What are you Selling?

I got a call this week from a customer of mine. He was ecstatic. His company had just scooped IBM’s prestigious Business Partner of the Year award; a real testament to the sheer grit, determination and passion that his entire team brings to work every day.

As part of collecting the award, he got some time with one of IBM’s Marketing Execs.

The Exec shared a story of getting his bathroom redone. The usual happened. Plenty of workmen came; some huffed, some puffed, some quoted sky high, some quoted rock bottom. But the one he selected didn’t talk about baths, sinks, or even price.

Instead, he painted a picture of what he was going to create. He crafted a vivid image of a haven away from the everyday hustle and bustle. A self-indulgent sanctuary where you could reflect and be alone with your thoughts. A place to rid your body of all its stresses. A place where time stands still.

He sold escapism. Not sinks and toilets.

The story highlighted what my customer is doing differently. They aren’t selling bits and bytes, products or part numbers. They are selling a belief.

They believe the world has lost sight of the human touch. That we have outsourced and automated every process and procedure possible, and that it has actually left us feeling cold. Whether as an employee or a customer, we are treated as numbers – cogs in the machine. They believe people are fed up. That the future of business is memorable, personalised experiences that people want to share.

This passionate belief has helped them to stand out in a market that’s chock full of megahertz and megabytes; where companies sell cold facts, rather than emotional causes. Tim and Nigel aren’t just building a business, they are creating a movement. And its clearly working. Their company – Orbital has grown by a whopping 230% in just the last two years alone.

This got me thinking. Far too many companies sell the physical attributes of a particular product or service. But this is fraught with danger – just as the story above highlights, the IBM Exec wasn’t interested in the price of taps, or the sealant around the bath. He was interested in him – what he was going to use the space for. The supplier that won the business put him at the heart of the story.

The fact is, product attributes are easily copied. Authentic stories aren’t.

Take Rolex. It operates in a hyper-competitive market, yet it continues to dominate. With a Rolex, its not about what you are buying, but more what you are buying into. The brand represents a way of how you see yourself; it helps you tell your story to the world. Rolex doesn’t sell watches. Rolex sells status.

I think plenty of companies could learn from this approach; understanding the one singular thing that they want people to remember them for, and then consistently delivering against it. That’s what builds brands.

Take PC World. With the recent demise of Comet, you’d think they would be more on their game – i.e. have a clear understanding of who they are. A brand is nothing more than the impressions that live in peoples heads, yet ask most people how they feel about PC World and its mostly negative.

I’m sat in a café writing this. I’ve just asked my friends their opinion of PC World. Nothing positive. One of them shares a story of how he bought an iPad from a PC World store on the promise that it would run Microsoft Word. Oh dear.

In the same way that Rackspace doesn’t sell server hosting, it sells “fanatical support”, and that Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee, it sells “the third place”, PC World needs to understand what it is really selling – what it wants to be remembered for.

I reckon the average PC World customer walks through the door for either 1) immediate access to product or 2) advice & guidance. Yet they fail to deliver on both counts. Many products I’ve wanted have been out of stock, and as the story above highlights, the staff aren’t the most clued up.

PC World should forget about selling mouse mats and graphics cards; that’s a commodity jungle. Instead, it should be selling service, knowledge and access.

Our world is oversupplied and over-communicated.  The best brands cut through the clutter because they represent much more than just a physical product.

They understand what they are selling is what they stand for.

They don’t just create marketing. They inspire movements.

Ask yourself. What are you really selling?