The Thing is Never Just the Thing

by | Apr 22, 2016

The product your customers evaluate, purchase, use and talk about is not just the product you deliver to them. The actual product is critically important, but it’s not the “whole product” in the eyes of your customer. There’s more to the story, and it has to be created as deliberately as the actual product.

Not being fanatical about “the rest of the product” is a big reason startups stall and lose to the eventual category leaders.

Think I’m overstating it? Just name any successful product that has beaten their competitors over time. These winners don’t always have exponentially better products, but they do have exponentially better business results. How does this happen?

Something else is in the room

It’s not always easy to see what else is going on, so here are a few examples:

  • Starbucks coffee is a quality coffee for sure, but put the same coffee in a white styrofoam cup and serve it at a gas station and it becomes a different thing. Ever watch a coworker walk by the office Starbucks coffee machine to drive down the street and pay for a cup of Starbucks coffee? Happens in most offices every day. It’s not just the coffee.
  • Have you tried searching for something on Bing lately? (It’s Microsoft’s irrelevant search tool, and I know you haven’t.) You get effectively the same search results as Google, but nobody “Google’s stuff on Bing.” It’s not just the search results.
  • Ford and Chevy have been duking it out as the titans of the U.S. pickup truck market for decades. Both of the trucks go 80 miles per hour at the same speed and have generally indistinguishable technical features, yet owners still fight (literally, for some) to defend their beloved brands. It’s more than just the truck.
  • Is an iPhone that much different than a quality Android phone in any major way? They both have touch screen interface, almost indistinguishable apps, and are about the same size, weight and price. Yet people choose one over the other easily without in-depth research or debate. It’s not just the phone.

To make the metaphysical point, the same “actual” football game is played on a field, yet the loyal fans of each team experience the game in completely different ways. Rival fans literally experience different products at the same event. It’s not just the game.

The whole shebang

What your customer perceives as your product also includes all sorts of things that aren’t “in the box.” This is often called the “whole product.” These other factors can include the company’s stock price (or funding results), how you buy it, the target market, the look and feel of it, he founder or CEO, the company story, what experts think, what the crowd thinks, and yes, the emotion of the branding and advertising. That’s a lot of extra stuff.

Change any one of those and the whole product changes. What if Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were magically made CEO of Apple and its headquarters were moved to New York? How Apple products exist in our minds would change instantly, for better or for worse, even though the product itself hadn’t changed.

As Seth Godin says, “We don’t buy products, we buy stories.” And these stories always have something to do with us.

This happens because we’re humans and not robots. We automatically perceive the whole picture and build a simple story out of it that makes sense to us, both logically and emotionally. We can’t help it and we can’t avoid it. I think that makes us pretty smart and it works remarkably well overall.

Winning companies know this is the real game and are fanatics about managing the entire experience beyond the actual product or service. Apple, Disney, Google, Nordstrom and other great brands have institutionalized fanatical attention to detail in every part of the experience.

How are you creating the right whole product?

  • What is the real “thing” that you are selling?
  • What non-product factors would meaningfully change your customers’ perceptions of your product?
  • How are you deliberately managing these other factors?
  • How are your competitors creating their whole products?

The thing is never just the thing. There’s always something else in the room that matters just as much as the actual product.