What Can The Great Scion Teach Product Managers?

by drjim on December 19, 2008

Product Managers Need To Learn Faster Ways To Reach New Customers

Product Managers Need To Learn Faster Ways To Reach New Customers

Just in case you have been living at your desk for the past couple of years and hadn’t noticed, Toyota launched a new line of cars a few years ago called Scion. Now we all know the Toyota brand – in fact many of you probably own a Camry because it’s the most popular car in the world. However, it’s a bit on the boring side.

So what’s a major world class car company to do when they want to reach out and capture the hearts and minds of the Generation Y drivers who were not currently sitting behind the wheel of a Toyota? Simple: do the unexpected.

As product managers we are often proud of all of the customers that have selected our product. However, deep in our dark hearts we yearn to be selected by all those other buyers who have not yet picked us to go to the dance with them. We often find ourselves in the same situation that Toyota did: trying to make our product appeal to a whole new segment of customers.

Rob Walker has written a book called Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are in which he did a lot of studying of just what makes us buy things and he’s made some amazing discoveries. One of the things that he learned is that Toyota figured out that in order to market their new car to their Generation Y target audience, the brand’s “meaning” was more important than the product’s functionality. Can anyone say “iPhone”?

In this highly connected age we’ve started to believe that our customers have become immune to just about any type of communication that we can come up with. What Toyota’s product marketing team discovered was that this was not true. In fact, the pitch-free guerrilla marketing that Toyota engaged in to promote the Scion line actually seemed to be welcomed by their potential customers. Toyota advertised the Scion in small artsy magazines and stayed away from the mainstream ones. They hosted dance parties and gave out Scion CDs and magazines.

What Walker has found out is that the 21st Century “new consumer” is basically all made up. Oh, and this is really starting to screw up product managers. However we do live in changing times and you are going to have to be changing the ways in which you appeal to your customers.

No matter what product you are responsible for, you are going to have to start to emphasize the meaning of the product first and the functionality second (sorry about that feature lovers). Today’s buyers want to feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves (“I’m a Mac”).

This goes hand-in-hand with Walker’s other finding which shows that successful brands often build their eventual mass audience by cobbling together much smaller ones.

There is a great deal for product mangers to learn here even if you are not selling to Generation Y consumers. You need to realize that the world has changed and it’s now time to think differently about your customers. They never were nameless, shapeless blobs who mindlessly did or did not select your product. They have always been thinking, caring people for whom your product solved a specific problem. Now you’ve got to understand how THEY want to be reached…

Have you ever used any guerrilla marketing to promote your product? Did it work as well as you were hoping? Will you ever use this technique again? How did your management feel about you doing this? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

bob corrigan December 22, 2008 at 12:31 pm

Today’s struggling buyer is less interested in identifying with a faceless coterie of like-minded consumers than they are at simply meeting their needs. In this economy, marketing dollars will suffer even as the need for product management increases, since the products that meet more basic consumer needs must be scoped, built and positioned as carefully as any other product targeted to the top of the maslow hierarchy.

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Dr. Jim Anderson December 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Bob: I agree that tough times will make buyers spend more time pondering each buying decision. From a product manger point of view, as you pointed out, we’re going to have to do more than just marketing our products. Yes the Maslow hierarchy is always there, but you’ve got to remember that there are a lot of other purchasing factors: impulse, status, etc. The days of easy marketing money are gone for now, looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our products do the talking for us!

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