Marketing Headaches

Volume 8 Letter 7

“Take two and call me in the morning!” 

A major pharmaceutical company had a real marketing challenge. They had two pain relief drugs that customers saw as interchangeable. One was an ibuprofen based drug, the other was an acetaminophen and a traditional questionnaire research tool suggested that customers did not distinguish between the two pain killers 1. Looking for a way to differentiate these two products was turning the marketing team into regular customers.

When products initially seem undistinguishable it’s easy to believe they are commodities and often price becomes the weapon of choice. The reason newly launched products tend to bring in the bulk of the profits is that they are easier to differentiate and thus command a premium in the market. However, for the true marketing masters, differentiating a mature product and commanding a superior price for the so called ‘commodity’ is where the real game is!

Traditional survey methods rarely give a clear picture of the customers’ true attitudes. The thinking goes something like this; by administering a questionnaire survey to customers their collective opinions about a product or service will reveal a clear picture of the market. Unfortunately, rather than revealing a clear picture the survey results can look more like abstract art. The reason for this is that customers often have a difficult time expressing their feelings because they haven’t taken the time to fully understand those feelings themselves.

When our pharma company used a questionnaire type survey they got ‘abstract art” rather than market insights. It was only when they used a more sophisticated research method the picture cleared. The research revealed that customers associated the two pain relief medications with very different situations. Ibuprofen based drugs were most often associated with stoic attitudes – ‘a product that will allow you to play through the pain’. Conversely acetaminophen was associated with soothing – ‘stay in bed and get better medicine’. Indeed, in our family, the Ibuprofen is often dispensed to a slightly injured skier or mountain biker with the advice to “suck it up princess” while the Acetaminophen is saved for an ailing family member who is sick in bed fighting a fever.

What the research uncovered was an emotional segmentation which is as a rule the most difficult to discover yet perhaps the most powerful type of market segmentation. Consumers typically struggle to express why an emotion is so important to them but often give us clues that at first seem confusing. Statements like “I love my Mac”, “I feel comfortable there”, “They’re just friendly people” or “I trust it” – are all examples of clues that customers give but struggle to describe further. If you’ve ever heard statements like these about your product or service think about:

  • What emotions does your product or service evoke? (…and yes, industrial products also evoke emotions!)
  • Are there emotional segments? – does your product create different emotions for different customer groups?
  • What steps could be taken to strengthen the emotional attachment to your products?

John Deere green, Caterpillar yellow, the sound of a Harley Davidson are all examples of an emotional bond and they create a powerful competitive advantage. In the pharmaceutical company’s case they used these emotional insights to differentiate their two products and to better connect with their customers. Indeed they may have cured two headaches – the customer’s and that of the marketing department. Who knows, creating an emotional bond with your customers may also cure what ails you!

1. For the full story see Yoshinori Fujikawa HBR case commentary July / August 2008 P36

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