OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

This series takes concepts learned in an MBA program and adapts them for easy comprehension by scientists without a management background. This is currently the 9th part of the series and the second in an introduction to marketing.

As mentioned in last week's introduction, "Product Strategy" is one of the four major facets of marketing. It involves figuring out what your customer wants and inventing, or creating, a product that will give it to him or her, in a way that is better than your competition.

The first part of product strategy is determining what it is that you are trying to sell. The definition of your product can be quite different depending on who's using it and how it's marketed. Let's say you're in the business of making automated sequencers. At one level, the tangible product, or the actual physical thing you are selling, is a box with electrodes and a bit of computer attached. That's it. That's your product.

But you could also view your product as the comprehensive product you are selling. You're not just selling a box with electrodes and a bit of computer attached. Along with it, you are selling an instruction manual. A 3-year warranty. An 800 line for people who can't figure out how to use it. Delivery and setup of the apparatus. In short, you are selling a big package, of which the box with the electrodes is just a little part.

A third way of viewing your product is a little more metaphysical. As a bench scientist deciding to purchase the automated sequencer, I'm not buying a box with electrodes in it. I'm buying really quick results so I can publish faster. I'm buying a competitive edge. Convenience. Accuracy. Or maybe all I'm buying is a couple of extra hours of sleep every night, while the robot in the sequencer does my work for me.

So the first trick to marketing is figuring out what exactly your product is and what makes it better than everything else on the market. It does no good making an automated sequencer that's nicer looking than any of the others on the market if no one buying the product is buying it based on its physical attributes. If you were making a car, fine. You'd make it as pretty, or as cool, or as retro as possible, depending on what your customer wants, because you know that part of what they're looking for is the look of the car. But for a sequencer, it probably doesn't really matter. You'd define your product offering as reliability. Or speed. Or something else your customer wants. Thus, defining your product is essential.

Mixing It Up

Ever wonder why every scientific instrument catalog has about 5000 items just like the one you're looking for? Twelve blenders, 30 spatulas, and 300 different configurations for a simple PC? Well, usually if you look at the definitions closely, each one is a different product. The problem with too narrow a definition to a product is that, often, you lose customers because the product you have is not the product they want. So you have to have many different products to sell. Choosing your product mix can be an art, even if you've only got one product.

If this is confusing, maybe an analogy will help. Let's say you're the automated sequencer manufacturer. The simplest example of a product mix would be that you'd have four different sequencers, all for different purposes. You'd have one that was faster than any other on the market. One that wasn't all that fast but that was superaccurate, for those hard-to-sequence strands. Maybe you'd have a special one for small labs that would take up half the space of the others. And a fourth that would have a built-in miniprep robot. They'd all be clearly different products, and the customer would pick whichever one was best suited to what they were looking for.

But let's make the analogy a little more fun. Let's say you only make one sequencer. It's gray. It's big. It's automatic. And that's about all. Well, you could still have four different products in your product mix. One could be the "Deluxe Auto-seq Plus," which would come with a 5-year warranty, a toll-free support line, and 24-hour repair service. The second would be the "Budget Auto-seq," which would come as a no-frills unit. The "Auto-Seq Plus Kit" would come with a whole bunch of tubes, tips, and reagents, so that you could sequence "straight out of the box." And the "Mini-seq" would be a leased unit, for a low monthly cost. So although you have only one tangible product, you're really offering it as four products, in a product mix designed to cater to four very different customers.

As you can see, even if you have a tangible product, you still have to figure out what your product is. To do this, you have to figure out what your customer wants. Then you have to invent, create, or modify your tangible product so that the customer gets the overall product they are looking for.

Next week, we will be looking at another important facet of marketing: promotion strategy.