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One of the question that comes up over and over, whether the discussion is about social media or content marketing or brand storytelling or any of the newer, less “traditional” marketing approaches, is “what does that have to do with our product?” Standard advertising, going back to the 19th century and earlier and on to the Mad Men era of Madison Avenue, was almost entirely product focused. Talk about the product, make it seem cool and interesting and a good value, but always about the product. Lots of companies lived by the idea that a good product sold itself. But more and more, marketers have realized that their job is a storyteller and a confidante and an advisor more than a product salesperson. Which begs the question, then, what are you really selling?

What you’re not selling? Your product.

I know it sounds weird, but a good product alone doesn’t cut it anymore. Really maybe it never did, but certainly now the product alone isn’t enough. A great product with bad support or customer service or questionable business practices won’t ultimately be successful, because in a crowded, competitive market place, there is almost always someone else who can make your product, or one to fill the same need, the moment you slip up. Your product alone really isn’t what you’re selling, and if you think about it from the perspective of a customer, it’s not surprising. We all have companies that we love one of their products, but the support is so frustrating to deal with that we seek out an alternative, or a store whose products we love but whose shopping experience is unpleasant so we avoid it or only go in when we really have a great reason to, or a company with a social or political stance we simply cannot abide and so we refuse to continue to give them our business. And on the other hand, we all have businesses that we work with even though they’re a little more expensive or a little slower or a little less fully featured because their service is exceptional or they support communities and causes that we find meaningful. It’s simply not about the product, or at least not the product alone.

So then what are you selling?

Your reputation – Customers have to be able to trust that your offerings will work the way you promise, and that if something happens you’ll take care of it and live up to your side of the bargain. Customers rarely expect that nothing will go wrong with your product or your business dealings with them, but they do expect that you’ll fix problems that arise and that you’ll operate genuinely, in good faith, and with respect for the trust they put in you. Not only that, but your brand image is part of what draws your customers. They want the intangible things that your brand promises, whether it’s luxury or reliability or homey warmth or a social awareness that they appreciate. Again, it’s not really about the product, it’s about the lifestyle or the story that you offer along with it.

A solution – “Solution” has become kind of a business buzzword and gets used interchangeably with product or service, but it really shouldn’t, because a true solution goes way beyond that. It’s not accident that the word “solution” has been used here, because solving a problem is literally what you’re offering. Customers want your product or service because it solves some kind of problem that they have in their life or their business, whether it’s a big or small one. The size of the problem isn’t what matters. I buy eyebrow wax because my eyebrows can get a bit unruly and it aggravates me and gets in the way of my makeup looking finished. “Unruly eyebrows” is a pretty small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it drove a purchase. I also bought a new truck recently, because I needed something that would be comfortable and reliable and move my family and all our various stuff around. One is a $6 purchase and one is a $50,000 purchase, but they both stemmed from the same idea of solving a problem. If you don’t solve the problem, you don’t get the business, or at the very least don’t make a meaningful enough impact to keep the business.

And most importantly…

You’re selling the outcome.

When you filter out all of the other factors and really get down to it, what you’re selling and what customers are buying is the ultimate outcome of adding your product into their existence. It’s their life being a little easier because their washing machine gets out stains better, their business running a little smoother because their billing system is more reliable, their weekends being a little more fun because they can hop in the car and go wherever they want without worrying about getting lost because of the GPS in their new car, or feeling a little bit better about themselves because of a great outfit or a perfect shade of lipstick — whatever you can do to improve their life. What is the eventual outcome of someone owning and using whatever it is you offer? What is the added value to their life or their business? That is what you’re really selling and what you cannot afford to lose track of.

While a good product obviously has to be your starting point, it absolutely cannot be your final destination, because it is not truly what you’re selling. You’re selling a brand experience and service and a company mission and perspective, but you’re more than anything selling the outcome of someone doing business with you. If you have a clear idea of what that outcome ideally is, and of how your offerings improve customers’ lives one way or another, you can hold onto that and use it to inform your entire marketing approach. How are you adding to your customers’ lives? Answer that, and the rest will follow, because that is what you’re selling. Have an example of a company that deeply understands how to add value? Share with us in the comments, and use that as inspiration!