Product is the New Marketing

Published Feb 26, 2018

I’m old enough to remember the age of green-screen terminals, which dates me to a particular pre-digital day. It was a time when product experiences felt not just unfriendly, but often downright hostile to end users. At the time, You shall use this as a condition of employment seemed like a reasonable enough directive because let’s face it, there were often no better alternatives. That technology products were cumbersome was simply a baked-in assumption.

What a difference a couple decades makes. Now I wake up to a brave new world of products that are designed not only to serve my needs, but to anticipate them. I benefit from the collective obsessions of product designers who are satisfied with nothing short of perfection, people who aspire to walk in my shoes, to practically breathe my air in the service of “user empathy.”

And in exchange for their empathy, I offer my appreciation, which often takes the form of loyalty and advocacy for the products that I’d rather not live without. I reward those that #nailit and punish others that do not. Harsh? Perhaps, but I’m not alone here. This is the world we live in. We’re loud and proud about the products we love and, frankly, perhaps even more so about the ones we hate.

That’s why your product is your best (or worst) marketing.

We used to get away with big, bold brand promises and inconsistent product design and delivery. Today, that’s a formula for certain failure. Why? Because, unlike these lost days of tech scarcity, there’s now an app for that–where that equals pretty much anything and everything. And there’s not just an app, but a profusion of them. Against this heightened competitive backdrop, as switching costs are washed away by subscription-based pricing and hosted deployment, loyalty and advocacy can be easily earned and lost in a continuous gauntlet of competitive (re)evaluation.

As a product leader, this means you can never rest on your laurels.  Loyalty is as fleeting as users are fickle; your product is only as valuable as your customers’ next-best alternative.

But it’s not just next-best alternatives that shape customer and user expectations; it’s also their last-best experience. Call it the Apple effect. Or Uber. Or Amazon. As product leaders, your competition isn’t just your competition; it’s every other great product ever designed and used by your end users. And the expectation your users have isn’t just bound by your category; it’s only limit is the imagination and empathy of the world’s best product designers.

It’s a harsh world, indeed, but particularly when you’re flying blind. The product companies that #nailit have figured out how to collect and act on customer feedback, customer insight and usage data–not just episodically, but continuously. They’ve moved beyond the sort of gut feel and anecdotal observations that have traditionally driven product design and optimization.

We sound like a fickle bunch, you and I. But that’s the world we now live in. My home state of North Carolina has a motto “to be rather than to seem,” which suggests that North Carolinians are to be judged, not on false pretense, but by actual substance. The same can be said for product leadership today. There’s no hiding behind a product that doesn’t deliver on the brand promise. Product is, indeed, the new marketing.