend absolutely anything, period. And if you have testimonials to convey trustworthiness and expertise—to talk up your “easy-to-use” product or “industry-leading” service—then all the better.
In highly competitive markets in which multiple companies have similar offerings, you may still want to list the features that you offer. But consider how your competitors present themselves, and go on to demonstrate how you offer more, whether as a premium provider or by presenting a longer list of features for less.
2. Identify your audience
Who are your customers? And what is the larger market opportunity? Knowing those two things is crucial to knowing how to talk to the people who will go on to buy your products.
When Old Spice rebranded itself in 2010 with the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, the brand had identified that it was women who often would buy the product, even though it was for men. Hence, the campaign framed the pitch around the jokey message that the (formerly deadly dull) product could make your partner more sophisticated, handsome, and romantic.
3. Define your market
In Zero to One, PayPal founder Peter Thiel outlines the idea that the most successful businesses are natural monopolies: Via innovations, they create new markets, and having done so are able to stay ahead of their competition.
A business that has done just this is HubSpot, which invented the concept of “inbound marketing” (a mix of content marketing, SEO, and social media marketing). It was thereby able to become an instant leader in the field.
Define a unique market need, and explain how you fill it.
4. Establish brand awareness
CompareTheMarket is a UK site that allows consumers to compare phone contracts, utilities suppliers, and insurance prices. In 2009, it launched a campaign titled “Compare the Meerkat,” led by a Russian cartoon meerkat named Aleksandr Orlov. By associating the brand with the character, and endlessly correcting the phrase “Compare the Meerkat” to the brand’s actual name, the site was able to powerfully project brand awareness—without once talking about utility comparisons.
MailChimp achieved a similar trick with its ad that preceded the Serial podcast. In the ad, the brand’s name was confused, memorably pronounced as “Mail… Kimp?”
5. Create a company narrative
You don’t just have to talk about your products, either (however indirectly); instead, you can go on to talk about your corporate identity and history.
Slack, a workplace messaging and collaboration tool, caught early traction among computer engineers based on the story of its inception. In the early 2000s, its founder, Stewart Butterfield, had founded Flickr as a side-project of a massively multiplayer online game he was working on. Following an acquisition by Yahoo, he spent years in the wilderness before founding a new company to create an online game. As a side-project to that game, the company created a set of tools that eventually became Slack—a business now valued at over $3 billion.
6. Communicate your values
What’s more, you can talk about your values. Amazon, for example, takes its customer-first approach extremely seriously—and doesn’t stop talking about it. Google, meanwhile, was famous for the motto of its corporate code of conduct: “Don’t be evil.” Other examples range from the wholesome branding of Whole Foods to the playful messaging of Innocent smoothies.
7. Develop a broader brand identity
The Michelin Guide was originally launched to encourage people to travel—hence stimulating demand for both cars and for tires. A century later, a Michelin star is one of the greatest accolades that a restaurant can receive. Indeed, by expanding its brand, the tire company achieved a much richer relationship with its customers as well as helping to grow its own market. Michelin doesn’t just sell tires, it is about all things on the road.
8. Build demand for your product
Soon after launching his antivirus software company in the late 1980s (the now notorious), John McAfee warned of a digital epidemic—and the risk of not having antivirus software.
Among other publicity stunts, he loaded an RV with computers and called it the first “antivirus paramedic unit.” By 1990 he was making $5 million a year, and his clients included some of the biggest companies in the world.
Anti-virus software might seem pretty dull, but by highlighting the potential threats faced by computer users, McAfee was able to build an entirely new market for his products.
9. Manipulate scarcity
Increasing urgency is a classic sales technique, and it can be used just as effectively in marketing as when negotiating a price. If you have a limited-time sale or a limited number of discounted items available, then you are enforcing scarcity—and encouraging the customer to act, whether on signing up for a bank account or booking a boiler inspection.
10. Turn your customers into brand advocates
In 2010, the idea of storing your files in the Cloud wasn’t particularly hot. There was a wide range of providers out there, but, as Dropbox found, people just weren’t biting. So, it ratcheted things up.
Not only would the company offer free storage on signup as part of a freemium model, but it would give users more space for referring their friends. In short, it built a viral growth model—showing new users the benefit of using the product, and then turned them into brand advocates who promote the product across their networks at practically no cost.
Though PayPal might have used a similar technique, Dropbox’s runaway success with the technique made it a textbook example of effective marketing.
11. Connect your brand with influencers
Dropbox’s approach turned its users into micro-influencers, but there’s also the more traditional strategy of using celebrity endorsements—either giving celebrities free products or paying them to promote your brand. And there’s no reason that the same approach couldn’t apply for drier products—think JK Simmons, exuding confidence and authority, appearing in the Farmers Insurance ads.
The key thing is to consider what a celebrity, or an influencer, means for your audience. The right spokesperson for your company might not be a film star or an athlete, but an expert or thought leader who is respected by your customers and reflects the values of your brand.
Some products might not seem sexy, but by no means must they be actually boring. By finding your market, speaking to your audience in the language that they understand, and communicating the benefit that your product delivers, you can powerfully position almost any product.