Knutson said when she speaks to businesspeople, she’ll often start by asking, “How many of you are hunters?” When hands go up, she continues, “If you’re going after a deer, where do you aim?” The correct answer is in front of the prey. “It’s the same thing relative to marketing and positioning. If you don’t see where the customer is going, then by the time you get your strategy implemented, the customer has already moved and you’ve lost time.” You’ve missed your target. You go home empty-handed.
“There are amazing and beautiful differences in different markets,” said Omura. “It’s fun to discover those differences.” He told the story of a floor cleaning product, “a little pad that every college student has, because it’s so easy to use to clean up a floor.” When it gets dirty, one peels off the strip and puts on another. “The company who produced it thought, ‘let’s go to China; what a huge market.’ They had some executives live with some Chinese families. Quickly the company realized that the product was not going to work, because their floor covering is not the same” as in the United States.
Great product, wrong market.
Omura said that because so much of marketing today takes place in other countries, “some companies come to business schools and they’re looking for people from China, because that’s a market they really want to push to. They’re looking for Chinese students and they want the Chinese students to go back. So they hire them here in the United States and send them back to China to help them with marketing there. Other companies may use domestic Americans and send them to China and expect them to learn. But which is faster?”
Omura and Knutson both identified “viral marketing” as the hot trend in the industry. Omura defined it as “a process of finding opinion influencers who have broad social networks to communicate a fun or exciting idea because they’ve emotionally bought into it and are excited about it [so] they spread it out of their own volition. Other people catch the virus, and they in turn will repeat it and spread it to others.”
As an example, he told the story of how Crest® marketed White-Strips® only through dentists at first. They became the experts, got excited, and the public bought in…literally.
Knutson called it “getting the influencers involved and sold.” Other examples are, the Internet-based push behind The Blair Witch Project or Barack Obama’s successful online fundraising efforts. “It used to be the guy next door” that influenced your buying decisions, Knutson said, but “now it could be some guy they know in Bangladesh. That has manifested itself in a loss of control from the brand to the consumer. If you can engage your consumer with that emotional connection, you’ve got a better shot at keeping him or her. That connection comes with engagement and engagement comes with anticipation.”
For entrepreneurs thinking about starting a business, or for ongoing businesses looking to break into new markets, Omura said that in either case knowing your customer is the first step. “If you don’t know your customer, then you’re probably going by your own ego or by what you think you want, and think everybody else wants, and that’s a very egocentric kind of approach. Now, that’s okay if you happen to be a Gen-X mom and you’re opening up your own Gen-X kind of store, such as an organic salad-oriented, vegetarian sort of drive-thru takeout restaurant.” Otherwise, it could be disastrous.
“What people should do if they’re thinking about getting into business is to think about the consumer first.” Instead, “what they’ll typically think about is their business idea. And they fall in love with the business idea, and then they try to force it into the market because they think their idea is so cool that everybody’s got to love it.”
It’s the “inventing a better mousetrap” syndrome. “If you have a great idea, ask yourself ‘who wants it?’ and instead of guessing at the answer, census demographics are so easy to get your hands on that you can go online and go block by block around Lansing to see how big your potential market is.”
Knutson said that people entering the job market for the first time need to market themselves. “If you want to get hired, do your research.” And like any good salesperson, “don’t talk product, talk benefits. What can you bring to the party to help the business? Then, position your product, yourself, to fill the need.”
Omura said that the first step is to ask yourself, “Who am I? What competencies will I deliver that somebody else will want?” You’re a product basically. What can the product do? Is this product any better than a competing product? Once you identify what those differences are, do people want it? You can be very eclectic, and it sets you very separate from all your coworkers, but you’re an idiot. Nobody wants to deal with an idiot.
“So you have to be different and you have to be wanted. You have to search within yourself to identify what those things are. It may be business competencies, [but] probably what is more important are your personal competencies.” In other words, “Your social quotient. How well can you interact with other people? How well do people like you because of the kind of person you are?”
Omura said that if you’re an entrepreneur, your social quotient is “the most important asset you have at the very beginning,” because it will help you find “that set of two or three people who are on your team that will be helping you. Of course, it’s nice to have money, too, but if you don’t have a team you’ll blow the money.
“If you have that social quotient that attracts the right group of people who want to help you be successful and will work 80 hours a week, who will network with other people to become your customers because they’re passionate in your product or service… that’s probably your first step.” Next, comes product development, “but at the very beginning, the core product is you.”
Knutson advises businesses to “understand your target market, get out in front, break through the clutter, then service, service, service. I encourage businesspeople to anticipate, do your research and understand [that] you can’t catch an elephant by shooting him in the butt.” She emphasized “the need to clearly differentiate yourself,” and give your customers “a clear reason why [they] should buy from you instead of another.” She said that in a “very cluttered marketplace you have to understand that there’s a danger in taking risks,” but a bigger danger in not taking risks. Finally, she encourages people “to take the long view.”
Dr. Bonnie Knutson, Professor
Dr. Glenn Omura, Associate Professor
Eli Broad College of Business
Michigan State University www.bus.msu.edu